Behavioural tracking and neuroscience tools designed to measure what consumers want and need
A worth reading article by Dara O’Rourke today well explains why it’s time “we move beyond surveys, and simultaneously commit to avoiding invasive tracking and manipulative marketing, in order to really understand what consumers want and need, and to help them connect their values and actions for sustainability”.
From the theguardian.com:
A new set of tools and technologies has emerged over the last several years to measure the behaviours of consumers. These tools, if used responsibly, transparently, and without violating people’s privacy, hold important potential for better understanding consumer behavior with respect to sustainability.
Last week Accenture and Havas Media RE:PURPOSE released the latest in a long line of surveys asserting that consumers care about sustainability. The most interesting finding from this study however, was that CEOs don’t believe consumer-stated commitments to sustainability.
This makes sense. There is a massive gap between what consumers say and do. Which is why most companies don’t ask consumers what they believe or value; they study their actual behaviours (and increasingly their brain waves).
Brands, retailers, and market researchers assert that the newest behavioural tracking and neuroscience tools are designed to help them learn what consumers want and need. And ultimately they help them deliver more relevant ads and products.
The rise of tools tracking consumer behaviour
Through online tracking mechanisms such as supercookies, browser fingerprinting, location-based identifiers, behavioural tracking, and social network leakage, marketers track both real-time behaviours on web sites – down to what you type, mouse over, purchase – and detailed personal data. So when you land on an e-commerce site, without telling the retailer anything about yourself, they know your age, gender, physical location, favourite websites, favourite movies, comments you’ve left across the web, estimates of your income, marital status, whether you own a home, etc.
This sophisticated tracking has also arrived in brick-and-mortar stores.In-store cellular and wi-fi signal tracking systems can monitor consumers as them move through malls and stores. Apple’s iBeacon technology is now being used to track consumers to within several feet of a location within a store and even at concerts. Video surveillance and eye tracking systems track what consumers look at, focus on, and are “engaged” by. One of the most far-reaching of these initiatives involves Facebook’s partnership with data firms Acxiom, Datalogix and Epsilon to connect in-store purchases from retailer loyalty card data to Facebook user profile data.
There is also interesting research going on in industry “laboratories” to study the neuroscience of consumer decision-making. Using implicit associations (people’s subconscious responses to brands), EEG (a cap to measure brainwave activity), and fMRI techniques (to measure changes in neuron activity in the brain), companies are working to understand the conscious and sub-conscious processes driving emotional engagement, and thereby, behaviour. Many marketers are now combining this research with lessons from social psychology and behavioural psychology in efforts to “influence” consumers and take advantage of existing “cognitive biases”.
There is a potential dark side to this research and marketing. Some firms have crossed a line into invading consumer privacy. Others are accused of using our own data to manipulate us. This is clearly not what we want sustainability research to become.
Ditch simplistic surveys
But in this age of behavioural targeting and neuroscience, it is almost shocking to see that most retailers and brands still depend on simplistic surveys and focus groups to study sustainability concerns and commitments of consumers. Virtually once a month, a marketing firm releases a report summarising responses to a set of well-worn questions: what sustainability issues do consumers care about? Do they want to buy greener products? Will they pay more?
This research ranges from national polls by Gallup and Nielsen, to green marketing annual surveys by the Natural Marketing Institute and theShelton Group, to issue specific surveys on climate change and food by NGOs and green consulting firms, to green brand-funded surveys of specific products, to new segmentations and characterisations of consumers around the world.
These reports seem to tell us the same thing over and over: consumers care about many things, they want to buy green, and they will pay (a little) more.
Unfortunately, we now have over two decades of evidence that this survey research on sustainability is flawed. “Social desirability” biases lead people to avoid saying things that would make them look bad (such as that they don’t care about the environment or workers rights) when interviewed.
Surveys do not force consumers to make real trade-offs, when we know shopping is largely about trade-offs – the time pressure of shopping often means people default to the product/brand they know best or that is cheapest. Surveys are unable to analyse how consumer choices are influenced by past habits, social pressures, and manipulative marketing that consumers themselves cannot explain. Over and over we see the results of sustainability surveys and are forced to conclude that there is an “attitudes-behaviours gap” among consumers. People tell us they care deeply about sustainability and will pay more for better products, but then they don’t.
As David Ogilvy, the marketer, once said, “The trouble with market research is that people don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say.” This continued chasm between what consumers say and do should be a clear wake up call to move beyond green surveys. We now need to (and can) study behaviours, purchasing decisions, and social influences as they occur, rather than asking consumers to explain their values, beliefs, and actions.
Sustainability can benefit from advances in behaviour research
The sustainability field can learn from recent advances in consumer research that focus on behaviour. But we need to advance this more rigorous analysis of decision-making without crossing into invasive data collection and questionable ethics.
This means developing processes to understand what information, attributes and emotions actually motivate consumers to change purchases towards more sustainable, healthy, socially-responsible options. We need to A/B test variations in products, messages, forms and timing of information, and social contexts while people shop. And we need to connect how people actually make decisions, where they make decisions, with whom they make decisions (analysing the powerful influence of peers, friends, family.)
But this cannot be done as marketing. And it should never cross the line into invasive tracking or manipulation.
Sustainability research should be based on transparent and fair interactions with consumers. First and foremost, people must control their own “data”. They must be able to decide when and which data they share about themselves. This means prior-informed consent, notifications of data use, and clear opt-in and opt-out procedures.AboutTheData.com, Acxiom’s database of what they know about consumers, is a baby step in this regard.
We need a new breed of consumer research companies that examine what really motivates consumer decisions. And that transparently communicate findings to consumers, brands and retailers in order to support innovations towards better products and supply chains.
Through transparent research processes companies could ask to track individual’s preferences and purchases, while simultaneously giving them much more information on the products and companies they are choosing between, including being open about problems and trade-offs in products and supply chains. This would be beneficial to the consumer and the researcher, and would involve a deeper engagement with consumers based on a commitment to really helping people find products and services that better match their values.
It’s time we move beyond surveys, and simultaneously commit to avoiding invasive tracking and manipulative marketing, in order to really understand what consumers want and need, and to help them connect their values and actions for sustainability.
Image source: the Guardian