Revolutionary Measures

Big Brother is manipulating you?

As anyone that has read George Orwell’s 1984 knows, the ability to rewrite history and manipulate information is at the heart of controlling behaviour. As communist Russia showed, people could simply be airbrushed from the official account and would vanish from the public consciousness. 1984

Of course, in the age of social media, the web, and 24 hour global media, this ability to control news should have disappeared. If a government blocks a site or a mobile phone network, there are ways around it that spread information quickly, bypassing attempted censorship.

However, I’d argue that the reverse has happened and that Big Brother can operate stealthily in two ways. Firstly, rumours can start and spread unchecked, with the majority of us not taking the time to get to the original source, instead believing something that has been retweeted or shared on Facebook. I’ve had people swear blind to me that a major incident took place ‘because I saw it on Facebook’ – though I can’t believe they’d be as credulous if a random stranger told them the same story down the pub. By the time the truth is out, immeasurable damage can be done – to a company’s brand or share price or a person’s reputation.

Secondly, we believe what our computers tell us, and act accordingly, particularly when it chimes with our own preconceptions. Essentially we think that the complex algorithms that control what appears on our screens are unbiased, rather than reflecting what the site owner has determined in some way.

This leaves us open to manipulation, whether by marketers trying to sell us things or more sinister experiments. Facebook received justified criticism for running an experiment where it tampered with the stories in people’s timelines, seeing what the impact would be on what users themselves wrote. Unsurprisingly the percentage of negative or positive posts had a direct link to the tone and language people used in their own posts.

Now dating site OKCupid has admitted that it experimented on its users. This included deliberately pairing up unsuitable couples and telling them that they were a perfect match to see what would happen. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a little serendipity, but deliberate meddling risks breaking the trust between a site and its users. Throwing in a wildcard of “here’s someone completely unlike you, but why not see what happens if you meet?” is one thing if it is advertised, but quite another if it is hidden behind the veil of computer processing.

Some might argue that this is just a next step in techniques such as Nudge, where choices are ordered in a way to drive particular outcomes. These are supposedly for the greater good. For example, if diners come to the salad bar first in a cafeteria they eat more healthy stuff and if you automatically enrol people in pensions, they tend not to take the opportunity to opt out. But I’d say it goes much further than this, and is about trust.

In many ways breaches of trust are similar to security breaches – something that the user relied upon unthinkingly has been removed, calling into question the entire relationship they have with a company. And like trust in any relationship, it is a time-consuming and difficult process to rebuild it.

So, anyone involved in marketing, media or technology does have a responsibility to be as open and transparent as they can be. At the very least there are legal safeguards (such as the Data Protection Act) that need to be obeyed, but I think companies need to go further than that. We live in a world where people want to have a genuine relationship with brands that they respect and trust, rather than the transactional, one-sided versions of the past. Therefore organisations need to think first about the consequences of experimenting on their users before playing Big Brother with their lives.

July 30, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Psychology and marketing – appealing to consumer needs

How do you persuade people to buy your product or service, particularly when there is an increasing number of demands on their time and wallets?

English: Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Resized,...

I’ve always been fascinated about how an understanding of human psychology can help marketers to change people’s behaviour. Whether it is nudging people to choose the ‘right’ option or appealing to the herd mind, there is a lot that marketers can learn from the social sciences.

One theorem that can help improve marketing is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Originally proposed by Abraham Maslow in 1943 it essentially ranks the varying needs of humans, from the basic to the most complex. The key point is that it is only when one level of requirements are met will humans then move onto the next one.

So at the bottom are physiological needs – breathing, food, water, sleep, excretion. Without these humans simply cannot function. So, if you are selling basic products, appeal to this need, but if what you offer is more complex or higher value, look further up the hierarchy.

Next is safety (security of body, employment, family, resources, health, property). We’ve all seen marketing/advertising campaigns that play to these needs, normally by warning of the dangers that a particular product or service guards against. Insurance is the perfect example.

The third layer of the hierarchy is love and belonging, covering friendship, family and sexual intimacy. This is where sex sells, and also products that deliver a sense of being part of a group. Remember the scene every week in Cheers, where Norm comes in and everyone greets him by name? That’s key to this layer. However too many brands attempt to generate a sense of belonging, but make it too corporate and intrusive, such as Starbucks’ attempt to call customers by their first name when they were buying their latte.

Above belonging is the esteem level (confidence, self-esteem, respect of others, achievement). All humans have a need to feel respected, and clever marketers exploit this by offering products that (they claim) will increase your confidence and earn the esteem of others. Buy our car/mobile phone/bank account and your world will be transformed.

So, what’s at the top of the pyramid? All the previous levels were seen by Maslow as deficiency needs and have to be not just met, but mastered, before humans can move onto self-actualisation. This is much more complex and varies from person to person, but is essentially about achieving your full potential. To do this they need accept themselves, happy in their judgement and have an efficient perception of reality.

On the face of it self-actualisers should be immune to marketing, as they can see through attempts to manipulate their thoughts or feelings. However those on the path to self-actualisation can be targeted with images that show successful people and intimate that they can only be achieved by buying particular products. Think American Express Black credit cards or most celebrity adverts – drink Nespresso and you can be George Clooney!

I’m not saying that the hierarchy of needs is the sole way of planning marketing campaigns or boosting sales. But understanding which level your product best appeals to is a good way of focusing your efforts and going beyond features to look at what the customer is looking for. And that can only lead to better targeted products that consumers actually want, after all.

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March 26, 2014 Posted by | Creative, Marketing | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Delivering a social nudge

Cover of "Nudge: Improving Decisions Abou...

Cover via Amazon

I’ve written before about Nudge, Thaler and Sunstein’s riveting textbook on how organisations can make it easier for people (whether citizens or customers) to make the right choices to fit their needs. Essentially, it is a question of the choice architecture – how choices are presented to you – that influences behaviour. People tend to take the easier option (say when it comes to complicated things like picking a mortgage or a pension), so it is important that this default option is as beneficial as possible. Another example is how organising a self-service restaurant affects what food people choose – put the chips up front and more people shovel them onto their plate than if they come to salad first.

When it comes to social media often choice architectures seem stacked against the non-specialist. The issue is that so much personalisation is available within social media that the vast majority simply don’t bother changing things. That’s fine when it comes to background colour, but a real issue with security and privacy. Take Facebook. The default option often involves sharing personal details with a lot more freedom than you think (or necessarily want). Or the numerous apps that use Twitter to spam your friends with news that you scored XX in some lame game. As social media becomes mainstream its time that developers started adopting positive choice architectures to protect us humans from the perils of not choosing – the alternative will be more Daily Mail rants and the looming threat of increased regulation.

 

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February 11, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments