A recent study from MIT might shed some light on just how this can be done. It looked at the long history of products that launched with great fanfare, only to turn out to be complete and utter duds.
Harbingers of failure
The study found that the same group of people were surprisingly likely to buy these duffs time after time, suggesting that tracking them might be a great guide as to the future of a product.
“These harbingers of failure have the unusual property that they keep on buying products that are taken from the shelves,” the authors say.
The analysis revealed that these people had an uncanny knack for sniffing out products that are soon to flop, regardless of the category or market.
“This is a cross-category effect,” the authors say. “If you’re the kind of person who bought something that really didn’t resonate with the market, say, coffee-flavored Coca-Cola, then that also means you’re more likely to buy a type of toothpaste or laundry detergent that fails to resonate with the market.”
The right kind of customer
It creates the fascinating scenario whereby companies may actually need to worry about achieving early success in the marketplace, if those initial customers are actually the harbingers of failure.
“It’s not just how many people are buying them, it’s how many of the right people are buying them and how many of the wrong people aren’t buying them,” the authors say.
“Usually when you’re doing market research, the common wisdom is that people liking your product is a good thing,” they continue. “But what we’ve done in this research is identify a group of people who you really want to [have] hate your product. And that changes the paradigm of market research.”
The researchers focused especially on consumers who somehow managed to buy flops as often as they bought successes, if not more so. When this group accounted for up to 50% of the total sales of the product, it resulted in a 31% fall in the likelihood of that product succeeding.
What’s more, when the harbingers regularly bought these products (ie more than three times), it resulted in that success rate dropping by a whopping 56%.
The anatomy of a harbinger
So what is behind this behavior? The authors suggest it is largely down to how harbingers deal with risk. In other words, if a person has a high propensity to buy risky or unusual products, then they have a strong chance of being a harbinger.
This acceptance of risk was found to be a bigger factor than other potential influences on poor buyer behavior.
“It’s not the case that these people are buying goods at 2 in the morning, or something like that,” the authors say. “They’re not inattentive. Systematically, they are able to identify these really terrible products that fail to resonate with the mainstream.”
Suffice to say, it’s risky to draw too many conclusions from this initial analysis, and the authors are exploring whether it is maintained in other sectors, but they’re confident that the findings are strong enough to provide interesting insights into consumer behavior.
It would also be interesting to explore some ways that organizations can spot some of these harbingers, and do so at an early stage, so that they can adjust their behaviors accordingly.
It’s certainly an interesting line of study and one to keep an eye on.