The new Tooheys Extra Dry ad attempts to answer a question that has nagged anyone who’s ever turned up at a house party with a six pack of beers: where exactly do they end up once you stick them in the ice bath?
The ad gets top marks for tapping into a universal truth about house parties, but sadly I’m not sure it tells the real story. Any sane person taking Tooheys to a house party has one thing on their mind – upcycling them into something with a bit of flavour.
I’m currently planning a trip to Japan and seem to be spending an alarming amount of time on TripAdvisor. As any TripAdvisor addict will attest, trying to choose between hotels can soon result in a state of analysis paralysis.
Everyone has their own criteria when it comes to choosing hotels (a pillow menu isn’t really a deal-breaker for me), however, conventional wisdom dictates that our decisions should be based on whether the positive reviews broadly outweigh the negatives – right?
According to some recent research published in the Journal of Consumer Research, not exactly. While the overall sentiment of reviews is obviously important, our decisions are also being subtly influenced by how specific these comments are.
The study, quoted in Art Markman’s Ulterior Motives blog, highlights that when an experience reinforces a deeply held attitude, we tend to respond by making a general analysis of the brand or product’s overall quality. Conversely, when our experience contradicts our existing view we focus on specific product attributes:
For example, in one study, people try out either Bic pens (which people tend to think of as cheap and low quality) or Parker pens (which people tend to think of as expensive and high quality). The pens were manipulated so that they did not work. Then, they had to pick a statement that best described their feeling about the pen. For the Bic pen, people selected abstract statements (like “This Bic pen is bad”). For the Parker pen, people selected more specific statements (like “This Parker pen would not write”). Art MarkmanJuly 5, 2010
So far, so straightforward – it’s common sense that our existing prejudices would play a role in the way we review products. More interesting in the context of social media is how this phenomenon affects the readers of these comments.
The next phase of the study focused on the influence comments had the purchasing intention of others who read them. It found that positive comments were more likely to motivate others to buy when they were abstract in nature (e.g ‘this pen is great’) as opposed to specific (e.g ‘this pen writes well’). Similarly, negative comments were less damaging to purchasing intention when they were specific in nature (eg ‘this pen writes badly’) than when they were more abstract (eg ‘this pen is awful’).
Just as reviewers do not consciously choose abstract or specific language based on their desire to influence, most of us do not consciously place more emphasis on reviews that are abstract as opposed to specific. However, even if we are oblivious to these nuances, the research suggests that the phrasing of these reviews can be highly influential.
This has implications for way we analyse attitudes to our brands online. Automated sentiment analysis tools – already compromised by their inability to detect sarcasm – fail to take into account the way language choices influence the reader. These findings suggest that by taking a deeper look at the way people phrase their reviews we might be able to gain some interesting insights into their broader attitudes about the brand or category and tailor our response accordingly.
The research is also relevant to the way we encourage people to talk about our brands online. More progressive companies are starting to aggregate social media mentions and reviews on their own sites – even when they these are critical about their products. While brands shouldn’t attempt to manipulate the content of these reviews, this research suggests that the way we frame the debate is worth some thought, particularly given that most decision making is based on minimising risk rather than optimising choice.
When much of the internet seems dedicated to earnest posts detailing ’10 ways to double your blog traffic in five minutes’, it’s refreshing to hear an example of someone whose online popularity was completely accidental.
Gregory Levey’s article on The Nervous Breakdown (thanks to Big C for this) explains how he created a Facebook group to promote his book “Shut Up, I’m Talking”, a memoir about his time as a speechwriter for the Israeli government.
Levey saw his Facebook fans grow from about a hundred friends and family to over 750,000 – significantly more than better known authors such as JK Rowling (95,000) and Dan Brown (499,000).
The source of this new found popularity? Unfortunately for Levey, it wasn’t an explosion of interest in his book. Rather, it was his choice of title:
Even though the fan page shows the book’s cover and its synopsis, and informs visitors that it was published by Simon & Schuster, the vast majority of these supposed “fans” were somehow totally unaware that it was referring to a book at all. They had simply joined because they were fans of the phrase “Shut Up, I’m Talking.”
They were the sort of people, I soon discovered, who were also fans of such inane but popular Facebook fan pages as “Punching Things” and “I hate it when I get fingerprints all over my phone.” But each time one of them would become a fan of Shut Up, I’m Talking, their circle of Facebook friends would blindly do the same – causing its frighteningly viral spread.
If Levey were to message his 750,000 fans via Facebook, he’d surely pick up some extra sales. However, given that few expressed any interest in middle eastern politics, his conversion rate would probably be fairly low.
Levey’s experience is a great example of how, contrary to the claims of viral agencies and e-book peddlers, building a following can be a pretty unpredictable affair. Furthermore, a successful online community has more to do with quality than quantity.
On the plus side, the popularity of Levey’s Facebook group highlights how readily people identify with an insight that rings true – however trivial it might seem. In fact, maybe we’re all missing a trick – sounds like the smart money’s in fingerprint-resistant mobile phone covers…
In The Long Tail, Chris Anderson persuasively argued that the internet is facilitating a shift from mainstream hits towards increasingly niche interests, however, the continuing popularity of blockbusters such as Avatar suggests that the hits are as popular as ever. More interestingly, the experience of ‘long tail’ companies such as Netflix indicates that contrary to conventional wisdom, the engaged customers aren’t always the most satisfied.
It is logical to assume that, given the breadth of movies offered by a service like Netflix, customers with a specialist interest in films would get more pleasure from the DVDs they choose than your average punter. However, according to The Economist, the reverse is true.
A Wharton Business School study analysing reviews on Netflix found that blockbusters get better ratings from the people who have watched them than more obscure titles – even Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which was consistently slammed by the critics, is awarded four stars out of five. Another study by Harvard Business School apparently found a similar story on Quickflix, the Australian equivalent.
So why do hits continue to be so popular?
One of the classic arguments is that people still crave shared experiences. Another key factor is that consumer decision-making doesn’t seem to be keeping pace with technological change. Back in 1963, William McPhee’s 1963 study Formal Theories of Mass Behaviour explained the dynamics of a hit: “a disproportionate share of the audience for a hit was made up of people who consumed few products of that type”. The Economist argues that this phenomenon still rings true today:
“A lot of the people who read a bestselling novel, for example, do not read much other fiction. By contrast, the audience for an obscure novel is largely composed of people who read a lot. That means the least popular books are judged by people who have the highest standards, while the most popular are judged by people who literally do not know any better.”
Indeed, my initial interest in the dynamics of DVD ratings was sparked by my own slightly frustrating experience with Quickflix, which seems in line with the findings of the above studies.
As someone who watches quite a broad range of movies, I started noticing that most of the fairly obscure titles I am recommended by Quickflix seem to be rated no higher than two to three stars, while blockbusters typically receive three or four stars minimum.
The result: rather than encouraging users further down the long tail, the current user-powered recommendations may in fact be reinforcing the tyranny of the hit.
Shunning greater choice
With the amount of content on the internet predicted to double roughly every five years, we’re clearly not short of information to help us make these decisions. However, as Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice suggested, greater choice has been shown to make decision-making more complex and ultimately less satisfying.
Arguably many of us gravitate to the familiar in order to avoid being overwhelmed by the amount of information at our disposal, subconsciously screening out options that require further investigation. According to Rory Sutherland, this is because, except in a few areas of specialist interest, minimising risk has a far greater influence on our decision-making than optimising choice. And if minimising risk is driving our decision-making, it is likely that we are applying similar criteria to rating what we bought.
The success of retailers such as Amazon demonstrates that serving niche interests can be an incredibly lucrative growth strategy. However, as marketers continue to evangelise the benefits of deeper customer engagement, it’s important to remember that these highly engaged customers can also be the hardest to please.
UPDATE 14/04/10: An article in FastCompany reveals that Zappos’ best customers return around 50% of the goods they buy, compared to an average return rate of roughly 35%. However, while free return shipping may make these customers more expensive to service, by reducing the risk of a bad decision, it encourages them to spend significantly more overall.
Dan Ariely’s blog highlights how Google’s autocomplete can be used to reveal some interesting insights about what matters to us most:
“For better or for worse, Google’s obsession with collecting and refining data has given us a window into each other’s fascinating and telling curiosities.”
Ariely’s above example suggests how automplete could be used to identify key concerns around brands or political leaders. But perhaps just as interesting is which of those phrases Ariely was searching on in the first place…
The word ‘engagement’ gets used a lot by marketers these days – in fact a few new synonyms would be helpful for the digital strategy I’m working on at the moment.
For a lot of brands, creating content that consumers want to engage with is absolutely the right approach, particularly if it’s around a shared passion or topic that people actively want to discuss.
However, it’s easy to forget that in many of the purchasing decisions we make every day, we don’t want to be engaged, we just want to get it done with minimal fuss.
Rory Sutherland has a great piece on his blog about this phenomenon: his argument is that most people make most of their decisions based on minimising risk rather than optimising choice. In other words it’s not about making your brand the best – it’s about being the least likely to be shite. As a consumer, this is the difference between being a ‘maximiser’ and a ‘satisficer’:
“If you are an expert in a field, you are a maximiser. Your car is Teutonic. You listen to relatively obscure Indie music. You wear niche clothes brands, like those funny jeans with a wiggle on them…But most people tend to be maximisers in a few areas only – for most of us it’s simply too much intellectual effort to compete in every field.
Now, here’s the issue. Most people, in most fields of consumption, most of the time are NOT maximisers at all. They are something completely different. They are satisficers. What they are doing is not using insane amounts of mental energy to attempt to optimise every decison. They are instead simply trying to avoid making a decision that is actually bad or which might cause them to look or feel foolist. For those people, good enough generally is.”
This doesn’t mean do nothing. Using compelling content to increase your online visibility and credibility can be a great way of engaging the ‘maximisers’ while also making you seem less risky in the eyes of the ‘satisficers’.
Ultimately, it’s about understanding your different audiences and tailoring messaging accordingly. And as the the Fina ad cleverly acknowledges, it’s worth remembering that most of these people probably don’t care as much about your brand as you do.
If you haven’t already done so, it’s worth checking out Seth Godin’s eBook What Matters Now.
Available as a free download from Seth’s blog, the eBook brings together ideas, predictions and a healthy dose of navel-gazing from 70-odd top bloggers, marketers and entrepreneurial types.
My favourite entry so far is a reality check from Howard Mann. Reactionary? Maybe, but worth bearing in mind nonetheless:
There are tens of thousands of businesses making many millions a year in proﬁts that still haven’t ever heard of twitter, blogs or facebook. Are they all wrong? Have they missed out or is the joke really on us? They do business through personal relationships, by delivering great customer service and it’s working for them. They’re more successful than most of those businesses who spend hours pontiﬁcating about how others lose out by missing social media and the latest wave. And yet they’re doing business. Great business. Not writing about it. Doing it.
I’m continually amazed by the number of people on Twitter and on blogs, and the growth of people (and brands) on facebook. But I’m also amazed by how so many of us are spending our time. The echo chamber we’re building is getting larger and louder. More megaphones don’t equal a better dialogue.
We’ve become slaves to our mobile devices and the glow of our screens. It used to be much more simple and, somewhere, simple turned into slow. We walk the streets with our heads down staring into 3-inch screens while the world whisks by doing the same. And yet we’re convinced we are more connected to each other than ever before. Multi-tasking has become a badge of honor. I want to know why.
I don’t have all the answers to these questions but I ﬁnd myself thinking about them more and more. In between tweets, blog posts and facebook updates.