Casey Butler Harwood

That Je Ne Sais Quois: The Human Element in Marketing

A few months back, we Drawnies had a conversation about explicit and tacit knowledge. Explicit knowledge is the knowledge that you can convey to others using words. Tacit or passive knowledge is often difficult (impossible?) to explain verbally; it’s the stuff that you simply know. You’ve picked it up along the way and internalized it, putting it to use quite regularly — expertly, even — often without giving it a thought. It’s estimated that up to 95 percent of our knowledge is tacit. I believe that it’s this kind of instinctive knowledge that propels successful marketing careers.

Tacit, human knowledge is essential in marketing. Photo: Drawn

Aspects of marketing are now technical — even mathematical — in nature. We’ve got heaps of analytics and trends telling us what kind of content consumers respond to and on which day of the week they’re most likely to respond. But that’s not the whole picture.

Marketers need to know what will resonate with people, and even specific subsets of people, which means that they need to possess some innate knowledge of people’s preferences and behaviors.


"Tacit or passive knowledge is the stuff that you simply know. You’ve picked it up along the way and internalized it, putting it to use quite regularly — expertly, even — often without giving it a thought. It’s estimated that up to 95 percent of our knowledge is tacit."

A study done by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management suggests that advertising is most effective when targeted not simply to specific demographics, but also to specific personality types. In my opinion, the best marketers can visualize members of their target audience and predict their behaviors. Of course, no one can do this with 100 percent accuracy, but you’ve got to know people to pull this off.

"While data is now more abundant and important than ever, a marketing team will never be complete without people who have a deep understanding of human psychology." — AJ Agrawal, Forbes (2015)

In addition to deducing which messages and angles will resonate with certain demographics, people are also rather adept at figuring out how to send those messages. Two of the attributes that consumers most value in marketing and advertising content are simple, straightforward messaging and suggested solutions to their problems. Maybe computers could generate these, but people would have to finesse them because computers don’t really know how to speak to people in a natural way. (But people do.)

Marketers need to possess some innate knowledge of people’s preferences and behaviors. Photo: Drawn

Another key part of the marketing equation is the humans on the receiving end of these messages. Lately, there has been a lot of chatter about “human-centered design.” It’s a way of designing that emphasizes observation and prototyping to find empathic solutions — sometimes to problems that people didn’t even know they had. These solutions improve the human experience. I’d argue that contemporary content marketing is also human-centered, as we often think ahead to how consumers will use the content that we provide and try to solve problems for them.

For example, one of our clients, Rexius, produces and sells high-quality organics and provides professional landscaping services, yet we often create content explaining how gardeners can create their own compost or which vegetables to plant in early spring. The idea is to “know” this target audience, what they do in their free time, which knowledge they may be missing — and create content that offers them valuable, practical solutions. In doing so, we also show them that Rexius is a trustworthy expert, so the next time they need soil, they’ll know who to turn to.

With that, we’ve come full circle, right back to the essential need within the marketing industry for a tacit understanding of people. Before we devise any strategy, create any content, or design any art, we need to spend time with people — observing them and learning to predict how they will receive messaging, internalize it, and form perceptions. We need to be people, because it’s only through empathy that we’ll succeed in forming authentic connections and creating content to which other people feel naturally drawn.