Behavior Is All That Matters

What people actually do, vs. what they say they’ll do. (from: https://whatsthepont.com/)

Throughout the business world, we measure and pay attention to a lot of different things. There are entire industries built around understanding beliefs, attitudes, and sentiment. Market research firms collectively spend $44 billion globally trying to determine whether or not people are ready for an extra crispy potato chip, or whether or not people look upon electric cars with fondness or fear.

While I don’t think that all of this work is wasteful, I believe that much of it is — for one simple reason: it’s not measuring the real, important thing. It’s not measuring behavior.

Sure, it’s measuring a predisposition to do something, and that’s helpful, but wouldn’t it be so much better to just look at the actual thing? At the end of the day, we care about people buying extra crispy potato chips and driving electric cars, not how they feel about them (and what they believe about them). If we want to be practical, and get real results, we should measure sales-related behaviors and look at what people are currently *doing*, not what they’re thinking. And we should base our decisions on this hard behavioral data.

So, in the case of potato chips, we should look at:

  • What snack-foods people are buying
  • What an average grocery basket looks like
  • Where people are shopping

We *shouldn’t* look at:

  • Interviews/quotes from consumers (in which they describe what they like and why they like it)
  • Sentiment/survey data on how people “feel” about different things
  • Market research on common beliefs and attitudes related to our fie

At this point you may think I’m being overly dogmatic. I don’t fault you for that. I would have thought the same thing if I had read this a decade ago, before I studied neuroscience and did a deep dive into human cognition. However, the research I’ve done, and the business experience I’ve had in the intervening decade, has convinced me that self-report and subjective assessments need to be thrown out of the business decision making process. And attitudes and beliefs are the end-product, the distilled essence, of research techniques that are used rampantly throughout the business world — and every company you see on the Fortune 500 list is paying firms billions of dollars for this data that is, at best, interesting and, at worst, misleading.

Instead of looking at this self-reported information, we should be working hard to put a version of the product or service we want into the world; so we can see whether or not people will *actually* use it. Thinking about creating an extra crispy potato chip? Create a small batch of the product and rent a bunch of food carts at community fairs and farmers markets. See how well they sell. Give out samples and then ask people if they want a full bag for $1.50 (or whatever the price is). That’s a real test.

Are you creating a social network for dog fanatics? First create a Facebook group and invite all of the dog fanatics that you know. Perhaps you think that your new network’s secret sauce will be exclusive content from well-known experts in the dog world. Reach out to 10 of your favorite dog experts and get one of them to agree to posting a video exclusively for your group. Pay them a few hundred dollars if you need to. See how the group reacts to it. Do they love it? Are they asking if they can share it with friends? If not, maybe you need to rethink the key value proposition in your app.

There’s always a way to test the behavior you want your prospective users/customers to do. But it often takes a bit of creativity (and a bit of work).

In 2015, companies spent $44 billion globally on market research (which is the industry that does the surveying and interviewing I’ve mentioned throughout the article). In the same year, venture capitalists deployed $128.6 billion globally on thousands of startups actively trying to determine, through testing consumer *behavior*, whether or not people would actually use a certain product or service. This means that more than 1/3rd of the amount of money that went into global venture capital funding (in a record year), was used by mid-and-large size companies to determine, through surveys, interviewing, etc., whether or not people were maybe, potentially, going to use some new product or service they were pondering.

It would have been a much better use of money to use those same funds to devise and run actual tests for each of these new concepts. They should’ve taken that $44 billion and seed-funded groups of people (inside or outside the company) willing to create prototypes of the product or service they were pondering. While most of these projects would have ended up being failures, the companies abiding by this strategy would at least have had a real measure of whether their new ideas had any real legs. People will say anything. But what they’ll do — that’s a different story.

And in the end, it’s the behavior that matters.


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