Behavioral Insider: What life events have the most effect on buying behaviors and media usage?
Joseph Pilotta: We do a syndicated study every six months on simultaneous media usage of 15,000 people. The big life events we looked at were children starting college, expecting a baby, getting married, getting divorced or separated, and retiring. These aren't the only ones, but they happen to be ones in which we felt there is potential for changes in purchasing behavior. We tried to see if that meant there was also some relationship to how media are used by various segments and perhaps in that transitional period.
BI: Other than obviously needing more goods for changes like marriage, is there some deeper need to buy stuff during periods of change?
Pilotta: [Life events] are disruptions in principle. These are transitional moments. You stabilize transitional events by trying to anchor yourself with things that make you secure. In our world, you concretely rearrange your life so you can see the change. For some empty-nesters, the only way they can manage that change is to move literally into another house to stabilize that transitional effect. We have a consumptive way of operating when it comes to these transitions, but they help stabilize our environment
BI: How does that translate into changes in media usage?
Pilotta: As that transition gets heightened, we have seen in all our research that media consumption goes up. They not only spend more time but they indicate more media influencing them differently. We see more people are looking at TV commercials. There's a heightened attention to media, and more media come into play. As soon as people purchase, their media consumption habits go down. People become more attentive to all forms of media because they are looking for how to stabilize their environment.
BI: How do these patterns change when marriage is approaching, beyond the obvious like getting a ring and dress?
Pilotta: The funny part is that in getting married and getting divorced, four of the five items being purchased were the same. When getting married, we found the No. 1 thing that people looked for was furniture, which is not unexpected. Second was a vacation. Third was a computer, then TV, then home appliances. The computer is the new fixture with everybody. Anchoring the household now is essentially TV and computer, as opposed to TV being the centralizing feature. There was always a media that anchored the house and now we have two anchors. The computer was higher on the list than TV.
BI: Are there specific media usage patterns happening during the events?
Pilotta: Yes and they were different. We found across the board that word of mouth became the highest rated medium. Here is where theory comes into play. We see the notion of word of mouth as part of the ongoing connectivity of online or blogging or text messaging or IMing. That connectivity translates highly into word of mouth.
We found for electronics that the second most important was Internet advertising. That is a very interesting find because online advertising is very prominent in almost every category. However, the surprising thing was in the home improvement and car purchase segment, TV came in second, which is totally different from the normal expectations. For those not in transition, we would not find TV so high....
We found [those in transition] shifted patterns, and TV went up where magazines and newspapers fell to the bottom of the top five. There is a greater focus on word of mouth and the TV in these life-transition stages. Then it was anchored by Internet advertising. But the heightened attention to TV was surprising.
BI: Were there unexpected affinities among life events and consumer behaviors?
Pilotta: Getting married and getting divorced involved the same top four purchases. The only difference was number five: in marriage it was home appliances, and in divorce it was a digital camera. There was an interesting affinity between children starting college and retiring. The first four in order were vacation, computer, furniture, home improvement. It only varied on the fifth item, which was a new car when children started college and home appliances for retirement.
BI: How can online marketers make the best use of this knowledge?
Pilotta: This is where online marketers have a great advantage,. They can become the surrogate advisor to people during these life events. That is where the online people need to build. They can build communities. Social networking now becomes a surrogate advisor to actually allow people to understand what they may need, or anticipate what they may need, during these transition periods.
Marketers could utilize this to help people through these life events. Help them anticipate what they need and in the price range they can afford. We have wedding registries. I think marketers could build life event registries. We already have marital registries. If you are having children and starting college, there might be a registry to sign up with.