Deciding through Consensus

We spend an awful lot of time in the advertising business trying to get at the truth. Generally, these are truths about products and brands –

and more often than not these truths are what people think about the product or brand rather than what is factually correct.

Think about Coke and Pepsi. They’re essentially the same product – so much so that if I poured you a glass of each and a glass of a store brand cola, you couldn’t even tell the difference. But people often define themselves as Coke people or Pepsi people, just look at how viciously customers defend their favourite cola in the Pepsi Challenge.

We’ve always defined our truths (product or otherwise) by consensus. Most of us don’t believe in Santa Claus anymore, but ask any seven year old whether or not he exists, and you’ll probably get a resounding “yes!” This is the power of consensus. We often think that something is true because the vast majority of our peer group also believes it.

Today, we have more access to consensus than ever before, and this means some very exciting things for our pursuit of important truths about one another. Humanity produces over 400 million tweets per day, and all these thoughts, opinions and ideas are being tabulated and counted by a number of researchers using social media to answer some of the world’s most interesting questions about human nature, with the ultimate goal of discovering how we become who we are.

Take the Twitter Index for example (Twindex, for short), which has been set up to count the number of positive and negative tweets about the American presidential candidates for this year’s election. Despite only 33% of the world’s Twitter users being American, the results recorded by the worldwide Twindex follow the official Gallup polls results incredibly closely. Twitter’s consensus is clearly close to the facts.

But social media represents more than a place to find out who is going to be the next leader of the free world. Researchers at Cornell University are using social media to study the effects of homophily – the fact that people associate with others who generally hold the same views – on our population. Their goal is to answer one of the social sciences’ most important questions: do your preferences influence your friends’ preferences, or do people with similar interests just enjoy each others company more (the “birds of a feather flock together” argument). The answer could illuminate one of marketing’s most sought after answers – how important are other people in defining our choices? Do we really buy a jacket because Jay-Z wears the same one? Do I prefer Coke because my Dad does?

The answers to these questions could change the marketing world forever. For years we’ve tried to tell stories that generate preferences for certain things, and to get advocates to pass those preferences on to their friends and families. It’s the principle behind Old Spice’s viral marketing campaign, the Pepsi challenge, and nearly every other successful ad campaign in the world.

Just think of what we could do with a deeper understanding of how people relate to one another.

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