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Timeless Principles for Content Marketing: 3 Lessons from Sociobiology

This post is a collaboration between 3 authors: Ryan Chynces, Education Manager, Hootsuite; Dr. Peter J. Richerson, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, University of California Davis; and Dr. Dwight Collins, Associate Dean, MBA Program, Presidio Graduate School.

As a content manager, your goal is to generate sticky, contagious content that’s widely read, shared, and acted on. Let’s say your team has just brainstormed 30 ideas for next quarter’s content calendar. They are all great ideas, but you need to pick some winners.

How will you prioritize what to publish?  Obviously, your content must align with your brand, your story, and most importantly, your products and services. But there are some other principles you should consider applying, drawn from research in a fast-growing, academic discipline that you’ve likely never heard of: sociobiology.

Sociobiology is an academic discipline that uses theoretical tools to make sense of animal behaviour. For example, some sociobiologists study how human culture and biology have interacted over long periods of time to produce our modern social behaviours (the technical term for this is “gene-culture co-evolution”). Sociobiological insights are readily translated into business applications in many areas—from promoting team cohesion and managing departments within an organization, to creating high level product strategy and conveying useful information to target audiences. But what does sociobiology have to do content marketing?

In what follows, we draw in sociobiological research to propose three additional criteria for deciding what to publish.

Decision-making forces

Thousands of years of cultural and genetic evolution have produced in us three semi-innate psychological biases that strongly influence how ideas spread. They are:

  1. Model-based bias: we generally imitate successful or prestigious people and/or those like ourselves.
  2. Frequency-based bias: we are drawn toward what’s most common or most rare.
  3. Content bias: we gravitate toward behaviours/ideas that are easier to remember and/or have more immediately derivable benefits than alternate behaviours/ideas.

Making Biases Work for You

The above biases are rooted so deep in our psychology that we often follow them without even knowing it.  These instincts and associated habits exist today because they allowed our paleolithic ancestors to efficiently leverage advantageous information.  This in turn helped our ancestors survive and thrive in tough, variable environments, which had the result of partially hard-wiring these biases directly into our psychology.

Model-based bias

We imitate our role models. No surprises here. But we’re especially prone to do so when the best course of action is unclear. It’s as if we instinctively follow an innate rule “When in doubt, imitate the successful”. Similarly, we also unconsciously imitate people we judge as similar to ourselves, particularly when unsure about the optimal way to act.

When it comes to evaluating content ideas, you should ask yourself, “Is it written by a prestigious figure OR by someone my target audience would regard as a peer?  If yes, then give it a +1.

 Content suggestions:

  • Invite respected industry influencers to create, or partner on creating, content.
  • Obtain content from those your audience would judge as a professional peer.
  • Super-charge a blog post by incorporating an Ask the Expert component.  Or, put one question to a few influential experts and then create a piece based on the answers they provide.

Frequency-based bias

Over time, the most beneficial ideas tend to become the most common ideas.  This means that if you have no insight into the best course of action in a given domain, the safest bet is generally to follow the herd.  This strategy benefited our ancestors so much that most humans now have a psychological bias towards conformity.  On the flip side of the coin, a smaller subset of us have an nonconformist bias – that is, an impulse to break away from the herd to try an untraveled path.   Even though conformity bias is vastly more common, nonconformist biases still exist because they paid evolutionary dividends to our paleolithic ancestors. Non-conformists would have been the first to detect changes in the environment and to begin to exploit new opportunities, even if they are less effective when environments don’t change.

The takeaway for evaluating content is that it should appeal to those with either a conformist bias or a non-conformist bias.  Book publishing veteran William Germano once summed it up like this: “When deciding what to publish, I want the first thing or the best thing.”  By this he meant that content managers should publish the best “on trend”, popular content in a given subject area (conformist bias appeal) OR beat everyone else to the punch by publishing in an exciting new area (nonconformist bias appeal).  If a given piece of content does this, give it a +1.

Content suggestions: 

  • Go deep on a well-worn topic, or provide its definitive overview
  • Create checklists on a very new topic (e.g., How to create great videos for Vine or Instagram)
  • Write investigative posts on radical, disruptive, germinal trends
  • Publish some marginally left field but relevant posts—like the article you’re reading right now

Content bias

Have you ever noticed how some ideas are easier to remember than others?  This happens because some ideas are structured in ways that simply works better with our brain’s wiring.  Ideas that falls into our memory banks with minimal effort are what we’d describe as “sticky”.  Unsurprisingly, we are biased toward sticky ideas over those that are harder to remember.

Other ideas that tend to fall into our brains more readily are those that win the cost/benefit calculation when compared to competing alternative variants.  That is, we’re prone to adopt the ideas that promise the biggest pay-off on our learning investment.  This is the reason books on making money and gaining prestige are so popular.

In light of this, there are a few questions to consider when evaluating content ideas:

  1. Do your colleagues seem engaged when you tell them about a content idea?  How much mental energy or time are you asking of your audience?  Would you invest the time if you were in their shoes?
  2. What does your audience stand to benefit by learning your ideas?  Is the benefit something they would actually find attractive?  Will your ideas influence your audience’s behaviour in some way?  If your audience takes the time to learn your ideas, will they gain influence?  How do the benefits of your content ideas compare with competing pieces?

Content suggestions: 

  • Ask a Question: crowdsourced posts will get you to the heart of what’s important to your audience.
  • Answer a Question: use questions submitted by your audience as the basis for blog posts — this will also get you closer to your audiences’ motivations.
  • Timesaver, productivity, and best practices posts: provide a relatively cost-effective pay off on our learning investment.
  • Pieces that summarizes complex, but beneficial ideas in lengthy books / articles (e.g., distill key takeaways from a lengthy book on marketing or consumer psychology).  With pieces like these, you are doing leg-work for your time-pressed audience, thus reducing the cost of learning for important ideas.

What Now?

Content creators and managers serve many masters.  The content they produce must support the brand, promote new products or services, generate traffic and conversions, and do some SEO heavy lifting.

In addition to those vital criteria, we strongly recommend that content creators and managers also put model-bias, frequency-based bias, and content-bias at the centre of their content-evaluation calculus.  A focus on these three biases will increase the likelihood that your content is read, enjoyed, and shared.

In closing, we note that predatory content producers exist, and that consumers will accordingly have their guards up. The simplest and safest way to acquire a reputation for producing honest content is to produce content that carries genuine value for your audiences.


 1) Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution

2) 100+ Practical Content Marketing Tips: A how-to guide for editors, writers, and content creators.

3) Managing the Evolution of Business Cultures: Why Socially Responsible Businesses Prosper and Related Puzzles

Special thanks to Robert Mathew, Business Analyst at Hootsuite; Bradley Damsgaard, Courseware Producer at Hootsuite; and Matt Foulger, Marketing Writer at Hootsuite for help in writing this blog post.