Imagery and research

consumer empowerment, the Web, and the holy grail

Listened to a presentation just the other day that touched the ubiquous concept of "consumer empowerment". It must be ten years since I wrote my two cents take on this. And it's all still relevant, I gather.

"Consumer empowerment" is a marketing buzzword for the general shift that's taking place in business. Consumers are becoming (or are they?) more empowered, that is, we as consumers are supposed to have more power of the corporate world than before.

The first times I came across this issue, was in the late nineties. I was then doing research on consumers' information online seeking, and much of the hype associated with consumer empowerment was then a bit over the top. And it still is.

Sorry folks. I'm as much a tech geek as anyone else. I spend more time online than in any social IRL setting. My leisure consists of setting up a unix file server for backing up all the home computers. Or fine tuning my summer house's bridged wlan. But I'm still quite sceptical as to "consumer empowerment" will really, and I mean really happen.

Let me elaborate. Consumer empowerment was first touted as something that happens because consumers have the world of information at their fingertips. Yes, I know the web hosts a lot of information, and useful information too. Still, I'm afraid there are some problems in this line of reasoning:
  1. The logic assumes that the presence of information = access to information
  2. It also assumes that access to information = willingness to use the information
As a consumer researcher, I got to point out that there is really very little historical evidence to support these assumptions. Let's begin with #2. In a historical perspective, consumers' biggest problem has rarely been the absence of information. To sum up some decades of consumer decision making research in a very non-academic manner:
  • Most consumers did (do) very little information seeking, even for purchases that apparently involve high stakes (car, housing).
  • Consumers seeking the least information were the ones who would have benefited the most from the search (poorer, less educated etc.)
  • Even in the pre-web decades, there always was information available to the consumer who sought it - consumer reports, social sources etc.
  • Information seeking takes place through a trade-off, comparing the benefits of seeking (will I get a better price) with the costs of search (time, mostly).
While there is a lot of information that the consumer may access through the web, previous evidence is not very encouraging. You could argue that with the Web, the information is easier to access since it is all in your laptop or your handheld. But. Previous evidence suggests that consumers do not really consider mosts purchases as very relevant. This is the biggest problem in the logic. The web might be the panacea that would really turn the tables and empower consumers with complete information. But then, what if, consumers by and large weren't really very interested in the information?

This is pretty much what we know of consumers in the offline era. Human behavior tends to change very slowly.

Going back to argument #1: As any experienced user can attest, the Web is really a mess. It was never designed as an easy-to-use information repository. The structure, or lack of structure in information is really quite a problem for even experienced seekers. I wrote about this in lenght in my Ph.D. Thesis in 2003. Maybe I'll post the key findings as well.

Anyway, the potholes on the way from presence to access are:
  • Finding a specific piece of information on the web can be really difficult unless the consumer is very good in online search. Casual searches can be very frustrating, and even daunting in the consumers I've studied.
  • Most consumer information problems are not very specific, but tend to be dynamically constructed open-ended information tasks. There are still not very many consumer-oriented services that serve information with this in mind. And no, linux forums do not qualify.
  • If you assume that the mass of consumers, not the tech geeks, search elite, or the like, were really to have complete access to online information, we'd really be talking about the next Google, the next XML or something in that ballpark.
And all of this would still assume that the consumer really had the motivation to spend time in shifting through all of the information.

I've figured most of the people really raving about consumer empowerment are Web-savvy people, expert users, and online natives. For us, this is probably true - at least to some extent. But the masses of consumers? Your mother, your grandmother?
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