Why iPads, Google Plus, and the Next Big Thing Escape Market Research

The initial reaction to Google+ has been extremely positive.  Not even three weeks old, and it already has 10 million+ users – making it the fastest growing social network in history – beating even Facebook, Twitter and MySpace in terms of growth rate.    All early indicators are that people love it.    Here is a link to a poll I conducted of 773 early users of Google+ – which shows that 95% like it; 82% prefer it to Facebook; 55% prefer it to Twitter and 71% think it will be a big success.

Google+ success so far seems to validate a theory I have about markets,  consumer behavior and market research which is as follows (I have stated this  earlier as well) : It is not possible to always accurately predict using just market research what exactly consumers desire. Consumers are not always very good at articulating exactly what is missing or what they need – but are incredibly good at flocking to and adopting the better solution when presented with it. Generally the replacement solves a problem or meets a latent need that is not addressed by existing products – but often it is not always obvious from market research that a problem or a need existed till after the solution is presented.   Now, market research does often  uncover gaps and needs in certain markets. But it also misses them much more often than not.   It is not entirely clear when it works and when it fails to find gaps.  It is great at slicing and dicing market data, demographics, detecting signals and trends.  And yet it is not a reliable way to predict the next big thing.   You would think it would be – with all the sophisticated market research and analytics tools we have at our disposal.   Unfortunately, it does not work that way.

Look at the iPad – it filled a huge need in a market that had previously seen many tablet computers.  No amount of market research or asking consumers what exactly was missing in current tablet design could have unearthed the features you needed to build the iPad.   And I admit I was totally wrong about the iPad as well.  It required the genius of someone like Steve Jobs to throw out all existing thinking about tablets, and deliver a product that resonated with that latent demand. Consumers flocked to it because it was precisely the product they had wanted but were never able to say so prior to it being presented to them.   This is precisely what happened with the iPhone as well – which is why Steve Jobs is a legend in his own lifetime.   Certainly, notebook and wireless phone manufacturers had done  tons  of market research , conducted focus groups, studied consumer behavior,  tried and identified gaps and trends.   But unfortunately that didn’t help them invent the iPad or the iPhone.

I think one reason for this may be  it is just the way our brains are wired and we view the world. We are programmed to easily perceive what exists out there and it requires a great deal of mental effort to perceive what is missing or does not exist.   It is an abstract idea, an idea that requires negation or subtraction.    Our brains are  not very good at it –  not very good at perceiving negative space and at counterfactuals.  But this is the essence of discovering gaps and holes in an existing market or set of product features.  Market research works  like our brains  - it is good at analyzing existing data and extrapolating from it, but not very good at figuring out what is missing.

I also  think Google+ is similar to the iPhone and the iPad in this sense.  Google+ and its concept of circles has  resonated with users by giving them a way to mirror their real-life social networks for the first time. It is a product that addresses a huge gap and a latent need for social networking that consumers have wanted all along but never been presented with so far.  And market research  missed that need and gap.   Let us just say that  to come up with the   next big thing  you need to go beyond market research, and think outside the circle!

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  • Anonymous

    There’s a famous quote by Henry Ford that I think is applicable to this article, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said “a faster horse”.” It’s a funny quote, but it indicates that benefits and not features are what people are interested in.

    Anyway, I really doubt that Google+ will end up being the mass market success that Facebook is. Keep in mind that Google’s biggest supporters are “nerds” who like to try out new software. When you bring up Google to your parents or other normal people, you’re not going to get the same impact there. I think that Google+ usage will not continue to grow at nearly the same rate as it has. What we’ve seen with Google+ thus far is a large number of technical people trying it out and we will not see nearly the same amount of growth going forward. Furthermore, businesses invest in where the best opportunities for making money exist, and right now that’s Facebook. All of the designers and programmers and advertising agencies (see http://www.buyfacebookfansreviews.com for some info on this) are keyed up on Facebook and its just hard to see that turning on a dime. Google+ will impact the market, but its not going to continue to skyrocket into the mass audience is what I’m suggesting. 
    I’m an Apple fanboy (sort of) and I didn’t think that an iPad would be such a success. I also viewed it as a larger phone without the phone. But it has actually replaced a decent percentage of my computing for me and is absolutely a pleasure to us. I think looking at Apple’s approach to innovation can definitely be helpful to understand how to come up with new products and ideas.