Daniel Burstein

Content Marketing: Harvard Business School’s Michael Norton discusses surprising consumer behavior research

October 7th, 2014

I am a skeptic. Maybe it’s from my career in marketing, advertising and editorial content, which involves me constantly receiving PR pitches. Maybe I was born that way. Or maybe I’m just your average American consumer.

Whatever the cause, it’s rare for me to have a head-smacking epiphany, but here’s one I want to share with you:


People don’t want fast

This subhead likely seems counterintuitive (or perhaps just plain wrong) to you.

After all, if you’ve ever been in traffic, or in a long line at a fast food restaurant, or anywhere in America for the past 30 years, you know – people are impatient.

As Louis C.K. says in his very funny bit about people who don’t appreciate how amazing smartphone technology is, “I never saw a person going, ‘Look at what my phone can do!’ Nobody does that. They all go, ‘This ******* thing sucks. I can’t get it to … ’  Give it a second, would ya? Could ya give it a second? It’s going to space, could you give it a second to get back from space? Is the speed of light too slow for you?”

Even when I search Louis C.K on Google, the search engine brags that is has returned 45,700,000 results in 0.61 seconds.

Wow. The entirety of human knowledge for millennia is at our fingertips and can be delivered within milliseconds, and yet, as Louis so accurately points out, most of your customers do not appreciate it.

Why? More importantly, how can you as a marketer use this lesson to communicate the value of your own products?


They want hard work (on their behalf)

This is where Michael Norton’s research gets very interesting for marketers (and, really, all humans). Michael is an associate professor at Harvard, and during his Web Optimization Summit featured session — “Trust Through Transparency” — he showed that, in many cases, people place a higher value on understanding the work involved to create a product or service than they do on sheer speed.

After he got off stage, and right before hopping on the train back to Harvard, Michael was gracious enough to let me pull him aside and ask a few questions to help marketers use his research to better communicate the value of their products and services.

We discussed:

  • How showing the work involved in creating content (for example, email list signup) can make that content more valuable to customers
  • How to make sure customers understand the complexity behind seemingly simple services
  • The power of storytelling



“Independent of the service being delivered, we value the labor being put in.”

If you’re more of a reader than a watcher, here is the full transcript of our conversation:

MarketingSherpa: Hi, I’m Daniel Burstein, Director of Editorial Content at MECLABS. I am here at MarketingSherpa MarketingExperiments Web Optimization Summit in New York City, and I am with Michael Norton of Harvard Business School.

Michael, thanks for joining us here.

Michael Norton: Thank you.

MS: You just talked to us about some really interesting experiments you conducted about showing your work and transparency and how you show all of the effort that you put into it to your customers.

MN: Independent of the service being delivered, we value the labor being put in, whether it’s rational or not — separate question. But it’s very strong in us that we like to see people working on our behalf.

You see this with professional athletes as well. People get very angry at professional athletes that don’t look like they’re trying. It’s like, why isn’t he sweating when he’s a professional athlete? Maybe he’s just really, really good at it. But we don’t like it. We like to see work being put in on our behalf.

And we thought, I wonder, this is something that happens interpersonally — like sweating, we can see that someone is working really hard — can this be applied to online environments as well?

And it seemed strange at first because as far as I know computers don’t sweat and they don’t work hard either because they’re computers, so we design them to do what we want.

But we wondered whether we could actually build some of these insights into how interfaces work in computers where people would start to feel like the service was working for them in the same way they feel like this guy is working for them, and that perception of effort may make them like the service even more.

MS: I wonder if you could talk about some of your experiments and how they might apply to content marketing?

MN: You know, it’s interesting. We always show that basically when people show the work that they’re doing, people love it. And it could be something from a plumber to a website that’s showing you what they’re doing for you. Visualizing the effort seems to make people really feel like something good is happening here. And with content, it always feels like it just shows up. Here’s a video. Here’s a piece of writing. It doesn’t seem like it was that hard for this person to create this piece of content. It just seems like it was easy.

We actually worked with companies to try to show the work that goes into content. And that actually makes people value content more. Knowing how many people, or how long people worked on a piece that I’m viewing, makes me think it’s better and makes me enjoy it even more.

MS: So if you’re, let’s say, a software company, an agency or a consultancy. And those are perfect examples of — software, we just want to download it and get it for free. How can we show the work of what went into the software if you’re in content marketing?

MN: We’ve actually worked with a firm that basically, you can upload videos and they will help you edit them. So they are a service provider who has an incredibly complicated algorithm to take your videos and put them immediately into a format where you can make them amazing. And they spent an enormous amount of time and money developing this, but it’s so good that people think it can’t be that hard because it happens immediately. As soon as I put my video up, it’s done.

And we’ve worked with them to really show all the steps in the process they’re doing for you to take the terrible thing you started with and turn it into something you can really envision and make better.

MS: It gets me thinking too … marketers always question, how much copy should I have? How many things do I have to give the customer before they’ll convert? It really ties into storytelling, too where — I like to think of Star Wars as an example. George Lucas could have just said, “You won’t believe this … that’s his sister … that’s his dad.” And that would be the whole story. But he took three movies, or nine movies, to say it.

Does storytelling play into this as well?

MN: It really does. We see that when companies tell a story about the work they went through to cause the service to happen for you or to create this product, that those stories alone can be very interesting.

In fact, there’s some very cool research on the underdog effect, where, when companies say, we started from scratch in our garage and look at us now. And they describe their struggle to make it. Controlling for how good their actual service is, something about us seems to really resonate with this idea that they pulled them up from their bootstraps and made it, and we like their products better when we hear that story than when we don’t hear it.

MS: Well, thanks for joining us.


Join us at Email Summit 2015 to hear from more featured speakers

While I was excited to see Michael Norton at Web Optimization Summit, I’m equally excited to learn from the slate of featured speakers we have at the upcoming MarketingSherpa Email Summit 2015 at the Aria Resort in Las Vegas.

We reviewed 58 possible featured speakers to identify the most valuable featured sessions for you at Email Summit:

  • Journalist and Freaknomics co-author Stephen Dubner will share counterintuitive economics lessons to help you think a bit more productively, more creatively and more rationally
  • Wharton professor Jonah Berger will share his research on word-of-mouth, viral marketing and social influence
  • Villanova prof Jose Palomino will help you with your value proposition


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Daniel Burstein

About Daniel Burstein

Daniel Burstein, Senior Director of Editorial Content, MECLABS. Daniel oversees all content and marketing coming from the MarketingExperiments and MarketingSherpa brands while helping to shape the editorial direction for MECLABS – digging for actionable information while serving as an advocate for the audience. Daniel is also a speaker and moderator at live events and on webinars. Previously, he was the main writer powering MarketingExperiments publishing engine – from Web clinics to Research Journals to the blog. Prior to joining the team, Daniel was Vice President of MindPulse Communications – a boutique communications consultancy specializing in IT clients such as IBM, VMware, and BEA Systems. Daniel has 18 years of experience in copywriting, editing, internal communications, sales enablement and field marketing communications.

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