I’ll have what she’s having by Mark Earls – a good book, but not the one I was hoping for

I bought this book, co-authored by Mark Earls, to see if it provides practical, marketing related answers to the questions that Mark posed in ‘Herd’.  By and large it does not; so if this is your interest I’d suggest waiting for the next one.

The authors state that their ‘ambition is to provide you with a practical and usable map to help you navigate your way through the complex world of human behaviour’.  What this book mainly focuses on is providing an interesting historical review of many ideas, theories and experiments that have built on each other to understand how peoples’ decisions are influenced by others in society.  The map comes at the end and is a two by two analytical matrix.  As such it provides a thought provoking and practical framework for thinking about how people take consumption decisions in different situations.  But if there is any guidance provided on what you should then do as a consequence, I missed it.  The nearest I found to this was a recommendation to ‘light many fires’ e.g. spread your bets.

It is good at what it does – it’s just not what I was hoping it is.  It stimulates thought rather than providing a route map forward.  My only gripe would be that the structure of the book is not made clear, so I sometimes found myself confused about why a particular section or new idea appeared where it did.  This makes it more difficult to follow the argument that the authors are making.

So what is it that I was hoping for?  In ‘Herd’ Mark persuasively argued that the basic assumption underpinning the current marketing paradigm (that people are sovereign and individual decision takers) is wrong.  Instead people are highly influenced by the views and behaviours of other people, so they should be thought of as social agents rather than individuals.  As a consequence word of mouth is the most effective marketing communications tool and the primary marketing response is to make your brand interesting (because this will prompt people to want to talk about it).

So I’ve been waiting ever since for Mark and his co-travellers to develop these thoughts into a new comprehensive and coherent model that researchers and marketers can use to adapt what we do to fit a social world.

I was lucky enough to catch a presentation that Mark gave recently as part of the Festival of NewMR webinar.  In this he takes the ideas set out in ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ and puts them into a more explicitly focused marketing context.  For instance, he suggests that one implication of their views is that understanding markets should start at the top and work down, rather than the other way round (which conventional market research does).  The way forward is to spot patterns in population level data sets, that allow us to see what’s going on underneath.  It will involve working with ‘Big Data’, which is still a concept ‘in working progress’.

In markets with too many options (which is most of them) choosing what to buy based on social popularity is simpler, quicker and easier than independently trying to evaluate each one.  So people generally copy others.

In this presentation Mark took the two by two matrix from the book and developed it further, into four categories of decision taking behaviour:

  • Considered choice – when there is only a few choice options, but they have perceivable differences between them
  • Copy experts – when there is relatively few options but it not easy to see the differences between them
  • Copy peers – when there are (too) many options and it not easy to see the differences between them
  • Guesswork – when there are many options which have perceivable differences between them

This approach enables the type of market to be identified, which then leads to two further considerations:

  • What kind of questions does it make sense to ask? (indeed, does asking individuals questions per se make sense in the market concerned?)
  • In which types of market is traditional research methods appropriate? (perhaps only in Considered choice markets [which is few of them] and ‘maybe’ in Guesswork ones)

One interesting methodological question implied by this work is: what does research look like if it doesn’t have a respondent?  If it’s not about understanding an individual’s behaviour?

My thoughts in relation to Mark’s presentation are that its raises some challenging issues for both market research and marketing practices.  The overarching one is ‘what will a comprehensive set of appropriate market research tools look like?’  Or even ‘is market research (as conventionally defined) even the right term to use in a socially connected world?’  Perhaps not a five minute job to answer.

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