Understanding How Consumers Communicate

Filed Under: Best Practices, Market Research, Communicating Effectively, Qualitative Research


Bob Relihan

If you want to understand consumers, you have to know how they communicate. Pew has just released a report that is another bit of evidence that people are communicating more fluidly and less linearly. In other words, writing is being displaced, at least partly, by non-verbal means.

Pew finds that 46% of internet users post original photos or videos online and that 41% post photos or videos they find elsewhere on the internet. A majority, 56% do one or the other, and a third of internet users do both. To be sure, some of this activity is no different than the sharing of vacation photos that has go on since the first Brownie. But the ubiquity and frequency of photo sharing makes a normal and expected form of behavior and communication.

When my niece posts a picture on Facebook of a dog and a cat sleeping together, she is certainly saying, “Look at this; aren’t they cute.” But by displaying that picture publically where all her friends can see it, she has created a badge. The picture speaks to her feelings, beliefs and values. Moreover, she apparently feels no need to explain the values communicated in the picture. I am guessing that she thinks they are self-evident. I am also guessing that she actually could not explain them fully.

The more people create visual badges for themselves on the Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, and the like, the less willing and able they will be to articulate the meanings and values those badges express.

This trend has profound implications for those of us who wish to understand what consumers communicate.

  • If we wish to engage consumers and provide them with an opportunity to express what they believe or feel about their lives and our products, we will need to provide them with a space to express themselves visually. Simply asking questions with room for either structure or unstructured responses will not be sufficient.
  • Visual communications will be the “new normal.” Those of us, and I am one, who have tacked projective exercises onto our group interviews in an effort to “dig deeper” will need to recognize that these visual activities may well be the first and only shovels available. They are not extra; they are central.
  • And, if consumers are communicating visually rather than verbally, we need to understand the meaning of the different badges and images they use. The more consumers use these images, the more these meanings will be unique and less susceptible to being “translated” into conventional language. If I want to explain to you what my niece is thinking, my only means may well be showing you that picture of the dog and cat.

This will be a new world of research, and I am looking forward to engaging it.

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