Halos, Horns, and Content Marketing

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If you’ve ever bought or sold a house, you’re probably familiar with the concept of curb appeal. Curb appeal is the visual attractiveness of a house as seen from the street, and it’s what creates a potential buyer’s first impression of the house. Real estate professionals know curb appeal plays a big role in determining how quickly a house will sell and what the selling price will be.

Good first impressions are also important for successful B2B marketing. Today, most potential buyers will form their first impression of your company based on the content you produce. If your content doesn’t create a good first impression, potential buyers will quickly turn elsewhere, and you may not get another chance to connect with those buyers. 

In the words attributed to Will Rogers, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

When your content creates a good first impression, potential buyers are more likely to come back for more, and they will be more inclined to view the rest of your content – and your company – favorably.

Enter the Halo Effect

This inclination results from a cognitive phenomenon known as the halo effect. The American Psychological Association defines a halo effect as, “a rating bias in which a general evaluation (usually positive) of a person, or an evaluation of a person on a specific dimension, influences judgments of that person on other specific dimensions.”

Put more plainly, a halo effect exists when we transfer our perceptions about one attribute of a person or an organization to other attributes of that person or organization without having a rational basis for the transfer. In other words, if we perceive that a company is good at “A,” we will tend to think the company is also good at “B,” even though we actually know nothing about the company’s capabilities at “B.” 

The halo effect was first identified by psychologist Edward Thorndike in 1920, and it’s been widely studied since that time. Although the halo effect was first applied to the evaluation of people, we now know that halo effects influence how we evaluate inanimate objects including products, services, brands, and companies.

The most important thing to remember about the halo effect is that it magnifies the influence of first impressions beyond what would be justified on a purely rational basis.

Halos Are Everywhere

The halo effect can be found in a wide range of human judgments. For example:

If I meet a likable person, I will be inclined to believe he or she is also generous and ethical, even though I know nothing about the person’s generosity or ethics.

If I have a good experience with a Honda automobile, I’ll be inclined to believe I will also be happy with a Honda lawnmower, even though I know nothing about the quality of Honda lawnmowers.
If I find one of your company’s white papers to be valuable, I’ll be inclined to believe other content produced by your company is likely to be valuable. I’ll also be inclined to believe your company is probably good at what it does even if I know little about your company.
Halo Effect’s Evil Twin
The halo effect is most frequently discussed in the context of irrational positive evaluations, but the same cognitive mechanism can also produce irrational negative judgments.
If I attend a webinar hosted by your company and find the content to be poor, I’ll be inclined to think the other content produced by your company probably isn’t very good. In addition, my webinar experience may lead me to form a negative overall impression of your company.
This negative manifestation of the halo effect is called, appropriately, the horn effect. 
Implications for Marketing
As a B2B marketer, it’s important to recognize that almost every content resource you publish has the potential to trigger (or contribute to) a halo effect or a horn effect. Therefore, one obvious lesson is that you can benefit from halo effects (and avoid horn effects) if you consistently produce content that will create a good first impression with potential buyers.
I would also argue that the potential benefits of halo effects should influence how you think about content distribution. Marketers have been debating the use of gated vs. ungated content for the past several years. While opinions vary, the conventional view is that it’s appropriate to gate very-high-value content resources, while keeping other resources ungated.
I contend this is the wrong approach. Suppose you have created a content resource that is truly outstanding, one that is likely to make a good impression on potential buyers. In that case, you should want that resource to reach (and be consumed by) as many potential buyers as possible. The last thing you want is to put any hurdles between your content resource and your target audience.
If a potential buyer is impressed with your content, he or she is likely to seek out other content you’ve produced. And when the potential buyer is ready to begin an active buying process, your company will likely be included in his or her initial consideration set of potential vendors.
The benefits of halo effects aren’t always immediate, but they can be powerful.

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