Consumer Psychology Isn't Always Complicated

Many levels of marketing fascinate me, but the psychology underlying consumer behavior is probably the most compelling. To some degree, I think that all successful marketers are students of human psychology. I have worked in advertising for a few global brands. In strategizing the direction for TV spots or direct mail campaigns, we sat in huge conference rooms after months of conducting live (yes in-person) focus groups to get into the minds and wallets of consumers — and, it should be said, to validate how much of our clients’ money was spent on them. Still, no matter how much qualitative data we amassed, nor how many creative concepts were presented, our final direction was mostly conjecture — though, we didn’t share that with our client.

There was an enormous disconnect between what happened in those conference rooms and focus groups and what happened in the marketplace. We’d buy up some media spots, run our campaigns, and generate some reports that were, again, based on loosely correlated data.



Today I am a marketer at a software company. We develop referral software that essentially automates one of the oldest and most successful forms of selling — asking people who like what you sell to give you names of people they know who might like your stuff too. There’s not a whole lot of complicated psychology at play here. We trust people we know.

Still, many marketers want to find a deeper level of motivation behind this “phenomenon.” I spend time every day reading marketing and sales blogs — especially those that focus on referral and reference marketing — and every day I come across smart, educated marketers hoping to complicate this idea of referral marketing simply to unveil a groundbreaking psychological finding about what makes referrals so revolutionary.

Just this week, I was presented with all sorts of theses. Here are just a few:

“Susie Consumer shares her brand experiences because she has an emotional need to be heard.”

“Bob Buyer asks for purchasing advice because he has a general distrust of information provided by people he’s never met.”

“Human nature drives consumers’ universal need to be seen as an authority.”

Now, with all due respect, I’d ask the reader to consider George Orwell’s “theory” (born of many similar theories through history) of “Reality Control.” Essentially, Orwell posits that governments are guilty of creating chaos or confusion simply in order to solve it. Propaganda. Denial of objective reality. Keeping people confused so that they will buy your solution.

But I’m saying there’s nothing complicated about it. When consumers share content, ask for or provide referrals, or reference positive or negative experiences, there doesn’t have to be some deep, complicated, sub-consciously motivated reason.  

 People share opinions and make recommendations for all the same reasons they always have — because humans like to be social; because we like to share good and bad experiences so that we can help others have or avoid the same ones; because we’re bored; because we will get something in return if we do. This is consumer psychology but it isn’t particularly advanced, and we don’t need focus groups or infographics to prove it to us. We don’t have to sort through disparate data to arrive at a strategy.

So here is my groundbreaking opinion based on very little research at all: referral marketing works because people share things that they like. Today referral marketing works even better because it can be digitized and automated and tracked and managed and all kinds of cool stuff. If you’re a brand looking for something more psychologically or empirically sound than that, you can always run some focus groups or develop a couple multimillion-dollar ad campaigns and mull over the data for a few months in a big conference room.

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