A Very Curious Study

In 2015, a paper called Harbingers of Failure was published:

The authors identify customers, termed “Harbingers of failure,” who systematically purchase new products that flop. Their early adoption of a new product is a strong signal that a product will fail—the more they buy, the less likely the product will succeed. Firms can identify these customers through past purchases of either new products that failed or existing products that few other customers purchase. The authors discuss how these insights can be readily incorporated into the new product development process. The findings challenge the conventional wisdom that positive customer feedback is always a signal of future success.

Boldfaced emphasis added by me.

Access to that paper is limited, so read the Ars Technica interpretation/summary: Harbingers of failure: meet the customers you don’t want to love your product

2019 brings an additional paper, which identifies actual clusters of such people: The Surprising Breadth of Harbingers of Failure [direct PDF link]

Using data from multiple sources, we have shown that the phenomenon of harbingers is surprisingly widespread. We begin by showing that harbinger zip codes exist. Households in these zip codes are more likely than households in other zip codes to purchase new products that fail. Their adoption of a new product is a signal that the new product will fail. We interpret this finding as evidence that households in these zip codes have tendencies that are not representative of households in other zip codes. We then show that the evidence of unusual tendencies extends across retail product categories and across retailers.

Boldfaced emphasis added by me.

I’d like to know what’s actually going on here. Sociologists/marketeers need to get into those zip codes to understand such people. The second paper has no explanation but wonders too:

We do not know what characteristics of customers’ decision making contribute to these tendencies. For purchasing decisions, the harbinger effect could result from correlations in product preferences or responsiveness to marketing variables. We also recognize that the effect could reflect customer tendencies that are unrelated to product features. For example, harbingers may have a preference for variety (variety seekers), they may have more (or less) traditional values, they may be contrarians, or they may have a greater (or lesser) willingness to bear risk. The evidence that the effect extends beyond purchasing decisions increases the likelihood that the harbinger effect reflects these more generic customer tendencies.

Marketeers might shun such people, thinking they curse a product. Until more is known, that would be an unwise conclusion. There’s something possibly very important to be learned here.

Let me rat myself out: I tried Diet Crystal Pepsi when it first came out. It tasted like shit. I never bought it again. But I bought it because I was curious. Maybe these people have similar curiosity?

This entry was posted in Human Variables, Other Stuff, Reference. Bookmark the permalink.

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