Our Changing Brains and the Consequences

The point of polling and market research is to probe human perceptions, but it’s worth taking stock for a moment about the changing ways humans use their brains that hold those perceptions.

The point of polling and market research is to probe human perceptions, but it’s worth taking stock for a moment about the changing ways humans use their brains that hold those perceptions.

The human mind evolved as it coped with natural forces. Now the human mind may be evolving to manage natural forces.

Less mental energy is needed today to survive the dangers and predators surrounding us. We spend more mental energy on reshaping – or at least trying to reshape – our environment. A key difference is that human selection is replacing natural selection.

Humans, like other living things, still adapt to their circumstances. And they evolve as a result of random mutations. But increasingly, says John Hawks, an anthropologist and geneticist at the University of Wisconsin, humans have the ability to exert more control over our own evolution. We are on the verge of picking out genes like we would jeans.

Natural selection brought us to where we are now, so where will human-guided selection takes us over time? It is a good question, and not a question that should be pushed off into the future. The tools to influence our genetic future are already at hand.

Human-guided selection isn’t reserved to genetics. We are using our brains now very differently than our primitive forebears. When man hunted and gathered for subsistence, brain power was focused on finding dinner. Contemporary humans devote a lot of their mental capacity to sifting through data, words and visual content. Think of how many different scenes you see in a typical TV ad versus the slower-paced ads of yesteryear. Our minds are trained to cycle through material faster, and we get bored quickly if the pace slows.

Invention has been an important part of human adaptation. The discovery of fire and the invention of the wheel undoubtedly involved chance and observation. Modern man has evolved from invention to innovation. We imagine unforeseen possibilities, such as a driverless car or voice-activated in-home helpers.

Not that long ago, if your father was a shoemaker, you became a shoemaker – usually in the same village. Now humans constantly re-invent themselves, skipping from one career to another and moving from town to city.

Not all of our innovation and re-invention has turned out great. Mankind is haunted by the destructive capacity of the weapons of war we have created. Instead of mass epidemics of infectious diseases that kill millions of people around the globe, we have created substances like opioids that can if abused cause epidemics.

While this blog is dedicated to the art and science of measuring human perceptions and viewpoints through disciplined research, it is worthwhile to take a moment to think about the brains where those perceptions and viewpoints abide. It could genuinely be said that people think differently now than they did millennia ago. As the pace of change and adaptation continue to accelerate, people in the future may be thinking differently sooner than we can imagine.

The process of selection doesn’t have a pause button. But there has been a monumental and probably irreversible shift on what and who influences that selection process. Whether preordained or coincidental, the human capacity to think, reason and dominate means the earth’s future is more in our hands than ever before. How we use our hands and our brains could well decide our own fate far beyond the boundaries of evolution.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Judge a Survey by Its Sample

Before you look at top line poll or market research results, flip to the page describing the sample to make sure it matches your target audience so the findings have validity as the basis for your political or marketing campaigns.

Before you look at top line poll or market research results, flip to the page describing the sample to make sure it matches your target audience so the findings have validity as the basis for your political or marketing campaigns.

Critiques of surveys usually zero in on slanted questions that produce skewed answers. But these are easy pickings for critics. A greater research sin, but more difficult to identify, is conducting a survey with a bad sample that fails to reflect a target audience.
 
A favorite example is the telephone survey conducted for a homebuilder association interested in a marketing campaign aimed at first-time homebuyers. The results were meaningless because more than 50 percent of respondents said they were 65 years or older, an unlikely cohort to purchase their first home.
 
Well-crafted questions are certainly important to generate valid findings. But well-intentioned questions can’t overcome a faulty sample. You can ask all the right questions about teen fashion, but get pointless results by interviewing mostly middle-age women.
 
High-profile goofs by public opinion pollsters are often attributable poorly designed samples. Instead of using a sample of all registered voters, clients like to focus on likely voters. Why ignore 40 percent of registered voters when the strongest base of support is among those less likely to vote? Ignoring passive or disenfranchised voters can prove disastrous for candidates, as it did in the trend-disruptive 2016 presidential election..
 
Public opinion pollsters and market researchers understand that valuable survey research starts with sample design, not a questionnaire. Savvy consumers of research should expect a heavy dose of discussion about sample composition to reflect as fairly as possible the views of your intended audience.
 
No sample is ever perfect, so ask your pollster or market researcher how they will make it as close to perfect as possible. Will they conduct a telephone survey using both land and cell phones? What are the demographic characteristics they will use to create sample quotas to ensure a representative sample?  After the interviews are completed, will they use weighting to ensure data reflects opinions of hard to reach groups, such as those age 18 to 34 or people of color?
 
There are a lot of ways surveys can go haywire. But one of the most fundamental flaws is sample design. Just remember, using messages that work for retirees looking for condos in Cancun probably won’t be convincing to a young family seeking a low-cost bungalow close to a good school.

Expressing Your Mind to Someone With A Voting Card

 Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg introduced a Town Hall feature that makes it easy to find out who represents you in Congress and the legislature and just as easy to contact them to express your view on an issue. Photo Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg News

 Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg introduced a Town Hall feature that makes it easy to find out who represents you in Congress and the legislature and just as easy to contact them to express your view on an issue.

Photo Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg News

Facebook has made it easier for people to share a piece of their mind with their elected officials. It also has eliminated the excuse that people don’t know who represents them in Congress or state legislature.

Mashable has provided a step-by-step primer on how to access and use Facebook’s “Town Hall” feature, which you can use either on a computer or mobile device.

After you find the setting, you enter your address and Facebook brings up the names of the men and women who represent you, allows you to follow them or makes it easy to contact them. Facebook lets you call, send a message (on Facebook Messenger) or go to your representative’s Facebook page to post your comments.

The Town Hall feature may be in part Mark Zuckerberg’s atonement for aiding and abetting fake news through Facebook. Even though the feature may be slightly misnamed – it isn’t really a town hall, but an easy way to vent to your elected representatives, it is a convenient tool that could spur more participation in the policy and political processes of government.

The genius may be in its simplicity. Facebook has simply used databases to correlate where you live with congressional and legislative districts and, in some cases, local jurisdictions. Then it has rolled up the process of finding the appropriate address, phone number or social media site into a clickable button. Constituents can concentrate on what they want to say, and not struggle finding our where to say it.

Under President Obama and continuing in the Trump administration, online political chatter has increased exponentially. But much of it is negative and undirected. Facebook Town Hall affords an opportunity to direct a specific message to someone who actually could vote for or against a bill on your recommendation.

Facebook has made it easier to express your mind and be heard by someone with a vote and, in the process, contributed to increased civic participation. But Facebook is not immune from a polarized electorate and its Town Hall could reflect those same hostile divisions.

Staying Up to Speed on the Social Media Scene

Social customer care is critical to successful customer relationship management strategies. That means you need to be up to speed on the social media scene and who goes where for what.

Social customer care is critical to successful customer relationship management strategies. That means you need to be up to speed on the social media scene and who goes where for what.

Like other media, social media’s appeal is stratified by age groups. Millennials are more prone to engage with brands while Baby Boomers look for deals. Millennials dominate on Instagram and Snapchat, while Gen Xers and Boomers flock to Facebook.

These and other differences are significant for social media marketing strategies. They point to where to direct and how to shape marketing content.

Sprout Social’s Q1 2017 report on “the social generation” includes observations such as:

  • Seven in 10 Gen Xers will likely purchase something from a brand they follow on social media;
  • 30 percent of Millennials engage with a brand on social media at least once a month; and
  • 60 percent of Baby Boomers search social media for promotions.

One of the most basic, but useful Sprout Social findings is that Facebook remains the big elephant in the social media space. It is the social media preference for 65 percent of Gen Xers and Baby Boomers and 35 percent of Millennials. But Millennials spread around their attention. More than 20 percent prefer Instagram, a slightly smaller percentage prefer Snapchat and about 15 percent prefer YouTube.

Generation Xers are the largest age cohort using Pinterest and Baby Boomers top all users on Google+. Next to Facebook, the social media platform will the most cross-generational appeal is YouTube.

The key takeaway is that social media marketing content must be tailored to age group demographics and platform characteristics.

The Sprout Social report also offers clues for social media strategy. Seeking followers and engaging them works best with Millennials and Gen Xers, but not much with Boomers. When Boomers do follow a brand, they are more likely to observe, not engage until they spot a special deal.

Each generation has a slightly different impulse to unfollow a brand. Gen Xers are much more likely to unfollow a brand that says something offensive or in opposition to their personal beliefs. Millennials unfollow because of a bad experience or annoying social marketing. Baby Boomers opt out because of what they view as spam.

Stakes are high for social customer care. Positive interactions with a brand promote higher sales – about 14 percent higher across all age groups. As you might expect, the group with the most upside following a positive social interaction are Millennials.

Perceptions of the social competency of different business sectors varies by age groups. Gen Xers view media and entertainment as the best at social customer care. Boomers give the nod to retailers. Millennials are mostly focused on data showing only one in 10 social media messages to brands ever get a response. 

Finding the Balance Between Choice and Satisfaction

Choice is good, but too much choice can create consumer anxiety and frustration that leads to less sales, not more. Market research can help find the optimum level of choice that satisfies your consumers.

Choice is good, but too much choice can create consumer anxiety and frustration that leads to less sales, not more. Market research can help find the optimum level of choice that satisfies your consumers.

Could offering too much choice lead to fewer sales? Apparently, yes.

One marketer wrote a blog about his frustration encountering a gelato stand with more than 100 flavors. He paced in front the glass counters assessing the assorted choices until, in a fit of frustration, he left without trying or buying anything.

A kissmetrics blog cited a Columbia University study of jam samples. More people stopped when they were more offerings, but more people bought jam when fewer choices were on the table.

How can that be? Isn’t consumerism all about choice? Yes, and no. Choices please consumers, but don’t always satisfy them. Finding the balance, which requires fine-tuned market research, is key to understanding how to make choice satisfying, not confounding..

Some analysts believe too much choice can lead to consumer confusion and stress. Some retailers agree and have begun to limit the amount of choice on their shelves. For example, one retailer reduced 224 air fresheners to just 12, so consumers could see the entire range without packing up and down the aisle.

Actually, the idea of shrinking choices isn’t avant-garde. It is based on psychological studies that suggest consumer choice doesn’t operate independently of consumer satisfaction. If too many choices create anxiety, customer satisfaction is challenged. Sales suffer.

"Choice is good for us, but its relationship to satisfaction appears to be more complicated than we had assumed,” Barry Schwartz wrote in 2004 in a piece appearing in Harvard Business Review. "There is diminishing marginal utility in having alternatives; each new option subtracts a little from the feeling of well-being, until the marginal benefits of added choice level off.”

"What’s more,” Schwartz adds, "psychologists and business academics alike have largely ignored another outcome of choice: More of it requires increased time and effort and can lead to anxiety, regret, excessively high expectations and self-blame if the choices don’t work out. When the number of available options is small, these costs are negligible, but the costs grow with the number of options. Eventually, each new option makes us feel worse off than we did before.”

This suggests that marketing strategies based solely on delivering choice may fail to achieve their promise.

"Choice can no longer be used to justify a marketing strategy in and of itself,” says Schwartz. "More isn’t always better, either for the customer or for the retailer. Discovering how much assortment is warranted is a considerable empirical challenge. But companies that get the balance right will be amply rewarded.”

Market research is one way to get inside a consumer’s head to see the optimum amount of choice, so you satisfy consumer demand, not reduce it.

Optimize Your M-commerce Experience and Reap Sales Benefits

Poor mobile device shopping experiences have retarded actual sales, but as experiences improve, so will sales in the skyrocketing m-commerce marketplace.

Poor mobile device shopping experiences have retarded actual sales, but as experiences improve, so will sales in the skyrocketing m-commerce marketplace.

E-commerce sales continue to rise, but what stands out even more is the dramatic increase in sales from mobile devices, especially iPhones.

A look at Black Friday sales last year tells the m-commerce story. According to Comscore, 116 million people visited online retail sites, 90 million went there on their mobile devices, 52 million used laptops and 26 million used both.

That may suggest purchasing patterns in the context of a single, busy shopping day where bargains are the premium. Reinforcing that conclusion, the National Retail Council said 34 percent of Valentine’s shoppers this year chose to browse and buy at brick-and-mortar stores.

Notwithstanding Valentine shopping sentiment, the trend is clear – more people feel more comfortable shopping and buying online to avoid congested shopping areas, messy displays, rude clerks and long checkout lines. There is less hassle looking at what you want on your phone, tossing into a virtual cart and purchasing it with a click.

Using thumbs instead of feet to shop has some significant consequences. Retailers need to ensure they have e-commerce sites that are easy to navigate on mobile devices, including phones. Greg Sterling, writing for Marketing Land, said he finds “poor site experiences to be the rule rather than the exception."

"Though still challenging, browsing and buying on mobile sites is getting better,” Sterling says. "And the identified gap between mobile traffic and conversions argues m-commerce would (and will) eclipse the PC as mobile user experiences improve.”

Online conversion rates via laptop still dominate, Sterling suggests, because of unsatisfactory user experiences on mobile devices. Retailers need to think phones, not tablets as the emerging dominant mobile device and, where possible, employ apps to improve user experience and convenience.

Personal shopping isn’t going away, but it is headed in new directions. Don’t get left behind.