Beware of B2B marketing fake news

22nd July 2018

How to spot B2B Marketing Fake NewsPhoto by Rhett Wesley on Unsplash

In October of last year, the CNN news network in the US launched a new ad campaign. The 30-second advert shows an apple against a white backdrop with a simple voice-over:

This is an apple. Some people might try to tell you that it’s a banana. They might scream, banana, banana, banana over and over and over again. They might put BANANA in all caps. You might even start to believe that this is a banana. But it’s not. This is an apple’.  Fade to the words ‘Facts First’ and then the CNN logo.

Later that week Ellen Degeneres did a hilarious bit on her television show highlighting this ad and explaining fake news in her own inimitable way using an apple, a banana and a pineapple.  If you haven’t seen it, go to You Tube: Ellen explains fake news using fruit.

We’re all familiar with the term ‘fake news’ by now. But, as I often do, I looked up the definition of the phrase:

fake news (ˌfeɪk ˈnjuːz) noun: false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting

Because we in B2B marketing are not immune to our own version of fake news, which I call my fallacies of B2B marketing. These are the headlines, statements and viewpoints that are continually hammered into our consciousness throughout much of the marketing media, from many self-styled experts and repeated by our own colleagues until we come to believe as fact that which is utter fiction.

There are many of them out there, including the 3 that I find most insidious, but I’ll give you a glaring example.

B2B marketing fake news


Headline: Humans have a shorter attention span than goldfish

Remember this headline? In late 2015, various versions of this headline appeared in Time Magazine in the US, the Telegraph, the Independent, and a whole host of reputable science, health and other mainstream news media. This sparked news pieces and blogs throughout the marketing media, which, in turn, spawned thousands of smaller blogs, all loudly proclaiming that our customers’ attention span has been steadily shrinking.

The force of this on-going repetition resulted in many (if not most) of us actually changing what we do – to ‘bite-sized’ chunks of marketing activity and ‘snackable’ content – because our customers have an attention span of just 8 seconds! Based entirely on information disseminated as news that none of us even questioned.

Even almost 3 years after these first headlines, this bit of news is still being circulated. In January and February of this year, I viewed a talk from the World Economic Forum on the Future of Work, and then read a series of marketing blogs on such sites as the Huffington Post, all specifically citing these headlines and our 8 second attention span.

But, it is, in fact, ‘fake news’.


Are we marketing to goldfish?

This widely quoted goldfish headline and statistic originated from a 2015 Microsoft report and survey of 2000 Canadians about their use of mobile technology, websites, and online games. And there’s a nice little chart in the report that illustrates decreasing human attention span in comparison to goldfish – from 12 seconds in 2000 to less than 8 seconds in 2015, alongside an image of a goldfish with an attention span of 9 seconds.

However, there is a huge problem with citing this report as the source for what was such a sensational piece of news that it continues to echo throughout our marketing mindset.

Attention span was not even tested as part of the study! And the data for the chart in the report I referred to above was cited as coming from another source, who in turn cited yet other sources, that no one since has been able to verify.

Yet, the media as well as our colleagues still would have us believe that people – our customers – no longer have any capacity to concentrate. In fact, when I did an online search last year for ‘attention span of a goldfish’ I found 262,000 results, the first page of which contained articles from Time magazine, the NY Times, the Telegraph, and the Independent, among others, including an article and infographic titled ‘How to market to goldfish’.


Separating fact from fiction

Our attention span isn’t shrinking, there is just so much less that actually compels our attention. There have, thankfully, been articles in the mainstream media over the past few years that have questioned and discovered the facts behind this fiction. When I did a Google search this week for ‘attention span of a goldfish’, though I had to scroll down to find them, half of the first page results now link to articles completely exposing this myth.  Although, interestingly, I’ve heard precious little from marketers and seen nothing in the marketing media on this topic.

Bruce Morton, a researcher with the University of Western Ontario’s Brain and Mind Institute, has been quoted as saying that humans actually crave information:

 ‘Just because we may be allocating our attention differently as a function of the technologies we may be using, it doesn’t mean that the way our attention actually functions has changed.’

Think about the great novels, the gorgeous writing that keeps us captivated and immersed in the story, every word, thought and idea driving us towards the next. Or the great films that hook us into the story right from the start, keeping us glued to the screen until the credits roll, on the edge of our seats, compelled to see what happens next.

As humans, we crave ever more information, emotion, ideas, insight or entertainment – and 8 seconds’ worth of content doesn’t come close to satisfying that craving. We don’t care how long a book or an article or a video is, as long as we have a compelling reason to pay attention.


5 tips for spotting B2B marketing fake news

My point with B2B marketing fake news is the same as Ellen Degereres’ – things are not always what they appear. There’s just so much information out there and it’s hard these days to tell whether something is true or not.

Here are 5 steps we can take to provide more rigour for what we may read, see and hear throughout our marketing landscape:

  1. Look beneath the surface – just like with human attention span and goldfish, if it sounds too silly or absurd to be true, then it probably isn’t.
  2. Verify the source and context – from where and whom is the news or message coming from? Just like with the Microsoft survey, does the data actually support the conclusion? Is the expert really an expert or just someone loud with an opinion? Are they trying to sell you something?
  3. Be aware of your own biases – do you accept without question what you read, hear or see because it validates what you already know? Do you automatically or even unconsciously reject what doesn’t?
  4. Read more than just your social media feeds – we all know by now that our social platforms rely on algorithms that selectively feed us information. Reading widely, whether it’s business-related or fiction, news or opinion, exposes us to new ideas, new perspectives, and new ways of thinking.
  5. Never stop learning or challenging what you think you know – we simply don’t know what we don’t know, and there is always something new to learn. Ask more questions, be more curious, and think more critically.

If we are ever to fulfil our potential as B2B marketers, we must be marketers who continually question ourselves and everything around us. And just like the fallacy of the goldfish and our shrinking attention spans, we must understand our customers so well that we recognise B2B marketing fake news when we see it.


Stay tuned: over my next few posts I’ll be expanding on my session at B2B Ignite and exploring in more detail each of my 3 fallacies of B2B marketing.


If you don’t have yours yet, check out my book B2B Marketing Strategy: differentiate, develop and deliver lasting customer engagement on my book page, and then buy it from Kogan Page publishers or Amazon everywhere.

B2B Marketing Strategy

Heidi Taylor is an award-winning senior marketing strategist with 25 years' experience of helping organisations engage with their customers, creating impact and differentiation. She is a sought-after speaker at marketing conferences in the UK and internationally, and regularly contributes articles to marketing journals in print and online. You can follow her on Twitter @TaylorMadeInKew.

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