“There were nearly 116 million US user-generated content consumers in 2008, along with 82.5 million content creators. Both numbers are set to climb significantly by 2013.” (eMarketer, February 2009)

This stat came to mind when I read a recent Ad Age article, “They learned it by watching you.” The article discussed increases in marketing budgets focused on why consumers buy. Research ranges from watching consumers in stores to focus groups and surveys. Today’s marketers employ “a cadre of technologists and scientists to uncover consumer needs and emotional states… It’s hard to pinpoint how much is spent on shopper marketing, but estimates range from $3 billion to as high as $18 billion.”

Consumers readily and willingly contribute their opinions, knowledge, and experiences online about brands and products. In fact, some of our clients like Sephora have up to hundreds of reviews per product. So, why are brands still spending so much time and money on complex consumer research and focus groups that can easily cost six figures, span multiple cities, and reach consumers who may or may not even be target customers?

With all of the attention and investment going to these types of research, are manufacturers and retailers missing something? Focus groups and surveys place customers in an unnatural situation, overtly prompting them to explain their choices. These types of research are fundamentally flawed – most customers aren’t sure why they chose one product over another. A 2005 Business Week article, “Shoot the Focus Group,” highlighted the short-comings and response bias of traditional focus groups. This fundamental flaw was echoed by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink: “Asking someone to explain their [behavior and intent] is not only a psychological impossibility…but it biases them in favor of the known over the unknown.”

Internet Retailer reported that 66% of consumers shop online before making purchases, online or off. If consumers begin their product research online, shouldn’t companies focus their research there too? With the right combination of strategic partner and technology to help, brands can ask the customer why they buy while they are actively researching products. This approach is faster, 24×7, less expensive, more comprehensive, less overt, and less likely to cause response bias.

For example, one of our food product clients captured their customers’ experiences around healthy eating by asking customers to submit experiences in the form of stories online about what products and recipes worked for them. The campaign also asked consumers about themselves, with criteria like occupation, exercise frequency, favorite exercise, and favorite snack.

With this single prompt, consumers (without response bias or expensive testing equipment) contributed their experiences about a relevant topic, provided their interests and demographics, and highlighted the products they purchased. The brand can take this content and deeply analyze it to understand why customers bought these products, who these customers are, and what their other interests and motivations are.

Even better, manufacturers and retailers can conduct this research on their own sites. Using their sites, brands can combine consumer research with marketing outreach and user-generated content. People are more honest when they are relaxed and not under the pressure of an interview. And, with 82.5 million consumers willing to contribute, there will be no shortage of participants for consumer behavior research through UGC.

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