Observing Consumers in the Wild

There were some great presentations at the ARF Industry Leader Forum in NY this week. One of the themes of interest to me in several ways was one that Joel Rubinson set up in the intro.† Social media, he said, allows companies to “observe consumers in the wild”, in their natural habitat for how they use and talk about products.
I believe his point was a good one that free of the Hawthorne effect, you can get a more unbiased view of consumer opinions when they don’t explicitly know that you are observing them. It’s the idea that just by the nature of your asking a question or showing interest in something, you might change how another person acts or responds.† I’ve often heard Gary King use an analogy to make a similar point: If I asked you what your opinion is of the National Helium Reserve, you might very well state an opinion, even though prior to being asked you may never have known that such a thing exists (a giant gas station for blimps! My next business plan will clearly be for personal dirigibles). However, online, you aren’t going to express an opinion when you don’t have one (That’s different than expressing an uninformed opinion, which is still an opinion).
That said, the whole reason people write opinions online is so that other people DO read them. They want to be heard, to help, to share. Do peacocks always have their tail feathers fanned? Is that how they naturally look? Do you behave differently if someone might be watching?
I don’t believe this at all discounts the value of listening to online opinion — in fact, I argue that it’s the best possible way (though the Lily Tomlin switchboard operator might disagree) to hear what people really think. Online consumer opinion is far more pervasive, far more representative, and far more influential than any other source of feedback.
My last thought on the analogy is that it seems to reflect an attitude toward consumers that they are another species. It’s Jane Goodall with the gorillas. Yes, we need to listen and watch and understand, and yes, they are in control, and yes, they are using those little stick tools in new ways we never thought possible but in this case, it’s not they. It’s we. The wonderful thing about the web is it’s like a one-way mirror that you can instantly dissolve. You can reach out. Have a conversation, far beyond Koko and her sign language. You can follow up, engage, and make each other better.

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