Friday, July 9, 2010

Humble Comments on the Ego-Driven Internet

A few days ago I spotted this tweet from my “Twitmigo” Kathy Broniecki (aka @katbron):

I admit that, like most everyone, I gravitate to anything that tends to validate a point of view I already have. Sensing that was the case here, I clicked on the link.

For your convenience, here is the link without the shortened URL, so you can see the domain in advance:

The link leads to a blog post by Cory Treffiletti. And my expectations turned out to be completely wrong.

Based on the title of Cory's blog post, I was prepped and ready for some observations about how social media is turning out to be just high school writ large (like, globally), with an equivalent clique ecology. It turns out that the virtual manifestation of “social” is no different than the physical examples, be they social events, social circles, social networks or social stigmas: In all things social, there will be certain people who are gregarious, charming, amusing and persuasive…whose arrival will always be noticed and whose presence will dominate the conversation as the envious look on from the sidelines and murmur about what they said, what they did and where they’re going. And the rest pretty much go about their lives.

I was expecting to read about how the whole social media “guru” thing had produced an online community that resembled a giant digital cardboard box holding a very large litter of exuberant puppies, each one climbing all over the others in their individual attempts to get to the top of the pile and get our attention.

That title had me ready for Cory’s thoughts on how completely absorbed people have become with this notion of “thought leadership” and developing a “personal brand.” Quiz Time: Think of just about any product or service category and count how few brands hold significant market share. Think of most any field of endeavor or topic of interest and tally up how few people are widely regarded as real experts. Folks, the pyramid gets very narrow up near the top…and there’s just not room for all of you.

So, I guess those observations will have to be made by someone else.

All of which is not to say I didn’t appreciate Cory’s post. I was with him most of the way, in fact. I mean, no one I know would dismiss or even minimize the role of the ego in driving impulse purchases.

But here’s where I might part company (at least somewhat) with Cory:

The concept that "birds of a feather flock together" speaks directly to the fact that like-minded egos will likely engage in similar activities, and they want to know what everyone else is up to!...

…Sites like Blippy are simple and brilliant, because they project the ego of shopping from one consumer to another. People want to know what their friends are buying and why. It's a purely ego-driven experience, because everyone wants to be first!

If your friends are buying something, you tend to want to know what they're buying. This factor is also referred to as "keeping up with the Joneses." If they buy a nice car, you may want a nice car. If their Christmas lights are out of control but cool, yours will likely go big next year, too. It's simple human nature.

I’m not comfortable with how absolute these statements are. “Everyone wants to be first.” No, they don’t. The fabled “early adopters” all want to be first, yes…but waiting patiently behind them are millions of consumers who are quite comfortable with making a purchase only after a product is tested, refined…and the price has come down!

Not to be harsh here but...if someone is really all that wrapped up in what their peers are buying so they can run out and buy the same thing, I'm thinking the chances are pretty good they're in junior high.

Sure, “keeping up with the Joneses” has always been a factor with some (and always will be)....but I wonder how powerful that driver is today, two years into this Great Recession.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a long-standing and well-worn theory in marketing circles. But, rather conveniently, we tended to bend it just a little…and instead of showing a consumer moving on from basic needs to fulfill higher levels of need (self-esteem, creativity, morality) we used the model to explain that only after basic needs were met (which is to say, purchased) would the consumer consider buying something, well, optional.

There are many, many consumers out there who have taken a hard look at the way they used to spend money. Some are reacting out of concern for their future financial security. But for millions of others, the hard reality of a pay cut or a job loss has forced them to confront a very real situation in the present. Even those who are not tightening their belts have come to the conclusion that they’ve held a few too many yard sales over the years that were filled with items they simply had to have…and then rarely if ever used.

These folks are sitting in houses that are now worth much less than their mortgages, with garages full of vehicles that, through either leases or extended-length financing, are a category or two more upscale than they could really afford…and they’ve simply decided that their previous spending pattern—driven by ego—could not be sustained. Or even justified.

Many marketers have been saying the current conditions call for ad messages that focus on quality. But I’m not sure that’s the case here. While quality is an attribute that’s rarely off the mark (especially if, today, quality translates as long-lasting and reliable), my opinion is that in 2010 something can be of superb quality and still be seen by many to be frivolous. The way I see it, ad messages need to return to the basics of filling a need…and a real need, too, not a manufactured one (“Are you still using last year’s technology?”).

So I’m introducing Pool’s Corollary to Maslow’s Hierarchy:

In times of economic uncertainty and hardship, once basic material needs are met, a consumer is more likely to ask, “And isn’t that enough? Can't we stop? What else do I really need?”

1 comment:

Kathy B. said...

That's why I like you. You have an opinion - and it's always pretty darned intelligent! I can also relate to Pool's Corollary to Maslow's Hierarachy by asking myself - do I NEED this or do I WANT this - there is a difference today. Thanks Dave!