Beware Of Echo Chambers

In his January posting, SLRG President Jon Last reinforces the importance of proper sampling, in this era of “echo chambers” where social media noise can often distort the reality of what sports fans are thinking.

In today’s world, we are inundated with incessant chatter, be it social media rants by friends, celebrities or athletes on Instagram or Twitter, or even special interest media outlets. By choosing to follow specific individuals, brands, or news stations, we are apt to surround ourselves with others whose opinions are similar to ours. These “echo chambers” can reverberate and reaffirm what we believe, and it’s easy to lose oneself in the perception that these opinions are surrogate for those of a larger and more representative population.

Often, it is easiest to hear those who talk the loudest, while the other voices and opinions just simply become background noise. By only hearing the loudest noise, or that with which we are most comfortable, it is easy to lose sight of what the silent majority may be thinking, feeling, and saying. The recent presidential election is a perfect, salient example of this. For research-driven marketers, perhaps the biggest lesson to be drawn from the 2016 election is that if you do not carefully listen to a truly representative group of people, you can get the wrong answer.

As a subtext, we can misconstrue that a particular point of view is more pervasive than it may actually be. All too often in sports marketing, we see poorly executed, do-it-yourself research that errs in poorly constructed, bias-inherent questions, and even more problematically, in the utilization of self-selected convenience samples. Perhaps the worst example of this is when one simply speaks to colleagues or friends who have the same opinions. We assume that we are the target audience and that often yields very flawed information and outcomes that would be entirely different through traditional marketing research that uses a full, representative sample and properly worded and ordered questionnaire design.

Amplification of echo chambers or noise can lead us to incorrect conclusions in times of potential crisis or controversy. In some of our ongoing work for a leading high-profile sports brand, our client receives a significant amount of often acutely critical feedback from consumers. The passion that fans feel for their brand often yields similarly pointed criticism across a variety of social media and digital channels.

Taken at face value, these points of view could be misconstrued as damaging to that brand. The organization expressed concern that this was a major, pervasive issue that needed immediate and potentially drastic action. Yet, stepping back and conducting research with a broader and representative sample revealed that the individuals who voiced these strong concerns were only a small fraction of their overall target audience. Without this research, it would have been easy to assume that the objections of this smaller group were those of a larger constituency.

The lesson this brand learned was that they didn’t have a pervasive issue; yet, they were still thoughtful enough to be responsive to that faction of people who felt strongly. It would have been easy for this organization to overreact or to take actions that would have been excessive for a circumstance that was only applicable to a small group of individuals. This is where the opportunities to hear the silent majority, instead of the loudest noise, for sports marketers and properties lies.

Another classic example that illustrates the same point comes from the direct marketing world, and earlier in my career, when we initiated a targeted postcard campaign as part of our efforts to grow attendance for a nascent sports property. Utilizing classic Direct Marketing 101 tactics, we identified relevant market segments through research and incorporated the defining characteristics into a variety of database modeling initiatives.

This yielded list selects targeted for typical A/B/C split-testing of alternative creative. The metaphor for the risk of over-reacting to today’s echo chambers came when the initial batches of undeliverable postcard returns arrived in USPS bins at our offices. The quantity of undeliverables was substantial and looked physically daunting. Some of our senior leadership expressed great concern that the mailing was a failure by simply viewing the boxes of returned postcards until we calculated for them that these quantities represented an incredibly small percentage of the total outbound postcards sent. We claimed final victory soon after, as ticket sales soared.

Again, the simple lesson, even more relevant with today’s proliferation of media, is that what appears on the surface isn’t always reflective of what resides underneath … . Another reason why properly executed marketing research is so critical in this era of information overload.