Sometimes research can be your worst enemy. “How so?” I hear you cry.
Consider this example. Many newspapers are confronted with a conundrum. More people are reading the paper (mostly online), but fewer people are buying it (paper edition). Revenue falls while the demand for more content continues to rise. One response is the pay wall. But this threatens to marginalise your title and it appears to give other free offers a big advantage. The Guardian’s response has been to appeal for voluntary contributions through different levels of ‘membership’.
Given the paper’s history and its loyal following among those who share a broadly liberal ideology (myself very much included) this seems pretty sensible.
But, if we look a bit further, here’s the ‘rationale offered to prospective members:
Let me draw your attention to the bit about revenues falling fast. Behavioural economics and the writings of Mark Earls (‘Herdmeister’) give us some clear learning around this. Telling people that others, like them, are deserting the paper in their droves is the worst thing you could possibly say. Much better to say that more and more people are subscribing online.
There’s a significant body of experimental evidence for this. Richard Shotton quotes a fab example from the Arizona national park, in which visitors were taking away start wood in alarming quantities. The park authorities set up an observed section and tested three approaches: i) said lots of other people were taking wood home and this was depleting the area so please don’t take wood home ii) said most people don’t take wood home, so please don’t you take wood home either and iii) control saying nothing. The second approach asking people to fall in with ‘herd’ behaviour was by far the most successful Indeed approach (i) actually seemed to encourage the taking of wood. This result is echoed in lots of other studies.
So why is The Guardian – a smart operation with sophisticated marketing – getting it so seemingly wrong?
I would venture to suggest it’s because they have relied on asking people questions – using market research. I know this is true because I have been a respondent in some of this research too.
In short, if you ask people what to do, they will give the common sense answer. If you want me (and others like me, who support you) to remedy this revenue problem, it seems sensible to explain the situation and, because we want the same thing, we’ll offer our help – we’ll subscribe. But we won’t. because behaviour doesn’t follow those rules. Marketing doesn’t work by explaining what I need you to do which prompts you to behave accordingly. People don’t act to maximise their utility and they don’t do what you ask them to do – at least not directly. It’s oblique. The world of brands and marketing doesn’t make sense if you treat people as rational utility-maximising agents. Most of the world’s most successful brands wouldn’t exist (and we’d be poorer for it).
Sadly, modern marketers seem to be using market research as a simple mechanism for asking people their opinions. What’s needed is a proper model of influence – a set of hypotheses around which stimulus will provoke what response. Then, based on the answers we get to our questions, we diagnose the solution. We don’t simply ask people what to do then do it.
I do hope the Guardian gets over this myopia. We’d be much poorer without it.