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"Why is he so stubborn?!": How understanding preference stability can benefit your business

We care about what consumers want, so we ask their preferences. But if you don't explore the stability of those preferences, you could be missing something. Some minds are more open to change than others, and those are the consumers you want when you're trying to win new business. Identify consumers who aren't interested in your product and whose preferences won't change; these are likely consumers who have experience in your category and are sure about what they like.

Some consumers won’t budge. They are immune to whatever you throw at them. You could provide great service, high-quality products, and strong brand messaging, but they aren’t interested. You could offer enticing promotions and discounts, yet they just won’t give.

This is extra frustrating when you’re offering exactly what a consumer says they need. Imagine Ryan. He’s been active his entire life. He played football in high school and college. Nowadays he runs, plays golf, and chops wood in his back yard to keep his core and upper body strong. Now, in his 50’s, Ryan is feeling his body slow down. His bad back makes chopping wood difficult. His bad knee makes running tough.

If you were to ask Ryan what he wants, he’d say that he wants an exercise that simulates chopping wood but without all the force. He’d say he’d like to improve his flexibility so he can play golf with less pain. He’d say he wants a low-impact cardio work-out so he won’t have to run.

The obvious solution to most people would be to join a gym. A gym has all the things Ryan wants, and Ryan knows this. As a football player, he spent countless hours at the gym lifting weights to stay strong and doing yoga to stay flexible. He even took aerobics classes to improve his agility on the field.

Although Ryan knows a gym is the answer, he still won’t join one. He won’t consider it even after his wife takes him to tour one. He won’t consider joining even after the sales guy offers him a one-week free pass and no sign-up fee - in addition to a free physical training session and free yoga classes. Regardless of all the perks, Ryan won’t budge.

What the heck is wrong with Ryan? If you’re not asking this, I bet his wife is. Not everyone is as steadfast as Ryan. A lot of people who don’t prefer the gym would join one if it's the best solution. Many people tried something they thought they wouldn’t like and ended up loving it. You’re probably one of those people. Was it sushi? Snowboarding? An art film? Preferences change. So why is Ryan being so… stubborn?!

This is an important question because of what it implies: if you only know about what consumers want in the moment, without asking how stable their preferences are, you could be missing something. Preference stability is an important thing to know about your target consumers. If you identify consumers who aren’t into your product or service, but whose preferences could change, you could be onto an opportunity.

Here’s one way to find out if a consumer’s preferences are stable: ask them about their prior experiences in your category. Not just how they’ve used products or services in your category, but also how (and how much) they’ve shopped around for them. Why? Because preferences are contextual: they depend on the information a person has at the time those preferences are formed. Experience informs us about the thing we’re experiencing (the gym), and it also informs us about ourselves (what we like at the gym). If we know something well, we are more likely to have firm opinions about it, and less likely to change our minds.

For example, someone who wants to join a gym but has never been in one will have a hard time telling you what they want. If you force them to tell you (which market research surveys do), they’ll choose something, but it’ll likely be just a guess. That guess is likely to change.

If you ask them again after they’ve toured a couple prospective gyms, considered options, and evaluated trade-offs, they’d probably have a better idea of what they want.

If you ask them again after they’ve trained for a few months, they’ll be much more certain about what they prefer. They’d have tried the weight machines and decided they like free weights better. They’d have tried the yoga classes and decided they can’t live without it. They’d have given every cardio machine a shot and decided that the elliptical is a must-have. Now, any gym they join must have these preferred features. You probably can’t convince this person to join a gym that has no free weights. They’ve been there, done that, and aren’t interested.

This is why Ryan isn’t into the gym. He’s been there and done that for years, both in high school and college. He learned back then that exercising indoors, in a closed space, surrounded by strangers, just isn’t for him. He doesn’t need to try that again. Ryan’s problem isn’t that he’s stubborn; his experiences have simply stabilized his preferences.

Preferences become established with more experience and more information. If you don’t know how involved a consumer has been in your category of business, or with a product or service like yours, then you can’t confidently rely on what they tell you they want. So be sure to ask. There may be more room for changing minds than you think.

It’s also worth noting that preference stability may have psychological explanations: some people are just more open-minded than others. Stay tuned for more on that next week.


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