What better way could a brand choose when marketing a product than to ask customers directly for their opinion? But can the view that a customer expresses in public really be relied on? Is the customer revealing his/her true thoughts or is it social influence that is doing the talking?

Do peer-to-peer studies really help to understand consumer opinion?

Involving customers closely in product design so as to increase their engagement with the brand is an idea that has really caught on recently. Brands such as M&M's enable those who wish to do so to give their opinions on potential new colours and tastes for its products. But are these customers really revealing their own views, or are they being influenced? Recent research suggests that very often, a person’s expressed view does not in fact reflect his/her true thoughts but is the result of a desire to go against generally-held opinion. In their study among students at the University of Calgary in Canada entitled The Dual Role of Power in Resisting Social Influence, Mehdi Mourali of the University of Calgary, and Zhiyong Yang from the University of Texas at Arlington, USA, wanted to investigate the attitude of consumers when they are asked for their opinions and experience a certain degree of power. To try to find out whether it is really useful for marketeers to apply social influencing techniques – using social networks and peer-to-peer marketing – as part of their communication strategy, the researchers conducted four separate experiments.

Less certain people often show resistance

During the first experiment, one group of Calgary students taking part were asked to recall a particular incident in which you had power over another individual or individuals”, while others were conversely requested to “recall a particular incident in which someone else had power over you”. They were all then asked to assess certain products and also to state how certain they felt about their assessments. In the second experiment, logic puzzles were presented to two groups of participants. One group was asked to work out the answers for themselves, i.e. through direct experience, while the other group simply had to read through a series of puzzles accompanied by their solutions, i.e. relying on indirect experience. They were then again asked questions about the results and their certainty. Using these two different methods, the two studies produced the same finding: that those who have to find their own solutions have higher levels of certainty and that a greater degree of perceived power leads people to form more certain, more decisive opinions and simply ignore social influence. Interestingly however, it appeared that those consumers whose degree of certainty is lower do not necessarily follow the opinion of those with stronger convictions. On the contrary, they often perceive such strong views as a form of pressure which threatens their freedom of expression and independence. This can result in a situation where a person will seek to re-assert that independence by deliberately reacting against peer-group opinion.

People more at ease in private?

For the third experiment, two groups of Calgary students were asked to say how they felt about a certain product idea – whether they liked it and how useful they thought it was – and come up with a number of arguments in support of their view, one group being asked for eight arguments, the other for only two. They were then asked once again to assess their own level of certainty of their assessment. It turned out that those providing fewer arguments claimed a higher degree of certainty. Finally in the fourth experiment, participants were again divided into two groups. The first group was told: “We are particularly interested in hearing about your evaluations of the product. To that end (…) you will be asked to discuss your evaluations with (…) other participants in the room today.” The second group was told: “Please remember that all of your responses will be anonymous and confidential.” The results suggest that people are much more inclined to follow their own personal views when they will not become public. However, we should not forget that the general strategy behind the social/peer-to-peer approach used by brands is intended to create an ‘artificial’ conversation and generate a ‘buzz’ around a given product with a view to influencing consumer attitudes towards the product.



By Kathleen Comte