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Dual Process Theory in Content Marketing (Part One)

The other day several of my brilliant co-workers were discussing the definition of content marketing. What is it, really? Why should our clients pay for it? There was some really great discussion about this… that I didn’t participate in. I didn’t speak up because the discussion sparked an idea in my head that I didn’t have any research to support. But, I did some digging, and now I’m happy to share! This four part blog series will take a deep dive into defining a theory of content marketing from psychological and biological perspectives. In the latter parts I’ll dissect a well-designed content marketing ecosystem using that theory and, finally, provide some basic tips for applying the theory to your content marketing efforts.

When I think about content marketing, I think about people. People are more than just “marketing segments” or “potential leads.” They’re complex organisms with thoughts, feelings, and conscious minds. As such, it’s helpful to have a good understanding of what makes people… people. There are many branches of science that study people, but psychology is probably the discipline that spends the most time contemplating its own existence. When my co-workers were discussing the definition of content marketing, a memory popped in my head about a theory from a psychology course I took in college. It’s called “dual process theory.”

On a very basic level, dual process theory posits that human thought is categorized into two “systems.” System 1 is “fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, and subconscious” while System 2 is “slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, and conscious.” Human evolution has gifted us with these two systems through corresponding areas of the brain. They are biological. They are in all of us. System 1 is mostly accounted for by the limbic system and System 2 is mostly accounted for by the frontal lobe.


This distinction is very important in the world of marketing. Traditionally, marketing and advertising strategies have been primarily focused on appealing to System 1. Many campaigns and general marketing efforts are most interested in conversion rates. From that view, the easiest way to get your numbers up is to create something “sexy.” Whether that means attractive people or attractive food or attractive music, everything is focused on hypnotizing people. The strategy is to trigger feelings that lead to impulse decisions or create habits. It’s about giving people pretty things that may not provide value to their lives, and in some cases may even negatively impact their lives (consider the glamorization of gluttony or the objectification of women in advertising). But, none of that really matters as long as the sale is made. Or does it?

Content marketing is an evolved form of marketing. It considers people as whole humans, not just a bunch of suggestible System 1’s. Content marketing aims to provide something substantive to people that will bring value to their lives in some way (System 2). At the same time, it seeks to deliver that content in a way that is delightful and simply feels good (System 1). In practice, this approach should be reflected in the entirety of a content marketing ecosystem. Constituent parts of that ecosystem may focus on appealing to one system or the other, but they must all work together to ultimately serve both systems in order to be most effective. We’ll explore this concept further in the next part of this series.

Here are a few interesting resources on dual process theory and content marketing:

About Geoff: I think people, technology, and information are fascinating. User Experience Design lets me study how all three are connected, every day. I can’t imagine a more rewarding career. You can find me on Twitter at @geoffmackey.