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How to Use Retroactive Interference for a Winning Content Strategy

Authors: Rohan Ayyar Rohan Ayyar
Posted Under: Content Marketing
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How to Use Retroactive Interference for a Winning Content Strategy

It is no secret that marketers have been using psychological gimmicks to influence consumer behavior for ages. From fear to hope and greed, a lot of our emotions are manipulated and triggered. However, this psychological warfare is usually employed only for hardcore advertising and selling. In many areas such as email marketing, content marketing, and social media, psychological concepts are totally underused.

Here I want to look into a rarely discussed concept of psychology called “retroactive interference” and reveal ways it can affect your content marketing strategy.

What Is Retroactive Interference?

Retroactive interference describes a phenomenon where the latest information or newly learnt information overshadows the recall of previously learned information.

Here are a couple of examples:

  • In school, if you had to learn ten lessons for a year-end exam, you were more likely to forget the lessons learned earlier in the year as newer lessons took up space at the top of your mind.
  • At a mall, if you see two products, you are more likely to pick a product whose ad you’ve seen most recently.
  • You remember your current email password, but not the one you had before that.

These examples show our incapability to remember old information as new information comes into play. But why does it happen? Why do we forget seemingly important information, when we remember trivial things in life?

The reason is that the ability to forget is vital for proper functioning of our memory. If we didn’t have the ability to forget, our minds would be chock full of data, leading to information overload, stress, and eventual collapse. But for us marketers, who hunger for brand recall, engagement, reviews, loyalty, customer retention, and advocacy, RI can either make or break your campaigns.

Back in 1996, Anderson & Neely proved that retroactive interference can be manipulated with the help of three factors:

  1. Signals with which target memories are associated
  2. Signals that prompt memory retrieval
  3. The links between signals and targets of interest to other items in memory

It’s possible to create a winning content strategy by centering our content creation and digital marketing strategy on these three factors. Here are some possible ways.

Learn and Unlearn

Retroactive interference is basically about unlearning. When you learn something new, you unlearn something old. As developers switch from one programming language to another, newer or better one, they try to forget previously learned methods. This is an example of conscious unlearning.

Many studies point out that unlearning doesn’t happen of its own accord. According to Barnes and Underwood, unexplained suppression of memory is never more than 50 percent. The task for marketers ahead is to amp up unlearning (of competing products) to 100 percent.

However, a content marketer has the uphill task of making people unlearn things unconsciously. For instance, following a crisis, instead of writing articles about the crisis, a company’s PR team tries to assuage the effect of crisis by regularly sending out positive articles, updates, and messages. Over time, most people tend to forget the crisis as the newly acquired knowledge takes over. This is a case of unconscious unlearning. (EU vs. Google, anyone?)

Domino’s Pizza tackled the 2009 crisis with retroactive interference that led to unconscious unlearning, and today, it continues to be among the largest chain pizza stores in the world.

Dominos retroactive interference

However, you don’t have to wait for a crisis to happen to put retroactive interference to use. You can also incorporate unlearning in your day-to-day content tactics.

For instance, instead of trying to make your audience remember your content, try to make them forget what they previously learned. Don’t tell them how to do it right and risk of being preachy and boring. Instead, show them how they might goof up or have already, and they will sit up and take notice.

For instance:

I’m sure that, like me, even you have been taught for years not to crack knuckles, but this new piece of information can grab your attention and wipe away all those warnings and lessons thrown at you for years.

What You Show Is What You Get

If I told you, “The percentage of email opens on the iPhone is 27 percent, Gmail is 17 percent, Outlook is 9 percent,” and so on, all you might remember is some talk about email open rates and the iPhone. The core message and statistical numbers will be soon forgotten.

This is because the content is not presented in an ideal way. The brain interprets images and text differently—it can remember pictures more than words, even if one spends less time looking at them. You must find ways to overcome retroactive interference by incorporating more visual content in your strategy or find creative ways to present statistics, as you can see in the example below:

children's book data visualization
Image via Tina Kugler

Provide a visual representation for your best ideas, data, and brand message using professional photography, graphics, cartoons, memes, and other imagery.

If you present your content visually, there are higher chances of it being remembered. What you show (not tell) is what you get (conversions).

Tips for Staying Memorable

While the mind may forget huge chunks of your content, it may remember the gist if it is presented strategically. Let’s say you are writing an informative article or in-depth guide. Of all the insights you give, choose two or three tips that are particularly helpful—points you would want people to remember even when woken up from deep sleep.

Make sure you reiterate those points many times in the article, as you would with a CTA, including in the summary, main body, and conclusion. Use bullet points in the beginning or in the recap section. Make sure your points are crisp and catchy. They are easier to remember for the brain, as they leave a strong impact.

While you’re at it, avoid using words that are hard to remember—not because they necessarily make your RI worse, but because your bilingual audience will have a tough time remembering them.

Don’t Forget to Remind

Let’s say you put out a whitepaper on best practices for big data analytics, and a lot of your site visitors downloaded the whitepaper and appreciated it. Unfortunately, they won’t remember all the advice given in the whitepaper, as RI will inhibit their ability to commit it to memory.

Learn to strategically reuse your content by sending bite-sized advice from your whitepaper through emails, tweets, and more. This not only refreshes their memory but also gives you a steady flow of material for all your content platforms.

Get Them Talking

People forget things for multiple reasons, including encoding failure, time decay, and new oncoming information. Encoding failure means your content has failed to leave an impression on the reader’s mind. It can be prevented (see the tips mentioned above), but you can’t do much once your target has flown.

However, we can improve conversion in the second and the third scenarios. There is always a vacuum or time lag before either time decay or retroactive interference happens. Your content strategy should be to take advantage of this time lag—it is your action time.

retroactive interference graph

This is the time where you creatively present your content in new ways. Get everybody talking about your content. Attend conferences to speak about it, use various platforms (social media, forums, email) as well as formats (guides, slide decks, videos) to spread it far and wide. Try everything that keeps the memory and discussion of your content fresh. 

And speaking of memory and discussion…

Choose Series Over Standalone

The effects of RI can be minimized by maintaining steady flow of content. Constant refreshers and updates go a long way towards preserving the short-term memory of your audience. This is why we remember the story lines of TV series more than movies, documentaries, or one-off shows (finales don’t count, as they have a build-up behind them).

Instead of writing 10,000 word articles, break your content in short series and post them at regular time intervals. These posts will act as stimuli and activate memory every time you publish a new post in the series. A drip email campaign is the best example of overcoming RI to influence your audience.

Long form content is better at conversions, if some expert bloggers are to be believed. However, don’t confuse conversion with recall on a per-unit-of-content basis. Try a series of in-depth posts.


Episodic and Semantic Memory

episode and semantic memory

You can beat RI by triggering both episodic and semantic memory. Boost episodic memories by using webinars, podcasts, or any content forms that provide an audio/visual/tactical experience, as I mentioned in the previous section. You could even create games or apps to boost episodic memory. Every session spent on your app counts as an experience and goes a long way in pushing episodic memory.

Semantic memory, on the other hand, is based on facts like news, statistics, research, and concepts. For instance, what comes to your mind when you think of Yellow + Dog + Kids + Warm & Fuzzy? What comes to your mind when you think of Drink + Inspiring + Impossible Feats? Full points to you if you answered Pedigree and Red Bull; your semantic memory is awesome.

Pedigree ad

Red Bull ad

Your content strategy should be built on a semantic flow of thought or map of your industry, so that no matter what your audience thinks about, you have relevant content.

semantic map

Ecommerce platform Shopify is one of the best examples of brands that do this right. Their website features ancillary content on anything and everything related to selling online.

With time, your content will build up to answer every query your audience can come up with, and you’ll become a subject expert. Your semantic map might look something like this: conversions, optimize, thought leader, influencer, Peep Laja… you get the gist.

For instance, every time I want to catch up on the latest news in tech, I go to Wired or Re/code; I know I will get the latest and most reliable information there. If I just want to space out and not give any more stress to my already overloaded brain, I binge on Buzzfeed for those 15 sensational ways to eat gnocchi. I know I will be happily occupied for the next couple of hours.

Content Remarketing

Here are some questions for you: How many people does your content reach? How many read or view it in its entirety? How many take an action you’d like them to?

With new content coming in from all directions, we are drowning in a flood of information. RI means most of your visitors or readers will forget about your site after reading your content. The old adage, “Out of sight, out of mind,” is apt for describing this situation. This is where advertising comes in.

Content remarketing helps you convert people who have previously shown an interest in your content; you build your campaign with the confidence that they will at least consider what you have to say.

One way to do this is with the Google Search & Display Network. Reserve some funds from your ad budget for your content instead of your products. For instance, Emma’s latest display ads focus on promoting their guide rather than selling their email service:

Emma web remarketing

Combine retargeting with social media promotion in the form of Facebook Custom Audiences, Twitter Cards, and the like. A “Learn Something New!” call-out in the middle of a news feed or social stream can be irresistible to brains wired to see updates of the same kind over and over again.

As the mind’s capacity to absorb everything diminishes, finding ways around debilitating psychological factors helps you get the best ROI on your content. These content creation and marketing ideas will help you circumvent the roadblocks laid by retroactive interference and build a winning content strategy.

And just so you won’t forget, let’s do a quick recap of what we learned and make a solemn promise that we will:

  • Help our customers unlearn by finding new ways to present truth.
  • Use visual aids and imagery to help them remember our content.
  • Use pointers and mental sticky notes wherever possible.
  • Subtly reiterate our view in unique ways.
  • Use old content in new ways.
  • Refresh the collective memory with advertising and content remarketing.

Do you think you can keep your target audience from forgetting things? Do you think your content can influence people’s memories and habits? Would you use human psychological traits to spread your message? I’d love to hear your thoughts and discuss in the comments!

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