I try to be a smarty-pants every now and then.

I satisfy my aspirations of intellectual elitism by choosing to read intentionally lofty articles on HBR with the mindset of “I didn’t go to Harvard, but I go to their business review site.” This month, it led me to click on an article under the category of emotional intelligence and promised to outline research on consumer’s reaction to missing information.

The article begins with a supposition: consumers (and what the authors call “citizens of the internet”) should react negatively and reject products or service providers that intentionally omit critical details, especially those that are negative in nature. One example they provide is the doctor who omits patient mortality in an online profile. The theory outlined by the researchers is that consumers should inherently be suspicious of the omission, noticing that other physicians had noted their patients’ mortality rates and, therefore, the doctor who omitted the detail would raise a flag and would be rejected. 

The authors state, “Sometimes what is not said is at least as important as what is said.” Then came the big question: “How do consumers react when marketers withhold information that would be relevant to their decisions?”

Game theorists have long studied how the “game” of communication and disclosure should play out between consumers and marketers, and how consumers should interpret missing information (i.e., information that is withheld by marketers). They have theorized that, through a process known as information unraveling, consumers will catch on when information is being withheld from them and make smart inferences about what that means.”

Their theory was that consumers would actually be “deaf to marketers’ silence.” Then, they started their research…game theory and “information unraveling” be damned. They learned that consumers did not, in fact, immediately identify the omission. They lamented that consumers should be more leery of the missing detail left out by marketers.

But despite the elegant and logical predictions of game theory, we can’t count on people to notice or make the correct inferences about missing information. Even if they do notice nondisclosure, it might not occur to them that the salesperson or marketer may have something sinister to hide unless the nondisclosure is strongly flagged.

You read that correctly…marketers may have something sinister to hide. Sinister. I never thought of marketers as the fixers of (insert air quotes here) sinister details. But as I think of it now, all I can picture is the witch in Snow White…hunched over and grotesque, shoving the gleaming apple in the direction of her innocent victim. 

In truth, “sinister” is exactly how a great number of people outside of marketing think of our trade. We spin, we omit, we take the best and highlight it while burying the worst under a mountain of jargon. But there is something that these researchers failed to realize in their quest to apply game theory to consumer behavior:

1. Consumers never do what you expect them to do. This is exactly what makes being a marketer in the age of digital and the customer experience so challenging/exciting. You craft a campaign in order for a customer to turn left, only to realize that half of them turned right while another quarter took an entirely different road altogether.

2. Consumers don’t just consume in one dimension anymore. They don’t just read a doctor’s profile and make a decision. They go online. They ask friends. They are more skeptical of consumers’ negative reviews on Yelp than they are of what marketers dream up. This, again, is something that any marketer working in today’s social era understands. In this world of build-your-own customer journeys, marketers can no longer assume that what we post is the only stop in the decision-making process.

3. Consumer response to a survey doesn’t always align with behaviors in the real world. This is something we have all had to learn in stunning reality. The focus group that seems thrilled at green ketchup doesn’t actually buy it. The survey panel that unanimously says they hate the color blue then takes to social to launch boycott campaigns because blue is not included in color options. How consumers react in the comfort of their homes while taking an online poll in order to get a Starbucks card doesn’t necessarily reflect their actions in the wild. Consumers are fickle and often make decisions in the time it takes for their hands to leave their side and land on a package on the shelf. This is why so many brand marketers focus on their responsiveness to major cultural trends and how those trends can be reflected on store shelves.

In the end, the researchers resolve that in order to save consumers from the evil empire known as marketers, “those selling goods and services should be mandated to disclose any information that is relevant and valuable to consumers’ decision making, unless there is a simple way to flag deliberate non-disclosure.”

Instead, I offer this: Rather than trying to apply game theory to consumer behavior, understand that marketers are not actually out to play a game, to manipulate for a sinister purpose, or to mislead or otherwise coerce for fun. Perhaps we can look at the underlying truth that these consumers shared in the course of the researcher’s experiments: Consumers want to trust and believe in what they research and find online.

We, as marketers, have a responsibility to give customers what they expect and want in a way that matches our brand to a customer’s interest or desire. Anything beyond that is truly a game that we should just not play.

  • Marketing
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