Because of the high consumer demand for content, we content marketers swoop in to fill that demand. And often because of the heavy demand of our publishing schedules, we get lazy with our arguments.
We fall into logical fallacies — mistakes of reasoning — that ultimately make us look dull, careless, or just inexperienced. They make it difficult to build trust with our audiences.
When you produce logical content consistently, you define yourself as professional and set yourself apart from the noise.
So let’s look at some of these mistakes of reason content marketers may make. Thirteen in fact.
1. Slippery slope
You are guilty of a slippery slope fallacy when you take someone’s claim and then unravel it down to a conclusion that is built upon an unlikely or shaky chain of events.
Take this 30-second video ad, for example:
For those who don’t want to watch:
Hands-free driving. Cars that park themselves. An unmanned car driven by a search engine company. We’ve seen that movie. It ends with robots harvesting our bodies for energy.
This is a parody, of course, but that’s quite the stretch of the imagination! The speaker jumped to an unlikely conclusion, which diverts from the main argument.
Now, you are not guilty of a slippery slope fallacy when your chain of events are likely.
In the ad above, one conclusion that could be reached about unmanned cars is that careless drivers will think they can drink heavily and not worry about getting behind the wheel — because, hey, Google is driving — which might lead to more car accidents and deaths.
But that’s about as far as you could go before entering the slippery slope of unlikely conclusions.
2. Hasty generalizations
Hasty generalizations occur for a number of reasons, but given the speed at which we publish, I would say that content marketers are most often guilty of making them because of impatience.
We have a hunch, we run a test, and then based upon the results of the test (particularly if they support our belief), we publish the results. The only problem is that the sample we use is usually too small to reach any meaningful conclusions.
Take my Failed Month on Medium experiment, for example.
If my conclusion from a single user (me) with questionable tactics (at best) was that Medium sucked and you can’t grow an audience from the social platform, then I should be slapped and sent to detention. The article could only amount to a review.
The lesson here is to make conclusions from a large and diverse sample of results. And give yourself plenty of time. That is, fight the temptation to publish before an idea is ripe.
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3. Post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this)
Here’s a great scene from The West Wing to demonstrate this reasoning mistake.
Let’s say you have a website. It’s not a massive driver of traffic, but it keeps your business afloat. Then one day you type up and publish a bunch of written talks you found in a Banker’s Box storage bin.
A week later, your traffic plummets. You then conclude that publishing all those articles at once caused the plummet, so you delete them and pray your rankings will return to normal.
In this case, you made the mistake of concluding there was a relationship between your action (publishing a bunch of articles) and an effect (rankings that plummeted).
You decided to delete the articles, even though they may not have been related to your website traffic decline.
Some superstitions (like the number 13 being unlucky) are born from this reasoning mistake. I blow my nose on superstitions.
We’ll explore a variation of this mistake next.
4. Correlation doesn’t imply causation
Causation dictates that A causes B. When I do A, I get B. For example, “The spike in traffic to my website yesterday was a result of the guest post I published on a popular website.”
Correlation is simply that A and B seem to be observed at the same time. Whenever I see A happening, it looks like B is happening, and whenever I see B happening, I also see A happening at the same time.
“A may B” is a popular headline format that rests on this mistake. For example:
- Images in Search Results May Increase Traffic to Your Site
- Publishing Old Articles on Medium Could Get You Penalized by Google
- Could Facebook Make You Fat? New Study
Many studies we see online involve correlation, but they don’t necessarily prove causation.
The sample is often not large or diverse enough. Sometimes both requirements are met, but the relationship may still only be correlation and not causation. Or maybe there is an underlying factor causing both.
Further studies that demonstrate a clear link between A and B are needed.
In other words, keep asking questions and do more tests. Don’t publish prematurely. And just to be clear, while correlation tests can be useful as a jumping off point, causation is always more important that correlation.
5. Genetic fallacy
You are guilty of a genetic fallacy when you make a judgement about the character or worth of a person, idea, or thing based upon its origins or history.
- “That company will never succeed. Look at the failures who founded it!”
- “Need social media advice? Ask a Millennial. Those youngsters know all about this new technology.”
- “Adaptive content is an idea not to be trusted because it was cooked up by capitalist pigs.”
Those arguments aren’t based upon facts; they’re based upon origins. And origins are not necessarily related to facts.
6. Begging the question
Ah. The fallacy we commit because we think it means something else.
This is the common understanding of the phrase begging the question: “After reading John McAfee’s profile in Wired, it begs the question: should we uninstall our antivirus software?”
That’s incorrect. Don’t feel bad. An estimated three people use it correctly.
Instead, you are guilty of begging the question when making a claim — and then using the premise of that claim to defend the claim.
Demian Farnworth will write you under the table any day because he’s a great writer!
That first claim (Demian Farnworth will write you under the table) is really just another way of stating that last claim (because he’s a great writer). Or vice versa.
Thus, begging the question. Another way of saying “begging the question” is “assuming the premise.”
7. Circular argument
A good argument looks something like this: premise plus premise equals a conclusion. A circular argument, on the other hand, looks like this: premise plus conclusion equals conclusion. It’s an argument that goes nowhere.
Here is Elaine to demonstrate:
Instead, what you are after is evidence that can actually prove the claim.
The evidence needs to be long, detailed, and clear. That’s the only way to build trust.
8. False dilemma
The false dilemma posits an either/or situation. “Either this happens or this will happen.” And usually option A is beneficial and option B is detrimental.
I was tempted to fall into this trap while writing Will Your Website Survive the Google Mobile Penalty?
Like most armageddon-like headlines, a false dilemma is implicit here: either do something or it will not go well for you.
That’s why I had to slow down and approach the topic from different angles.
I had to tease out the nuances of this new Google update for mobile — namely, if you don’t get a lot of mobile traffic, then doom wasn’t in your future for not having a mobile friendly site.
Side note: it turns out Mobilegeddon was a big deal after all.
9. Abusive character attack
Imagine you got pulled aside at work by your boss one day. In a husky whisper heavy with garlic and beer, he says you shouldn’t listen to my advice because I was “an uncivilized atheist, anti-American, a tool for the godless French.” (Once said about Thomas Jefferson.)
Now, if that ever happens, your boss would be guilty of an abusive character attack. But let’s say he’s not done.
Still clutching your arm, he goes on to tell you to stop listening to Stefanie Flaxman’s podcast Editor-in-Chief because she misspelled “drunkenness.” And she was sober!
Again, that’s an unfair assessment because Ms. Flaxman is allowed to slip up in her own writing on occasion without it being a reflection of her true editing ability.
Editors need editors too, and everyone knows editing your own writing is a challenge.
Finally, your boss, pulling you down to look into his cloudy eyes, demands you never again listen to The Showrunner because one of its hosts (not naming names here, but he looks like Wolverine and loves karaoke) is into New Age crystals.
Again, your boss would be guilty of a character attack, this one with a little twist known as “poisoning the well.”
Here’s the lesson for you: Don’t abuse someone’s character if you disagree with one of his claims. Instead, deal directly with the claim itself. The idea. The product. The company. Leave the person out of it.
10. Appeal to popularity
Appeal to popularity is an attempt to prove the truth of a conclusion simply by the number of people who believe it.
The power of this mistake is built around the assumption that an individual’s judgment can’t compete with a large number.
But here’s the thing: 50,000,000 Elvis fans could be wrong.
Could is the key word. See, there’s a long list of incorrect beliefs that were held by the majority of people for quite some time.
Here’s a sample:
- The earth is flat.
- The Sun goes around the Earth.
- Whales are fish.
- Houseflies only live for 24 hours.
- Vikings wore horns on their helmets.
I know. That last one is devastating. It’s okay if you need to crawl underneath your desk and sob, order a scotch, and group text your contacts with the single word: “WHY?!!?” You should be feeling better by the end of the week.
An appeal to popularity looks awfully similar to a concept we highly recommend: social proof.
So am I contradicting myself? No. Let me explain.
Social proof is one cue among many to help people decided whether they buy a product, eat at a restaurant, share an idea, or read an article.
But we don’t recommend you build social proof on a hollow foundation.
Social proof should reflect quality and substance. The problem occurs when you substitute appeal to popularity as evidence for your claim. Don’t do that.
11. Red herring
Picture this: A fox is being chased by a hound. To distract the hound, someone drags a red herring across the fox trail. If the hound gets distracted by the scent of the red herring, then the fox wins.
As mistakes in logic go, the fox is the main argument. Someone following an argument is the hound, and the red herring is an irrelevant distraction to get that someone away from the main argument.
This fallacy is also known as “smoke screen” or “wild goose chase.”
The lesson here is to keep your focus on the main argument. Support that argument — not some distraction.
By the way, a “red herring” is not a species of fish. A red herring is a herring that has turned red after being dried and smoked.
12. Straw man
This fallacy happens accidentally all the time. Typically, the culprit is only guilty of not understanding the depth of an argument.
You might have read one article and formed an opinion on the issue, but you miss the nuances. This is forgivable.
What’s not forgivable is purposefully recasting an argument by distorting or misrepresenting it so that it’s easier to refute. This new version of the argument is easier to knock down.
Because, you know, a scarecrow is easier to knock down than a 190-pound social media expert.
Social media expert: Creating controversy can be a useful way to get attention.
Foe: So you think content marketers should dig into people’s pasts and air their dirty laundry?
Social media expert: No. That’s not the kind of controversy I’m talking about.
Keep this in mind: all of us slip into straw man arguments when we automatically disagree with an idea.
Here is Stephen Colbert creating a straw man argument like a boss:
Again, what’s missing in the assessment are the nuances of the argument.
13. Moral equivalence
To round out this list, here’s a mistake where you build a winning argument by trying to compare a misdemeanor with a catastrophe.
You can usually spot this one by the phrase, “That’s just as bad as,” followed by hyperbole.
Instances of this could look like:
- “Automating your social media networks is just as bad as slipping a mannequin into a family dinner with a tape recorder full of your pre-recorded messages strapped to its chest.”
- “When you use profanity in your content, you destroy the English language.”
- “Using stock photos in email campaigns is like exposing your customers to psychological torture.”
As you can see, these comparisons aren’t related. What they do more than anything is display the content creator’s strong feelings for a topic. Strong feelings are not bad. Just don’t let them cloud your judgements.
Now, in some cases, moral equivalence is used to be funny. To pull this off, add a variation or disclaimer. Something like, “Okay. Maybe it’s not that bad.”
Clear and coherent writing demands patience
I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in being viewed as irresponsible, lazy, or dishonest. It puts a damper on your position as a professional.
Fortunately, most of the above mistakes can be corrected simply by slowing down and understanding the argument you are trying to make.
In other words, clear and coherent writing demands patience. Restraint.
This is not to say you won’t make mistakes. We all slip up at one time or another.
But knowing what logic errors look like — and how to avoid them — can help us develop a more refined, nuanced approach to content marketing. One that earns trust and develops respect.
How do you ensure that your content is logically sound?