As we approach the holiday season, the familiar images show
groups of happy people socializing.
“However, a large number of people
will be facing the biggest shopping period of the year either alone or
feeling lonely – an important fact largely overlooked by both consumers
and the people who market to them.” – Baba
Shiv Marketing Professor Stanford
Graduate School of Business.
Shiv became interested in studying loneliness, or the sense of being
socially isolated, when he heard a statistic that stunned him: 25% of
people today say they are lonely, a percentage that’s higher than in
years past. “That’s so counterintuitive,” he says. “Because of social
media, you’d think people would be saying they’re less lonely than
before the technology existed.”
As someone who studies consumer behavior, Shiv naturally turned to the
question of how loneliness affects buying decisions.
In a recent study,
which he conducted with colleagues from the business schools of the
University of Iowa and the University of British Columbia, the
researchers looked at what sort of movie lonely people would choose to
rent from Netflix. They showed participants a picture of a DVD case
along with a description of the movie and a rating, supposedly the
average of past viewers’ reviews.
One randomly selected group saw
information for a movie with a Netflix rating of 2.5 stars (or slightly
below the midpoint on the site’s 5-star scale). The other group saw
information about exactly the same movie, but were told that its rating
was 3.5 stars, a tad higher than the midpoint. After evaluating how much
they would like the film and how likely they were to rent it, all the
participants completed a standard loneliness questionnaire.
Most people, not surprisingly, said they would like to see the
higher-rated movie. But intriguingly, just the opposite was true for
those who scored on the lonely end of the loneliness scale: lonely
participants actually favored the 2.5-star film.
The Netflix study was inconclusive
because 2.5 stars can mean quite different things. It’s possible that a
movie earned that average because it’s loved by a significant minority,
in the way of a cult film; but it could simply be a mediocre movie,
rated below average by just about everyone.
Shiv and his colleagues ran
more experiments and found results that matched the first
Despite what the loneliness questionnaires show about people’s private
feelings, few are willing to publicly admit to their loneliness. This
may be one reason marketers seem to underestimate the prevalence of the
Online marketers, on the other
hand, can customize their message based on browsing patterns and
purchase histories. Personalized messages, such as “People like you
bought this product” – something the Amazons and Netflixes are already
doing across the board, will work especially well for lonely consumers.