Consent Preferences

Tell Me What I Want To Hear

Jeff Robbins
November 17, 2016
6 minute read
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The election reminded me of something I learned long ago.

Is there anything we can take away from the 2016 election process that can be instructive to our businesses? I believe so. Don’t worry, this post is completely non-political so feel free to read on without having to be concerned about whether you’ll want to hug me or hit me.

Early in my career, I moderated a focus group for a consumer packaged goods company that didn’t turn out as the client had planned. The subject of the research was a new product that the company was introducing and the goal of the session was to validate the likely success of the product with the target audience. The participants in the group had been recruited based on very specific demographic and product usage criteria; specifications that had been set by the client. After about 30 minutes, it was clear that these people really did not like the new product. Out of the 12 people in the room, only 1 had had anything positive to say up to that point. Just then, there was a knock on the door and the receptionist came in and handed me a note- it asked me to excuse myself and step outside for a moment, which I did.

Waiting for me outside was the lead client; the man who had commissioned the research and who was watching with a sizable group of colleagues from behind the two-way mirror. He dressed me down, asking where we found this group of “morons” and told me that I need to make sure that the one dissenter who liked the product got more talk time for the balance of the session. I returned to the group room and did my best to try to make the client happy, yet also salvage some semblance of the principles of good research practice. It was not a shining moment in my career, but one that stuck with me as important and instructive.

Why tell that story here? The client from that focus group wasn’t interested in research; he only wanted validation of decisions that had already been made. He only wanted to hear what he wanted to hear. In the election, as we all know, there was a big divide in how the country felt about the 2 major party candidates. It was an ugly, super-negative campaign season, with a lot of bad feelings, news stories, and disinformation to go around. However, because of the way our society now consumes news, many voters were not exposed to fair and balanced news reporting; they heard what they wanted to hear.

The concept of a news source or outlet in 2016 is vastly different than it was just a few years ago. Not only have many mainstream/traditional media sources changed to reflect more editorial bias, but there now exists a plethora of digital media outlets, some serving up fake and/or misleading news, and most from polarized viewpoints masked by thinly veiled news wrappers.

The proliferation of these sites has occurred because of the incredible reach of social media and the mechanisms social media outlets employ to display content to users. According to a study earlier this year by the Pew Research Center, 62% of US adults consume news on social media. The largest social media outlet is Facebook, which is used by 67% of American adults daily, of whom 44% use it to get news. Think about this- more adults in the US use Facebook every day than voted in the election. Facebook’s reach is staggering; it is more pervasive than any other media outlet in history, by far. But here’s where it gets tricky with regard to news; each user’s newsfeed is filled algorithmically with content based on their Facebook and other web using habits; posts they’ve liked and/or shared, articles they’ve read, web sites they’ve visited, things they’ve shopped for, ads they’ve clicked, etc. Certainly one of the goals of this practice is to sell users more products and services that they may be interested in, but users are also seeing a preponderance of information, news, and fake news that is similar (both in content and from sources) to that which they’ve already seen and the algorithm has determined they may be interested in. The result is that users see and hear more of what they’ve demonstrated what they’ve wanted to see and hear in the past. Clearly, this had an impact on the election, as a significant portion of the electorate was informed through a biased lens, knowingly or not. Measuring that impact is extremely difficult and beyond the scope of this post- Google “social media impact on election” if you’d like to go down that rabbit hole.

Ok, so where’s the business lesson in this? Well, go back to the focus group story. The end of that story is that the product was introduced…and failed spectacularly. Had the client been fully invested in doing true research- and listened to everyone in that room, the outcome could have been different.

My point is that it’s useful and important to hear what you may not want to hear in order to be best informed. For any business, managers should understand the perspective of all of its customers, whether that view is favorable or not. I continue to be surprised by business operators who don’t continually seek the customer viewpoint, instead either relying on sporadic anecdotal feedback, testimonials, or taking a look at the deeply flawed sampling of online review sites and applying their own calculus to filter who’s worth listening to. In essence, these managers are purposefully hearing only what they want to hear.

And so the business takeaway, for me, from the election is that we should proactively gather information across a spectrum of sources in order to make better informed decisions . All businesses should be asking every customer to provide their feedback, respectfully and concisely. Being offered the opportunity to share feedback is an expected part of the customer experience in 2016. There are now tools available to make it simple and affordable for every sized business to seamlessly and effortlessly make collecting, tracking, and deriving actionable data from customer feedback part of the daily routine.

As always, please feel free to contact me to share your opinion on this or to discuss further. Happy Thanksgiving!

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