It’s often easier to choose between 3 things than 30 and yet product aisles, entertainment services and sites like AirBnB provide near limitless options for people to pick from. How do they do it? GenPop’s Matt Carmichael and Claire Hanlon, EVP for Ipsos Connect, chatted with Tom Vanderbilt,the best-selling author of “Traffic,” about his latest book, “You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choices.”
GenPop: Let’s start with the subhead of your book. How does endless choice impact and influence taste?
Vanderbilt: It’s not just the availability of choices it’s the information about those choices, which is why we’ve tried to erect all these algorithmic tools to cut through that information. The classic example is something like Trip Advisor. I might have once gone with one friend’s recommendation of a hotel or a brand. Now I’m engaged in this pretty heavy process of analyzing a lot of information before I make what I think is an informed choice. But at the end of the day I might be exposed to as many biases as if I’d just made a gut decision.
GenPop: In the book you discuss how Netflix is focusing less on its star ratings…
Vanderbilt: Stars themselves have become a less influential predictor of behavior. Not that they’re not still in the mix, but rating activity itself seems to have dropped off because with the content being available on demand [as opposed to the physical delivery of DVDs] you can jump in and jump out. It’s not as important to lay out these elaborate taste profiles ahead of time.
GenPop: It kinds of feels like that “taste profile” is a loyalty play in itself because you become invested in the platform. Do sites like this risk becoming somewhat productized if people don’t have to put so much effort into teaching the platform?
Vanderbilt: It’s like the IKEA effect: Having assembled a piece of furniture yourself made you have a warmer feeling toward that thing. I guess it made it feel like there was a little more thinking going on and more thoughtful choices you were being delivered. Now it runs the risk of being a little more generic.
The on-demand service is like fast food and the DVD platform is the date night restaurant.
GenPop: Much of this book makes a good case for influencer marketing…
Vanderbilt: There’s a study of hurricane names and baby names that I like. When Katrina hit, the use of Katrina as a baby name went down but other names with that same consonant had a slight increase. Just the suggestion of this sound in the air was enough. We always have this sensitive but not directly accessed radar of what’s going on in the periphery. That’s what the Pantone people talk about. It’s what they see in their peripheral vision that interests them, not what they see right in front of them that’s trying to be pushed in their face. But they think that seems to be more subtle but might be on the rise.
As part of the GenPop Q&A with give the subject the chance to ask a question of you, which we field on the Ipsos Omnibus. Vanderbilt wanted to know about Americans’ book-reading habits. Read our discussion of the results.
GenPop: You talk about the need to make the new familiar. What do you mean by that?
Vanderbilt: This is what Raymond Loewy the industrial designer was talking about back in the ‘50s – coming up with an innovative new product there’d be this point in the design and focus group process where consumers would begin to resist because it was too innovative. So his strategy was to have the MAYA principle for Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. You see it out in the marketplace. With Apple products trying to imbue new technological products with the literal signs of things that we’re familiar with like calendars and pens and things like that. The Apple watch had success because it’s a watch and people have experience with watches. The brand extension is an obvious example. It’s something you’ve had before but here’s a new spin on it.
GenPop: You’ve spoken of heuristics and how sometimes there’s too much choice — like seeing 30 cereals in the aisle. Humans can’t take in everything they’re exposed to because their brains would blow up. Consumers are making choices differently. How does social media become a bigger influence and part of how consumers are growing and evolving.
Vanderbilt: A problem with user generated review sites is the idea of “wise crowds.” We can crowdsource the decision but the people always forget that one of the points that James Surowiecki makes in his book [The Wisdom of Crowds] is that wise crowds were making decisions or guesses in isolation. Had they known what other people were guessing it would have probably thrown off the result and there would be trends that lead to a suboptimal decision. Social is a double-edged sword that can lead to some suboptimal decisions. There was a study that came out that looked at the top-rated products on Amazon and compared them to products that were best rated by consumer reports and had the highest resale value. There wasn’t much correlation.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.