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The Consumer as Test Subject

Predictably IrrationalAsk a shopper why she buys Swiss cheese, and she may tell you it’s for the nutty taste. But put her in a maze with a bunch of other people who also buy Swiss cheese, and her motivation will likely change.

Such is the theory put forth by Steve Martin, author of the book “Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive.” In a recent blog, smartly titled “Stop Listening to Your Customers,” Steve suggests marketers stop asking consumers for their opinion and instead do small experiments. The reason? Because people often do not know why they do the things they do; or they at least won’t give the true reason why.

This is along the lines of the say-do factor outlined in a recent study by LoyaltyOne, called Customer Data — Privacy, Profit and the New Paradigm. The hypothesis is that people often say they believe one thing while doing another. For example, someone might say he does not want to be tracked on his mobile device, yet he is signed up for a variety of apps that do just that. Likewise, if you asked someone what would motivate her to recycle, she might say she’d do it to save the planet, when in reality peer pressure would more likely do the trick.

Martin is not alone in his thoughts. They align with the theories of leading behavioral economist Dan Ariely, author of several books on consumer decision-making including “Predictably Irrational.” In the book, Ariely explores how moral codes, emotions and peer pressure affect our ability to make rational and often important decisions, often indirect opposition to what is in our own best interest.

If this is the way consumers behave, Martin surmises, then let’s change the marketing approach. Instead of asking a lot of questions, he encourages marketers to set up small field tests through which they can gather insights by observing what people do. Great idea. In fact, I’d take the experiments a step further and suggest using a consumer measurement device, such as a loyalty program, to provide the windows into their behavior in such experiments.

Do more people buy earth-friendly detergent when the messaging is about saving the planet, or when the message is “buy green and earn double points”? Is a traveler from the East coast more likely to choose a hotel room that comes with free breakfast, or the same room with free parking?

Past behavior has always been a strong, even if not perfect, predictor or future behavior. By combining past behavior with structured experiments, it becomes a powerful asset as an organization refines its brand experience and offers. That is cheese worth taking a chance on.

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