When deciding to purchase a new product or service, many consumers do their homework, diligently researching options and gathering information from several sources. While common sense says we are likely to consult an expert for details about a particular item, who we turn to for product advice is actually based on a combination of factors, says Professor Donald Lehmann.
Lehmann and coresearchers Jacob Goldenberg, Daniela Shidlovski and Michal Master Barak from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem were interested in finding out who is more appealing as an information source: experts, who have knowledge about technical information such as product features and attributes, or social connectors, who gather, from a large circle of acquaintances, information about product problems and usage experiences.
The researchers conducted a series of studies in which subjects received descriptions of either a radically or incrementally new product to purchase for their jobs — for example, a keyboard that recognizes finger movement and transfers the movements into letters (radical) or a wave-shaped keyboard that enables faster typing (incremental). Subjects also received descriptions of a social connector and an expert they could confer with before deciding what to buy. They then rated the extent to which they wanted to consult with each person described and how helpful they expected the advice would be.
Contrary to the researchers’ expectations, subjects often preferred to consult with a social connector rather than an expert. While experts may have superior knowledge, they don’t always understand the problems everyday users face and may not speak a language laypeople can understand. “It is natural to want to talk to an expert about a new product or service,” Lehmann says. “If you require surgery, for instance, you want to see the top surgeon in the field, right? But the surgeon is not as good as a patient or someone who knows people who have had the surgery at explaining what your experience will really be like.”
The researchers also found that subjects’ preference for an expert or a social connector changed depending on the level of innovation of both the product and the consumer seeking advice.
For less-innovative products — an update of an existing product, for instance — people are more likely to seek information from an expert than a social connector. Because consumers already possess a basic understanding of the product, Lehmann explains, the additional information a social connector can offer will not be sufficient; they need details only an expert can provide.
Innovative consumers (early adopters who enjoy trying new products) consistently turn to experts for advice, regardless of the type of product they are considering or the type of information they are seeking, the researchers found. By contrast, noninnovators (consumers who are more concerned about how easily they can use a new product than what its most advanced features are) prefer to consult with socially connected individuals for radically new products but with experts for incrementally new products.
Noninnovators also changed their preferred advice sources depending on the type of information they sought. “A novice or noninnovative person wants to speak with a social connector about procedural issues, but they prefer talk to an expert about more technical details,” Lehmann says. Social connectors, he explains, can supply feedback from other users who, for instance, have learned to operate the touch pad on an iPhone; but for more complex tasks like transferring music files to the phone from a computer, even a noninnovator will need an expert because that task is likely beyond the scope of a social connector’s understanding.
Why explore these differences? In today’s Internet-driven society where constant access to a plethora of information is the norm, companies can benefit by determining who consumers depend upon when researching product decisions. “If a company trying to sell a new product knows where people seek advice and information about the product,” Lehmann says, “it can intervene in the process and raise its chances of success.”
Donald R. Lehmann is the George E. Warren Professor of Business in the Marketing Division at Columbia Business School.