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Consumer Insights. Market Innovation.

Rajan Sambandam

Rajan Sambandam

Chief Research Officer

There was a fascinating news item today on NPR about the use of text mining to understand something about a person’s private life. Ian Lancashire, Professor of English at the University of Toronto used text mining to study Agatha Christie’s novels. While he has done this with other authors before he came cross something particularly interesting in Agatha Christie’s 73rd novel.

Tagged in: Text Mining

Netflix Rental Patterns

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Have you ever been curious about the popularity of rental movies by neighborhood? The NY Times graphics department was and they got movie rental data from Netflix for a dozen cities. The result is this very interesting visual.

Tagged in: Movies visualization

Mindful and Heartfelt Choices

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How do you make choices in your life? Even simple ones like chocolate cake or fruit salad for a snack? Are you completely rational about the process, calculating the costs and benefits properly before choosing (also known as the cognitive approach)? Or are you more likely to go by feel, allowing your emotions to guide the choice (the affective approach)? Traditionally, researchers have favored the rational model, but more recently the emotional side has been getting more attention. Regular folks may even argue that they use both approaches depending on the situation, even though they may not know which one predominates without their knowledge. But can your decision-making process, and thus the choices you make, be influenced by external conditions to the extent that you will switch from one mode to another? That was the question that drove two researchers in their quest to understand the process of making choices.


Up North and Down South

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In casual conversation do you use terms like “Up North” and “Down South”? Why? Is north vertically higher than south? Of course not. It is just a common usage of language that we are used to, right? But does it have any consequences for behavior? Research has shown that people often make mistakes in travel related judgment, especially when estimating time and distance. Research has also shown that people associate vertical position with meaning. For example, people are faster to identify the relationship between words like “basement” and “attic” when the word presentation is consistent with their spatial relationship (“attic” above “basement”). Given all that, is it possible that people may consider traveling north to be longer or costlier or more difficult than south bound travel simply because we think of it as being “up”? That is the research question.

Tagged in: Psychology
Conventional wisdom says that voter participation in closely contested elections is higher because of the inherent competitiveness. The logic is that people feel that their vote could be decisive in a close election and hence more turn out to vote. But is that really true? Ron Shachar has crunched the numbers from three Presidential elections using some advanced statistical analysis and says that the answer is a bit more complicated than that.     
While the analysis is too complex to detail here, the basic idea is quite straightforward. Does the competitiveness of an election (defined as the closeness of the race as measured by vote percentage of the two major candidates) always predict turnout, or does its effect disappear when marketing variables are included in the model? Previous research either had not considered this approach or had insufficient marketing variables to use in the model, leading to the conclusion that closeness predicts turnout. 
In this research data on marketing variables such as advertising and grass roots campaigning were available and included in the analysis. It turns out that when you do that, the impact of the closeness on turnout disappears. What does this mean? It means that closeness of the election drives turnout only indirectly through marketing expenditure. In fact, it is even possible in such a model to calculate the precise   impact of the marketing variables.
For example, increasing the proportion of the population contacted by both parties by 10% (i.e. increasing the grassroots efforts) leads to an increase of 2% points in participation, which of course is a huge improvement. Overall Shachar finds that if all marketing activity for the 2004 election had been cancelled, the number of voters would have decreased by 15 million!
What this research really shows is the precise and dramatic impact of marketing variables on turnout. It is not just a question of belief on the political consultants. Spending money appropriately does turn out the vote.
This research was conducted by Ron Shachar who is a Professor of Marketing at Tel Aviv University and is currently a Visiting Associate Professor of Marketing at Duke University. It was published in the Journal of Marketing Research.
Tagged in: Pricing Research
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What are the Odds?

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One of the painful experiences of my life occurred in early 1991 when I was a student at SUNY in Buffalo, New York. The Buffalo Bills were in their first Super Bowl playing the New York Giants and the game was down to the last seconds. Trailing 20-19 the Bills depended on their kicker Scott Norwood to kick a 47 yard field goal to win it all. I was one of those who was crushed when the kick sailed wide right by a yard. That was perhaps their best chance even though they went back to the Super Bowl (count ‘em) three more times and lost each one.  

The question I have is would they have been more likely to win if that game was played today? 

How to be More Creative

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It is known that one way to become more creative is to shift one’s perspective.The best selling author of The Da Vinci Code Dan Brown, is said to hang upside down with gravity boots to help shift his perspective for the creativity needed in his novels. Travel is another helpful method for shifting perspective. There is now some new research to show that distance can be helpful in making a person more creative. But the research has an important and interesting qualifier.

I Won't Have What She's Having

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See if this sounds familiar. You and three other friends have gone to a nice restaurant for dinner. The waiter passes the menus around and you are eyeing the pork chops in some kind of fancy glazed sauce. The lamb chops sound nice too, but your preference is clearly for the pork chops. The waiter is going around the table taking orders. Your good friend who is ordering just before you goes for the pork chops. You hear that and decide to order the lamb chops because you don’t want to get the same thing your friend got. Sound familiar? Why does this happen? Why didn’t you choose your favorite dish? Do other people act this way? That’s what Dan Ariely and Jonathan Levav asked themselves. As researchers of consumer behavior, they are well qualified to search for the answer.

What is Kate Winslet Worth?

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The answer is 60 million pounds. At least that’s the answer according to the UK Film Council that has started a novel program (an “audit”) to evaluate the value of creative people for their country. The first data point in the analysis was Kate Winslet and the process is now being referred to as the Winslet algorithm. 

Can Ads Make TV Better?

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Back in the stone age when DVRs did not exist, everyone had to watch TV programs when they were broadcast. Many people still do and so can’t avoid commercial interruptions. Those who record their programs avoid commercials by fast forwarding through them. Why? Because commercials are usually annoying and it is more enjoyable to just watch the show, right? Maybe not, say some researchers. They argue that there is reason to believe that people’s enjoyment of certain shows will decrease over time and commercial interruptions can actually make the show more enjoyable. Research has shown this happens with many positive experiences such as enjoyable scenery, ice-cream, music and even winning the lottery. So, why not with TV watching?  

I know what you are thinking. This sounds like a joke, but it is not. There really is a What-The-Hell Effect and we will get to it in a moment. First let’s talk about the Denomination Effect. Let’s say you are leaving home and want to carry some cash with you. You have the choice of either taking a $20 bill or $20 in smaller denominations. Should this make any real difference to how much you are likely to spend? After all $20 is $20, right? Not quite. Turns out the denomination in which money is carried does have an impact on spending behavior. Two researchers recently published an article detailing the effects and we’ll take a closer look at it here.

Does a person’s physical attractiveness influence their selection of romantic partners? Yes, of course. There is anecdotal and research-based evidence to support that. But there are several related questions that arise and require urgent answers. A group of researchers set out to find some answers using data from the website HOTorNOT.com and some common analytical techniques. Admittedly, this is not the most representative sample in the world, but for this purpose is quite acceptable. Let’s take a look at the questions and the answers.

Is $2.99 the same as $3.00?

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How often do we as consumers see “just below” retail prices such as $2.99 or $29.99 or $299.99? All the time, right? It seems like we rarely ever see “round prices” for anything. The obvious reason why retailers and others do it is because of the belief that the left digit dominates and people are likely to see say, $2.99 as being significantly more than a penny less than $3.00. There are two issues here. The first is whether people actually perceive a difference and the second is whether it has an effect on what they purchase. Both of these issues can be studied experimentally and that’s what two sets of researchers did.

Recent comment in this post - Show all comments
  • Ed Olesky
    Ed Olesky says #
    Thank you for this! I was thinking it might be a myth. Good to know that some research has been done. I have always rounded up, as

Pizza: Round or Square?

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Let’s say you are following your dream to kick your day job and start a pizza joint. Many consequential decisions need to be made, but one that will certainly affect your production and display process will be the shape of the pizza: round or square? You might have personal preferences, but how will your customers see it? Given the same size, which shape will be seen as a better deal? Questions on package shapes often arise for consumer goods, but while pizza is ubiquitous, its shape has not been systematically investigated until recently. The broad area of inquiry is called psychophysical biases in area comparisons and three researchers considered the shape problem to figure out what a pizza parlor should do.


Expertise: How to get it

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In his most recent book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10 year rule -- a minimum of about 10 years (or roughly 10,000 hours) of work is needed to gain expertise in any area. While the idea originates from research in the early part of the 20th century, the rule itself was formalized by Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon and a colleague based on their study of chess. The definitive review and experimental confirmation comes from a great article in the nineties by the psychologist K. Anders Ericsson (a student of Simon) and colleagues. It is a very interesting article with plenty of information and gets to the basic idea of how to become an expert performer.


Is the Economy Turning the Corner?

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You can find plenty of people who will argue both sides and it can be difficult to disentangle the arguments and the data from personal biases. But what is hard to argue is that most of these discussions can get muddy very quickly unless you are well versed in the intricacies of economic data. What would be really nice is a user friendly (preferably animated) visualization of relevant data that tells us what is happening and is likely to happen. If you are looking for that you are in luck my friend.



I have previously written about Amanda Cox and the excellent graphics team at the NY Times. Well, they have done it again. They have taken a very interesting chart that is watched by OECD economists for changes in the economy and made it significantly better.



Meaning in Work

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There are some occupations (such as doctors, teachers, firemen, social workers etc) where people find meaning or a purpose in their work. And then there are other occupations (you know who you are) where there isn’t quite as much meaning. At least that is the general understanding. Of course, it is possible to find meaning in the most pedestrian of occupations as long as one is able to link it with larger goals such as providing for one’s family. But the question is, can people be made to find meaning in such work even when such nobler goals are unavailable. That is, will the presence of a very simple “purpose” allow people to see work differently even when it appears meaningless on the surface? That’s the question asked by three researchers who answered it with the help of two simple experiments.


Animated Charts

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I like charts that show a lot of information in a simple, elegant way effectively summarizing a large table. Of course, it is nearly impossible to do that without animation. Here is a good example using life tables. You can see how life expectancies changed over the years. The prevalence of infant mortality in the earlier years is particularly clear. Click on the Survival tab to see the life expectancies at various points in time. As an added bonus you can enter your age and see how long your party will last!


Several research papers and a book have been published by Satoshi Kanazawa raising interesting questions and trying to answer them from an evolutionary biology perspective. For other such questions read this article in Psychology Today. Our question of the day concerns beautiful parents and their offspring. Based on his research Kanazawa asserts that beautiful parents have more daughters. Rather than debate the evolutionary basis of such a claim, the Columbia University statistician and blogger Andrew Gelman decided to look at the statistical basis of the claim. What he found has larger implication for general analysis of data.


Instant or Delayed Gratification?

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Let's say you had the choice of giving one of two gift cards. One of them expires soon while the other expires much later. Which would be better to give? The latter, right? Not quite, say some behavioral economists. It appears that the one that expires sooner and therefore avoids procrastination makes people happier. That's right: people procrastinate even when it comes to pleasure. It could be that even with pleasures like using gift cards there are some costs associated (such as arranging for babysitting to go the spa) that loom much bigger in the immediate than in a distant future. So a spa visit in six months seems like a pleasure while one tomorrow looms (somewhat) ominously.


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