At Waitrose, a British supermarket chain, three clear plastic bins sit at the front of the store, in which there are varying numbers of green plastic tokens. As customers pay for their groceries, they are given a couple of tokens to place into the bin of their choice. Each token adds to the amount of money Waitrose will donate to the charity indicated atop each bin: viable candidates include Age Concern, children’s health initiatives and food drives. It’s a simple, effective way to let customers choose how a small percentage of their grocery spend will be donated to charity, but it is also an exercise in psychology.
Last weekend, standing in line at a Waitrose in Surbiton, I watched how people dealt with their tokens. No one wants to stand and ponder a decision such as in which bin to place a couple of pieces of plastic for too long: one, everyone knows that their token alone adds up to pennies, not pounds; and two, choosing carefully between a soup kitchen and an old people’s home would mess with your head.
Despite the theory that Brits enjoy cheering on the underdog, people most often placed their tokens in the bin that already contained the most.
Surely, I thought, the most popular bin must be inherently superior to the other two. Perhaps the emptiest one was a beer fund for Kingston University students. However, as it turned out, the charities were very evenly matched. There was no reason whatsoever why people should choose one over the others. Apart from how popular one appeared to be.
A relatively basic rule of marketing, played out in an English supermarket. It’s typical human nature, when faced with a fast choice, to go with the one others appear to have made before you, and yet a lot of people in marketing appear to have forgotten this.
Instead, many people have become interested in conversations, a word meant only to test who has the weakest gag reflex. Companies are now advised to converse with and empower people instead of appealing to their primitive instincts. It’s cute and it makes you feel less like joining groups like , but it’s also less profitable. In addition, less-obvious forms of marketing fly so far under the radar that even marketers fall for them.
One could fill libraries with blog posts and articles about marketing tactics, and the illusion of popularity is just one of them. People are taken in by this every day: take Naymz, a social connection site a la LinkedIn, which has been around for years. I’ve received dozens of Naymz connection requests in the past two weeks because some genius in the SEO world decided that it was important. The cumulative effect of receiving more and more connection requests is that people think the service is important. The more people fall for this, the more new people receive invitations and requests. And the more important Naymz seems.
Offline, people line up outside bars with the longest lines. Does it ever occur to club owners to hire thirty people to stand outside their doors on a Friday night in order to make the place look more popular than it really is? Is this perhaps a relatively standard practice?
In my time at SEOmoz, I noticed that posts receiving an initial rush of ‘thumbs up’ would invariably receive more over time than posts whose initial rate of upward votes was lower. Two posts of equal quality that received the same number of comments and similar feedback could receive vastly different numbers of votes. The same was true for thumbs down: a downwards vote in a post’s infancy paved the way for more in days to come. I wondered what the result would be given two different tests:
- Artificially inflate the number of up-votes on a new post that was deliberately mediocre in quality. Test 1.1 could involve artificially thumbing-down a very good post, but creating mediocre content is generally easier
- Keep the voting system, but remove the cumulative votes on a post so that people were essentially voting blindly.
Of course, we never did this: the effort involved would probably have only led to more theories about a theory. However, the initial test of inflating perceived popularity would be quite easy to implement and quite difficult for a reader to detect.
Because appearing to be popular results in being popular, people engage in low-rent versions of this all the time. The relatively annoying thing is that even pathetic moves often work well. Similar to the phenomenon I call the Emperor’s New Blog Post, convincing people that something is desirable is only about making it appear sought after. Even those of us involved in marketing seem to be way more susceptible to suggestion than we think.
Thumbs-up imagery from SEOmoz.