If Werner Heisenberg Could See Us Now…


HeisenbergWe are bombarded with marketing messages every day, at every turn. These messages are carefully crafted, meticulously tested, and precisely delivered in order to maximize their influence on our perception and behavior.

Most of the time consumers don’t stand a chance against marketers. There is great asymmetry in the information available to these two classes. Marketers spend much time and money trying to learn how consumers think, whereas fewer and fewer consumers seem to be capable of thinking at all.

But every once in a while I find a company that makes a marketing mistake so flagrant and egregious it actually gives me hope that consumers might see right through it. Here is an example:

A recent article on a company blog touts a survey (done by the same company) that claims 80% of doctors surveyed believe that “virtual assistants” will significantly change the way that doctors do their work within five years.

The problem, of course, is that in a healthcare context no one knows what a virtual assistant really is or does. And the world’s best-known virtual assistant is used daily by only 33% of its customers, has sites devoted to its endless gaffes, and has been said to possess the intelligence of a hammer.

So how could 80% of physicians feel so ebulliently optimistic about something that doesn’t yet exist and whose nearest ancestor is barely useful?

There is an Uncertainty Principle at work in marketing that is not well appreciated by most consumers (and apparently some marketers): You can educate your customer about a new product, and you can measure their perception of your new product, but you have to be careful about trying to do both at the same time.

Why? It’s called priming, and it’s one way that marketers manipulate survey results, whether intentionally or through ignorance.

If your customers know nothing about your product before you survey them, then you naturally want to educate them a bit before you ask them what they think. You’ll tell them all about your vision and the great things that your product will eventually do. But in doing so you are priming them. Whatever they tell you next will be strongly influenced by the proximate experience of learning about your vision. If you create a positive learning experience, they will tend to respond positively even if your vision has only a tenuous connection to reality.

The correct way to measure perception is to do it right out of the gate, at the beginning of the survey instrument, before you’ve perturbed the respondent in any way. Otherwise you’re not measuring reality, you’re measuring a survey experience that is likely more ideal (better) than your product.

So if a survey claims that 80% of customers are excited about a product that doesn’t exist, the survey probably has a priming problem.

Let’s assume for a moment the contrary position, that the survey methodology is sound. Now if a company had a crystal ball that accurately predicted future customer preferences, why would they shout its output from the housetops? Wouldn’t they just build that irresistible product and corner the market before competitors could respond?

Of course they would. So this survey obviously couldn’t connect the dots between perception and intent to purchase. Which means this whole exercise is about nothing more than creating the perception of a positive perception about a product that no one really knows about because it doesn’t exist.

Ironically, Google served up the following ad (Google ads on a company blog? Really?) at the bottom of the post in question:

And if Google can deliver such a perfectly relevant ad when it detects unadulterated marketing BS on a company blog, maybe there is some hope for the BS detectors in consumers’ brains after all.

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