Illusions of Popularity and the Waitrose Token Effect

Mar 17

thumbs up

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:

  1. 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 ;)
  2. 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.

14 Responses to “Illusions of Popularity and the Waitrose Token Effect”

  1. Tim Staines says:

    I agree with your analysis in principle, however, having not been to the Waitrose in Surbiton I would guess that the exit door is to the left of the token collection bins. If that is the case, the main factor for determining where the chips are placed might have more to do with pure laziness.
    I would imagine that people will generally look to get rid of their chips as soon as they can and since the right container is the first one they would pass, this container gets the most chips.
    The chips had to start at an even level, so the volume of accumulation over time has to have started (and probably continued) based on a more basic factor like ease of access. The same principles apply to the benefits received by products with priority shelf placement. Much less to do with a brand decision and more to do with grabbing whatever is closest to you.

  2. Jane says:

    I’d agree with you, but the picture isn’t from Surbiton: it’s a random one I found on Flickr :)

  3. Mike says:

    Ahem, not to be a know-it-all, I-have-no-life-so-I-read-everything-on-Hacker-news kind of guy, but pretty much nails the “thumbs up momentum” stuff.

    “Actually, if you believe Watts, the world isn’t just complex–it’s practically anarchic. In 2006, he performed another experiment that chilled the blood of trendologists. Trends, it suggested, aren’t merely hard to predict and engineer–they occur essentially at random.

    Watts wanted to find out whether the success of a hot trend was reproducible. For example, we know that Madonna became a breakout star in 1983. But if you rewound the world back to 1982, would Madonna break out again? To find out, Watts built a world populated with real live music fans picking real music, then hit rewind, over and over again. Working with two colleagues, Watts designed an online music-downloading service. They filled it with 48 songs by new, unknown, and unsigned bands. Then they recruited roughly 14,000 people to log in. Some were asked to rank the songs based on their own personal preference, without regard to what other people thought. They were picking songs purely on each song’s merit. But the other participants were put into eight groups that had “social influence”: Each could see how other members of the group were ranking the songs.

    Watts predicted that word of mouth would take over. And sure enough, that’s what happened. In the merit group, the songs were ranked mostly equitably, with a small handful of songs drifting slightly lower or higher in popularity. But in the social worlds, as participants reacted to one another’s opinions, huge waves took shape. A small, elite bunch of songs became enormously popular, rising above the pack, while another cluster fell into relative obscurity.

    But here’s the thing: In each of the eight social worlds, the top songs–and the bottom ones–were completely different. For example, the song “Lockdown,” by 52metro, was the No. 1 song in one world, yet finished 40 out of 48 in another. Nor did there seem to be any compelling correlation between merit and success. In fact, Watts explains, only about half of a song’s success seemed to be due to merit. “In general, the ‘best’ songs never do very badly, and the ‘worst’ songs never do extremely well, but almost any other result is possible,” he says. Why? Because the first band to snag a few thumbs-ups in the social world tended overwhelmingly to get many more. Yet who received those crucial first votes seemed to be mostly a matter of luck.”

  4. randfish says:

    Oh man, I really miss you blogging on SEOmoz :-) I got to the bottom and was looking for a way to thumb this up…

    Definitely agree that popularity is a self-reinforcing phenomenon. Just look at celebrity culture, which defines popularity by the completely arbitrary metric of “fame” rather than accomplishments, achievement, quality or value. Popularity itself inspires additional popularity (or at least, that’s what those of us who were geeks in high school tell ourselves so we can make it through the day).

  5. Jane says:

    @Mike Fantastic example; thanks. I like the point about awful songs (products, content, etc) never doing extremely well, and fantastic songs never doing very badly. I expect that artificially inflating the Kingston University beer fund wouldn’t do all that much to boost its popularity as a charity!

    @Rand I put the thumbs voting at the top this time ;)

  6. Dr. Pete says:

    Great point. Coincidentally, I made a comment the other day and, just to illustrate the point, thumbed myself down, so it was at -1. Before I knew it, 4 other people had thumbed me down. I don’t think they even read it, but that -1 count was just too powerful.

  7. Kalena says:

    Lovely analogy and what a great idea re tokens. Wish they’d do that here in Enzed. Flattered that I’m in your links of friends list :-)

  8. Tim Staines says:

    Damn that Flickr! Always bailing bloggers out of pictureless posts . . .

    Where was the most popular bin in your store relative to checkouts and exit?

    Both hypotheses back up the same general principle of human nature . . . people would rather not make an educated decision for themselves when they can just take the easy way out.

    Why do most of us web marketers put big ass calls to action wherever they will fit? . . . Because some significant percentage of users will let us make their decision for them, without reading what we have on the page.

  9. Nick says:

    While I agree with your primciple I don’t think the charity bins in waitrose support your argument. Like you, I’ve been intrigued by how people interact with them. Having montiored the bins in my local waitrose for a number of weeks now, the most popular charity is always the animal one, then kids, then old people. This never changes. while we may think these types of charities are equally deserving, a cute picture of a puppy gets ‘em every time. So maybe the best basic rule of markeitng would be – always show a puppy?

  10. Jane says:

    @Nick Again, I’d agree, but the old people’s charity had the most tokens :)

  11. evilgreenmonkey says:

    What’s with the serious blog posts, I thought we agreed on this site being pointless ranting? You’re showing me and my annually updated blog up now. Please see me after class.

  12. Ciarán says:

    “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?”

    No, standard practice is to make people sit at tables by the window and make people queue outside even when it’s not that busy inside.

    (I actually always have a very quick think about what bin to put my token in. Bizarrely, whilst Waitrose is undoubtedly one of the ‘good guys’ the fact that they ‘only’ give out £1k a month at my branch makes this feel a bit like a stunt – I’d guess that branch makes that amount (profit) a day…

  13. Jane says:

    @Rob I won’t do it again.

    @Ciaran Funny how so many people fall for the ‘we’re so charitable’ lines to, isn’t it…

  14. g1smd says:

    *** I’d guess that branch makes that amount (profit) a day… ***

    More likely, several times that per hour.