Hacking Human Laziness with Internet Heuristics

Admit it. Humans are lazy. And easily tricked.

Our brain, in its never-ending quest to preserve glucose, seeks shortcuts. If our brains didn’t do this, we would be paralyzed by every mundane choice. These shortcuts are known as heuristics, and heuristics are the cornerstone of marketing manipulation.

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Heuristics are the psychological rules used to form judgments and make decisions, popularized in the 1970s by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. The internet didn’t exist in the 1970s, however, so Tversky and Kahneman couldn’t have predicted the extremes to which human laziness would manifest.

One of the best places to examine Internet heuristics is on Reddit. Reddit is the #3 most popular website in the United States. If you use Reddit, chances are high you don’t read the articles it links to. Instead, you form your opinion based on the title or the comments. This is so pervasive that it’s been formerly studied.

According to a paper published in IEEE Transactions on Computational Social Systems by researchers at The University of Notre Dame, “73% of posts on Reddit are voted on by users that haven’t actually clicked through to view the content being rated.”

This internet heuristic is easily manipulated.

Internet Heuristic #1: The Title Tells the Whole Story

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Take, for example, this CNBC article about Beyond Meat. The article was pushed to large Sub Reddits which often make it to the front page of Reddit, including r/environment with 1400 upvotes and 150 comments, r/business with 174 upvotes and 57 comments, and the big win, r/Futurology with 55,000 upvotes and 4,300 comments.

All the variants of the Beyond Meat Reddit submission

For the vast majority of people, they will simply see “Beyond Meat” talked about positively on the front page of Reddit as they mindlessly scroll past. These people won’t read the article or comments. The post is simply a positive brand impression to millions of Reddit visitors.

Perhaps, after a few more brand impressions, some people will give a Beyond Meat burger a try as the brand rolls out nationwide at Carls Jr. Great timing for a front page Reddit post!

Internet Heuristic #2: The Comments Tell The Real Truth

A still significant amount of people will read the top rated comments instead of the article. Reading an article takes a lot of effort in both clicking a link, and actually reading the article. To preserve energy, people want to crowd source the, ahem, meat of the article. TLDR is a cornerstone of the internet, after all.

Whatever the top comments say is how the reader will form their opinion.

On the surface, this heuristic is logical. If thousands of people agree with a comment it must be true, right? And look at how much time it saves!

Of course this isn’t true, at least not any more. It is incredibly easy to manipulate Reddit votes through botnets and PR agencies. The real opportunity, unfortunately for the lazy reader, is for the brand to ensure the top rated comments are positive.

Beyond Meat Reddit comments

When fewer than 20% of people read an article, what’s important for the brand is the headline and the top comments. That’s it.

I had a similar (but slightly more pure) strategy while at Quest. I made it a goal to be the most talked about protein bar in r/Fitness. If someone was going to talk protein bars, they were going to talk about Quest. I didn’t have to resort to botnets to manipulate votes when I had tasty protein bars that I could mail to thousands of people every month. And it worked.

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Brands lurking the comments

‘Lazy’ is the default state because we are designed to preserve energy. Studies have shown how users on sites like Reddit experience cognitive fatigue while browsing. That means marketers have to find fast, simple and frictionless ways to spread a message. This is the reason why modern image meme’s are so effective.

Marketers can (and frequently do) utilize these Internet heuristics on social platforms for short term gain. We live in a post truth world and that extends to marketing as a whole. Everything from Reddit posts to music festivals in the Caribbean are increasingly not ‘real’. That means trust is becoming one of the most important brand attributes.

Brand trust will be formed and dissolved through every action a brand takes online, including the more subtle techniques like comment manipulation. Let’s not forget that even Facebook has done this. But just because a marketer can hack human attention does not mean they should.

We are at the very beginning of a strange new world. As Deep Fakes become more common, mediums like video that once were the gold standard of ‘truth’, lose their trust. What are we left with then?

It’s up to all of us to decide.