Engaging Consumers in Collaborative Discovery: Uncovering “Unconscious” Purchase Behavior

Insight into consumer behavior often requires nuanced understanding of what drives people’s actions — their expectations, assumptions, hopes and fears. Asking people directly about what motivates them, however, can yield unremarkable results. Not because they are unwilling to share this information, but because they are either unaware of it or are not used to articulating it. In order to unearth this “hidden” material, we must be able to engage consumers in collaborative discovery, helping them to explore and reveal aspects of their experience that normally go unnoticed in their daily lives. This is certainly true when it comes to understanding shopping behavior.

We recently engaged hundreds of our online community members in just such an endeavor, supporting an Advertising Research Foundation led project on digital and social media in the purchase decision process. One early insight from our multiphased research clearly suggested that consumers significantly narrow their selection-set before they consciously and actively begin “shopping”:

“First, I check Kelley Blue Book values online for the cars I’m most interested in and to check on trade-in value for my car. Then I go to the dealer’s website and check prices locally to decide which dealer to visit in person.” – Justy E., Communispace community member

This insight led us to combine a number of discovery-oriented collaborative activities — mobile ethnography, mind mapping (visual free-association), discussion and brainstorming — to explore consumers’ “passive” shopping behavior. In other words, we crafted exercises to elicit and explore a process of which consumers, themselves, were not wholly aware.

We learned a tremendous amount from community members. A detailed description of key findings can be found in the May 20, 2013 Quirk’s e-newsletter, but here are some highlights:

  • Proximity plays a huge role in shaping our unconscious purchase decision process. Observing our neighbors, family members or cube-mates, borrowing friends’ phones, dining at restaurants or sampling food in the supermarket all provide consumers with the opportunity to “test-drive” new products or services.
  • Advertising — television, print and online — is important. Many community members mentioned advertising, unaided, when we asked them to visually associate about what they “noticed” in their day-to-day environment (for the automobile, consumer electronics and grocery categories). Both digital and traditional means of advertising clearly influenced people when they were not actively shopping.
  • “Shopping” is a constant, ongoing and generally fun activity, and digitally-connected consumers see some shopping behaviors — like pinning things they like (and hope to buy someday) on Pinterest or reading what brands their friends “like” on Facebook — as normal, everyday life, rather than part of what they would define as shopping. Brands need to recognize, however, that it can be a lightning quick step from pinning something that catches your eye to ordering it in your size.
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