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This chapter is from the book What we talk about

What we talk about

Many of our conversations are about other people

One study on what people talk about found that about two thirds of conversations revolve around social issues. Another study found that social relationships and recounting personal experiences account for about 70 percent of conversations. Of the conversations about social relationships, about half are about people not present. The anthropologist Robin Dunbar described these conversations as “Who is doing what with whom, and whether it’s a good or bad thing, who is in and who is out, and why.”5 Conversations about other people and their behavior help us understand what is socially acceptable in different situations by revealing how the people we’re talking to react to the behavior of the person not present.

Understanding how others have acted, as well as how the people we care about and trust react to those actions, shapes our behavior. It shapes what ideas we agree with, and how we may behave in the future. Supporting conversations about other people is critical for social products and for marketing campaigns based on social behavior.

We share feelings, not facts

Creative agencies the world over try to create content that people will spread. In order to do so, they need to understand what people share, and why. The vast majority of “viral” campaigns don’t spread at all, and this is often because the content is factual. Many research studies have shown that people don’t share facts, they share feelings.9

Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman studied the most-emailed articles on the New York Times over more than a six-month period, totaling 7,500 items. They expected to find content that included factual information that might help others, such as diets or gadgets, but instead found that people shared the content that triggered the most arousing emotions. This included positive emotions such as awe, and negative emotions such as anger and anxiety. Emotions that were not arousing, for example sadness, did not trigger sharing of content.10

Content that is positive, informative, surprising, or interesting is shared more often than content that is not, and content that is prominently featured is shared more often than content that is not, but these factors are minor compared to how arousing the content is.

These findings have important implications for advertising. BMW ran a successful campaign called “The Hire,” which induced feelings of anxiety through elaborate car chases and generated millions of views. Content that is non-arousing, for example, content that makes people feel comfortable and relaxed, is unlikely to be shared. Public health information may spread more effectively if it induces feelings of anxiety rather than sadness.11

We talk about the things that surround us

Our everyday offline conversations tend to be about whatever comes to mind, independent of how interesting it is. And what usually comes to mind first is what is in our current environment (we’ll see later how this works for brands). If we’re talking to good friends, even our desire to appear interesting takes a backseat to environmental cues. Although we do craft our conversations in order to shape others’ perceptions of us,6 most day-to-day conversations with people we know well are about everyday things and are cued by our environment.

Conversely, our desire to appear a certain way to others is a bigger factor in what we talk about online than offline. Offline, many of our conversations are driven by a need to avoid awkward silences. While people most often talk about what is visible or cued by their environment offline, when online they don’t need to fill a conversation space so they can think more carefully about what might be interesting to others.

We talk about brands in passing

The research firm Keller Fay estimates that people talk about approximately 70 brands every week, an average of 10 a day.12 We might imagine that people talk at length about the pros and cons of competing brands, but most of the time this is not so. Most references to brands in conversations happen in passing. People are talking about something loosely related to the brand, the brand comes up for a few sentences, and then disappears, as the conversation continues about the core topic. When people talk about brands, they are usually not motivated by the brand but by the instinct to converse with others and fill conversation spaces. We need to understand the incidental nature of brand conversations when planning marketing campaigns.

Research has shown that around Halloween, when there are more environmental cues about the color orange, products that are orange (Reese’s Pieces, orange soda) are more top of mind.13 Other research found that products that are cued by the surrounding environment are talked about 22 percent of the time, versus 4 percent for products not cued by the environment. Products that are publicly visible are talked about 19 percent of the time, versus 2 percent for products that are not publicly visible. For example, in one research study, upcoming concerts were talked about much more often when there were CDs in the room.14 We talk about eating much more often than technology or media, yet many assume that the latter are objectively more interesting.

This has profound implications for understanding how people talk about brands. Products that are visible and accessible will be talked about more. Products that are not naturally in people’s environment need to build associations with things that are in people’s environments. Yet, samples are not a substitute for the actual thing. Coupons and samples do not drive more conversations, but giving people the full product to try, so that it is consistently in the person's environment, can lead to a 20 percent increase in conversations about that product.14

Interesting (arousing) products are talked about more initially, but once the novelty wears off, they are talked about less than things cued by people’s environments. Frequency of use also drives conversations, as products used frequently are easier to recall from memory and are therefore more top of mind.15, 16, 17 People talk about big brands far more often than smaller brands. This is not surprising, as bigger brands are more accessible—more visible and easier to recall from memory.

Because we communicate much more frequently with the small number of people we are emotionally closest to, about half of conversations that mention brands are with a partner or family member.12 Of these brand conversations, 71 percent are face to face, 17 percent are on the phone, and only 9 percent are online.12 When it comes to spreading ideas, we need to target people’s closest ties.

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