How the Dunning-Kruger Effect is destroying your marketing strategy

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Photo Credit: pixtawan

Part of being a full time freelance writer is looking for new clients. I have some room in my “garage” right now and I was checking out some job postings for companies that are looking for part time writers. They all basically looked alike – as writing job posts are wont to do – but then one jumped out at me. I have been at this for a while, but I admit I have never seen this in a job post.

After their lengthy description of the position, writer requirements, and other specifics of the job, there was a three sentence paragraph that gave me a good chuckle. It started with the typical “send your resume and cover letter to blah, blah, blah,” but it was the last sentence that was classic. It read, “Because of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, it is important to provide concrete examples illustrating why you are the ideal candidate.”

Now, you may not be familiar with the Dunning-Kruger Effect by name, but if you have spent any time around humans you have very likely seen it in action. The short definition is the malady of the inflated ego, but I like a little more detail.

Basically, it is a term used to describe the phenomenon of how ignorance or incompetence evokes more confidence than knowledge or competence. There are actual studies that have been done on this showing that the people who are the most incompetent are the very ones who are the most convinced of their competence.

It is the epitome of ignorance is bliss.

To illustrate the Dunning-Kruger Effect let’s look at this scenario. You ask two people to answer a series of 10 math problems and one person gets 3 correct while the other gets 9 correct, the person who got 3 right will tend to think of terms of “I got 3 right.” The person who got 9 correct, though, will typically think in terms of “I missed one.” The psychology behind this is that the most competent people are usually the ones to underestimate or downplay their competence the most while the incompetent folks are convinced that they are the most competent people in the room. They are essentially incapable of recognizing their own incompetence.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect in action:

  • Incompetent people do not recognize that they lack skills
  • Incompetent people do not recognize that someone else possesses genuine skill
  • Incompetent people do not recognize how far their inadequacy extends
  • Incompetent people do not recognize and acknowledge that they lack skill, after they experience training for that specific skill

You’ve had the boss who thought he or she could do it all? Often that compulsion stems from this.

You can’t do it all; no one can.

A Pacific News article, We are all Confident Idiots, explains the Dunning-Kruger Effect quite well. Plus it’s an enjoyable read. I highly suggest it if you want to know more. Another excellent piece is Unskilled and Unaware. It is the original paper written by Dunning and Kruger.

My focus here is not to provide information on this condition, or whatever it is; my focus here is to tell you how it is wrecking your marketing strategy.

All too often business owners will decide to forego hiring an expert, believing that they can do the marketing themselves. They google a few websites and think, “How hard can it be?”

Well, if you don’t know what you are doing it can be hard, very hard – and very bad. This is especially true if you are pouring money into advertising, yet you have minimal or no experience in advertising. Sure, some people are naturals, but those guys are few and far between. The rest of us have to study and work hard to get the knowledge, experience and skills that make us good marketers.

Marketing is a science and an art. There are intricacies that only experience can teach you. It seems like every day there is yet another new Google algorithm or social media platform, or SEO technique. You have to stay on top of it all in order to effectively compete. And if you are busy handling all of your business affairs, how can you devote the time and energy to your company’s marketing strategy as well? When do you sleep?

Marketing is not simple and it certainly isn’t easy. It takes time to learn, to get a feel for it. Call it intuition if you want, but it is learned through working in the industry and working for multiple clients across multiple industries. It is not an easy job and 9 out of 10 small businesses are cheating themselves out of higher conversions, increased traffic, and improved customer loyalty because they overestimate their own ability to market their company instead of delegating the task to a professional.

However, if you still aren’t convinced, let’s look at why you would do better to hire someone to do your marketing.

It will free up more of your time so you can do what you do best – grow your business. Marketing any company takes time and focus. If you are trying to do it all yourself, it is a much more cost effective and efficient move to hire someone to do your marketing.

You don’t want to get wrapped up in the details – but you still need the details. Even most marketing companies don’t do their own promotional writing, they hire writers to do it. Even they, the marketing experts, recognize where their strengths, and weaknesses, lie and they know that it will be done faster and better when the right person is doing the right job. Everyone is in his or her own lane, attending to the relevant details in that lane – and everything gets done.

Your marketing schedule will not be interrupted. If you have absolutely nothing else to do it is probably pretty easy to keep your marketing on schedule, but you are running a business. If you are trying to do it all, something is going to suffer and it will probably be your marketing.

Someone on the outside can give you a perspective that is fresh and objective. When you are writing your own stuff and marketing your own company it is easy to get wrapped up in the emotional attachments, If your own needs, agendas, motivations. An outsider is more apt to think like your customer, your target and create material that speaks to them.

If you are a marketing pro and you think I am out of my mind crazy (and maybe dealing with a little Dunning-Kruger Effect myself) well, go ahead and do your own marketing. Who knows, you might be an absolute genius at it. More power to you!

But if you are sitting there, staring at your screen, mouth agape, thinking “Wow. She’s talking about ME!” Well, acknowledging the problem is the first step in solving it.

The bottom line here is, the Dunning-Kruger Effect could very well be wrecking your marketing strategy – and your business. Take a long, hard look at your business, your marketing, and ask yourself this one, simple question: “Is this working?”

The Squirrel, the Cat, and the Large White Man (The Dangers of Distracted Marketing)


The other day my husband walked into the house with a look on his face that I can only describe as stricken.

I sat up straight, suddenly on alert. My husband isn’t one to be visibly upset very often – not unless it is really bad.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, mentally going through the things that could be going wrong: elderly parents, kids, our business, our home.

“I got a squirrel killed.” He replied, clearly upset over this, um, tragedy.

I was completely thrown off by his answer. “You what?”

“I got a squirrel killed.” He watched me, watching him as I waited for further explanation – and understanding of how this was such a traumatic event. Even he, as a pest control professional and business owner, had referred to them on more than one occasion as tree rats.

He continued. “I distracted it and a cat came out of nowhere, pounced on it, and dragged it off into the bushes.” Ah.

He didn’t appreciate my (admittedly) flippant remark that went something like, “That’s just how the food chain works. Life is a part of death.” He was still upset. So I asked him how in the world he thought he distracted a squirrel so thoroughly that it would let down its guard long enough for a predator to pounce. I’ll spare you the mental picture, but it involved a large, white man throwing his hands up in the air, waving them, and yelling, “Hey squirrel!”

Yeah, I don’t ask anymore. My husband is a wonderful, brilliant, compassionate man with the most amazing sense of humor I have even encountered. His quirkiness matches my quirkiness and it is one of the main things that made me fall in love with him in the first place.

He had been outside cleaning the grill; I’m not sure how he went from that to squirrel killer – or accomplice.

And that is how we wound up on the squirrel mafia’s hit list.

It did get me thinking though. How many times have we started a marketing strategy or embarked on a business building project only to get distracted by things? Distracted marketing can be death to a business.

Sure, there is no large, white man standing in your front yard, waving his arms shouting “Hey squirrel,” but there are other things that can draw our focus. Business issues as well as personal issues can cause us to take our eyes off the goal – and off of the predators (also known as competitors) that are lurking, lying in wait, ready to pounce when you get distracted.

We tell our kids to keep their mind on their studies. The media is always warning us of the dangers of distracted driving. Experts scare us to death with horror stories about distracted parenting.

What about distracted marketing? You don’t hear so much about keeping your marketing focus sharp. It is important though. Small businesses are particularly vulnerable to competitor attacks. You can’t afford to stop assessing your surroundings in order to give your attention to a large white man waving his arms and calling to you, lest the cat slip from its hiding place and destroy you.

So how can you keep your focus in this increasingly distracting world?

Set Goals

Yeah, everyone says set goals – and it’s really good advice. Set marketing goals, not just for what you will do at each stage of your marketing campaign, but what you expect to accomplish. Sure, this is Marketing 101, but sometimes it is necessary to return to the basics.

Put it in Writing

Put everything in writing, your strategy, your goals, your benchmarks, everything. When you have ideas or make observations, write them down. Keep it all in a file and actually use the information. Find a way to organize your notes so you can access them easily. While some of your observations or comments may not work on this campaign, they may make all the difference for the next one.

Create a Schedule

Create alerts on your phone, Google calendar, all of your time management tools. Small business owners tend to wear a lot of hats and when they get caught up with wearing one attention demanding hat the others can suffer. Marketing is often relegated to the end of the line, an afterthought, but it should be a priority. If you don’t market you won’t have any customers to serve so carve out some time each day to work on it whether it’s your content management, social media scheduling, or updating your website. Set an alarm and just do it.

Put on Blinders

There is a difference between being vigilant and being distractible – and you need to find it. This is the beauty of carving out specific time to devote to marketing your company. For that time, those two or three hours – or whatever – you don’t have to pay attention to anything else. Unless there is a true emergency, anything can wait for a couple of hours. Put on those blinders and keep your focus on your marketing.

Do it Every Day

Back to Marketing 101, but you need to hear this. Too many small business owners painstakingly create their marketing strategies and set them in motion only to pull an ostrich mama move and abandon them. Your marketing campaign needs your hands on it every single day. Yes, every day you need to do something related to marketing your business. Work on your blog, update your website (the majority of business owners do not update their websites nearly as often as they should), or engage your customers on your social media channels, but always, always monitor and measure to see how your efforts are working.

Don’t fall victim to distracted marketing; it is something that is completely avoidable. You took the time to plan your business, put that plan into action, and make it work, do the same with your marketing. And keep your focus.

Have you ever fallen victim to distracted marketing? What strategies do you have in place to prevent it from happening?

Marketing Quote of the Day

“Transforming a brand into a socially responsible leader doesn’t happen overnight by simply writing new marketing and advertising strategies. It takes effort to identify a vision that your customers will find credible and aligned with their values.” – Simon Mainwaring