First published: June 2005 | Getting nervous yet, now that consumers' purchasing decisions are increasingly being determined by word of mouth, peer-to-peer, price-comparisons, opinions, reviews, ratings and recommendations*? Then brace yourself for the full impact of the emerging TWINSUMER trend: consumers looking for the best of the best, the first of the first, the most relevant of the relevant increasingly don't connect to 'just any other consumer' anymore, they are hooking up with (and listening to) their taste 'twins'; fellow consumers somewhere in the world who think, react, enjoy and consume the way they do.
In a pre-web world, the fickle and complex workings of word-to-mouth were limited to real-world friends and a handful of trusted experts. GENERATION C opened up the content floodgates and moved insights and recommendations online, but often without much-needed relevance and context.
After all, what good is a jubilant hotel recommendation on Tripadvisor.com (a travel review site with more than 1.8 million consumer reviews) to a 27 year old bachelor from Vancouver looking for some sun and fun near Singapore, if the reviewer happens to be a father of four from Stockholm, whose positive rating of the Shangri La Rasa Sentosa Resort was heavily influenced by the abundance of kid-friendly amenities, or the presence of dozens of other families?
Now, through an onslaught of new collaborative filtering software, millions of new personal profiles, exclusive communities and what have you, the TWINSUMER phenomenon is turning millions of reviews, ratings and recommendations into truly valuable results fitting one person's very particular preferences or even lifestyle. Whether it's a one-off TWINSUMER union or an ongoing relationship. TWINSUMER therefore isn't about access to reviewings or ratings or even trust in general (those are fast becoming hygiene), but about relevance.
* According to the Pew Internet & American Life project, 33 million American internet users have reviewed or rated someone or something as part of an online rating system. And Forrester Research found that in Europe, more than 50% of online consumer electronics buyers have checked product reviews from other customers, and that 30% of buyers have actually bought a product online based on someone else's online rating. 15% have written a review themselves.
SOLUTIONS AND SURPRISES
So what does this mean for businesses? The TWINSUMER trend doesn't only help consumers find relevant solutions to targeted questions: as serendipity flourishes online, the very nature of linked and related recommendations often leads to impulse and surprise buys as well.
In fact, the TWINSUMER phenomenon is actually one of the key drivers behind the NOUVEAU NICHE trend: TWINSUMERS pointing each other in the direction of 'obscure' or 'niche' goods and services they really like; with obscure and niche as defined by an advertising-equals-mass-equals-success dominated world. So a business person in Bogota IS going to find and book a small, independent boutique hotel in Brussels based on a TWINSUMER recommendation, and an Etta James fan in Taipei WILL stumble upon rare and forgotten Candi Staton songs thanks to TWINSUMER software, and so on.
Enough theorizing: how are businesses building and capitalizing on this trend? Get inspired by the following examples, based on:
• (next generation) collaborative filtering,
• massive proliferation of personal profiles and web sites, and
• a rebirth of true virtual communities.
Collaborative filtering (Wikipedia's definition: the method of making automatic predictions about the interests of a user by collecting taste information from many users) has been around for a long time (in internet years, that is). Pioneering this space was Amazon.com's recommendation software, which could tell a customer that others who had also bought Rushdie's Midnight Children, appreciated The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, too. Amazon.com, which also boasts over 6 million product reviews, states that 'the click-through and conversion rates of recommendations based on collaborative filtering vastly exceed those of untargeted content such as banner advertisements and top-seller lists.' Others have followed; collaborative filtering offerings at iTunes, MSN Music, RealPlayer MusicStore, Napster, TiVo (100 million ratings by users about approximately 30,000 TV shows and movies!), Rhapsody and Barnes & Noble have received plenty of attention.
It helps of course that these days nearly 900 million(!) consumers are online, many of them loading up their virtual shopping carts like there's no tomorrow, adding to the vast amounts of purchasing details needed to produce scarily accurate recommendations. And yes, for e-tailers, besides encouraging impulse buys, collaborative filtering also spells c-r-o-s-s s-e-l-l-i-n-g if not u-p s-e-l-l-i-n-g.
So what's next? Amazon recently added a 'Discover' tool (still in beta) to its A9 search engine, which delivers website recommendations to users based on their search history and aggregated data collected from other users, and these these recommendations aren't necessarily related to the subject you went to A9 to look up. Working with Alexa Internet, it seems only a matter of time until Amazon will combine commerce with search. But there's more: TRENDWATCHING.COM also spotted the following emerging collaborative filtering initiatives:
The Recommendation Center at e-tailer Half.com/eBay not only bases recommendations on a Half.com buyer's past purchase history, but also on products placed on their wish list, and pre-ordered products.
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MSNBC's Newsbot (still in beta mode) measures which stories its users click to read, building a "most popular" list for each category of US and world news, sports, entertainment, business, science and health and technology. Read an article, and the "people who read this story also read" feature kicks in.
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Like Newsbot, Findory uses a collaborative filtering-based algorithm to recommend interesting news items to its users. In their own words: "We combine statistical analysis of the article's text, and behavior of other users with what we know about articles you have previously viewed."
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What if someone combined all of the world's music fans, not just those who happen to buy at Amazon.com? Look no further than Audioscrobbler, which lets users install a free plug-in, after which the service starts building a profile of their musical taste by monitoring what they listen to in their media player (iTunes, Winamp, etc.). A dedicated user page on Audioscrobbler's website keeps track of favorite artists and top tracks, but also compares preferences with all other users and computes one's audio TWINSUMER by the percentage of overlap, resulting in download-inducing recommendations. Audioscrobbler's sister site is online music station Last.fm, turning the service into a full blown recommendation meets previews meets radio 21st century style. Other players in this field include GenieLab and iRATE Radio. Genielab also cleverly delivers TWINSUMER recommendations via RSS.
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StoryCode is doing the same for books: taking scored book reviews by readers, it offers rational, impartial recommendations, based on an analysis of the "DNA" of stories. (Read: the input and collective wisdom of ordinary readers). No purchase required.
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MovieLens is a research project run by the computer science department at the University of Minnesota. Its main feature is to do collaborative filtering on movie preferences, so users can get suggestions based on the opinions of the anonymous masses that share their taste.
What's really new about the AudioScrobblers, StoryCodes and MovieLenses of this world is that they shift collaborative filtering from e-tailers to stand-alone services (which may mean bigger audiences), and from purchase-only data to a variety of actual listening/reading/viewing behavior (which may mean more varied results, as well as more accurate findings). Add to this the fact that users can constantly update their own details and collections, and what emerges is an even more powerful and attractive way to connect TWINSUMERS around the world. Open source collaborative filtering, anyone?
Increasingly, review/opinion/recommendation websites are encouraging their reviewers to add personal profiles, allowing real TWINSUMERISM to blossom. Think everything from someone's age, appearance, occupation, favorite websites, hobbies, interests, musical taste, to entire biographies. Anything that will give other consumers a better feel for how compatible they are with the reviewer, either on a certain topic or in their entire lifestyle.
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Epinions.com, a review site that's part of Shopping.com, is a granddaddy of TWINSUMERISM. Unlike some other major review sites, it actively highlights the people behind the reviews. In addition to user biography pages (where visitors learn about their potential TWINSUMER's history, hobbies, preferences and even political views), review lists, and the ability to comment on reviews, Epinions has introduced "tickets" to flag users who have violated their User Agreement. Users also build a Web of Trust, a network of reviewers whose reviews and ratings they have consistently found to be valuable. And for those of you looking for the grand scheme of things: last week, eBay announced it would buy Shopping.com for USD 620 million. Further consolidation in the e-tailing/profile/comparison/review arena is virtually a given. One to watch!
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Yub.com, a wholly owned subsidiary of Buy.com, calls itself the world's first shopping social network, with a mission to "provide word-of-mouth on the web, filtered by trusted relationships." Partnering with the likes of Sony, Apple iTunes, Target, Gap, Linens 'n Things and Footlocker, its virtual mall offers 3.3 million products. Yub customers share their opinions on purchases and everything else in Friendster-style profiles, and receive a 1% cash-back on every item they buy. The TWINSUMER spin? When users buy something that is endorsed in a friend's profile, Yub also gives the friend a 1% cash back (in Yub's own words: "a reward for bypassing the media middle-man"). A true TWINSUMER concept, including proper rewards for hard working Master Twinsumers. Now, edmunds.com, asiahotels.com and tripadvisor.com, please follow suit!
Social software and MASS CLASS blogs
Social Software sites like Google's Orkut.com (wildly popular in Brazil), Tribe.net, Myspace.com (4 million members) and Friendster.com (17 million members), but also dating sites like eHarmony.com and Match.com, are well positioned to capitalise on the TWINSUMER trend, as they already completely evolve around member profiles.
For example, a site like Tribe.net is now pursuing a strategy in which social networking applications will ultimately act as a user's online agent, connecting people for transactions and social interactions, using what the applications know about a user's personality profile and the extent to which they want to interact with others who fit a certain profile. Tribe.net believes that eventually "people can take on identities across the network that expose parts of themselves based on who asks about them and what the activity is." In that environment, "the network is the marketplace.''
From social software sites, it's a small step to the rapid proliferation of 'MASS CLASS blogs', from MSN Spaces (now 10 million blogs) to AOL RED Blogs (targeted to teens) to Yahoo's 360 Degrees to South Korea's 10 million hompys. These blogs (in most cases, personal homepages containing online profiles), are yet another building block facilitating TWINSUMERISM: eventually, very few online consumers will NOT have an online personal profile of some sorts, whether it's for dating, for making friends, for business, for selling, for networking, for blogging and so on.
When consumers rally around a specific topic, recommendations are instantly relevant, as long as they don't stray too far from the topic at hand. No wonder virtual communities (which are going through their third rebirth) are fertile breeding grounds for meeting one's TWINSUMER. And with Forrester estimating that 60% of online Europeans now connect with others in mutual interest or support groups, this is one TWINSUMER area poised to grow quickly. A trend within this trend is to safeguard the exclusive and focused nature of these communities, to the point where some sites have ceilings on the maximum number of members, as well as stringent admission rules, fueling effective TWINSUMERISM. One good example:
aSmallWorld, an invitation-only online community designed for jet-setters who in many cases already have strong connections with one another. Think 60,000 like-minded global citizens who share the same circle of friends, interests, and schedules, and who constantly exchange recommendations, reviews and suggestions on popular restaurants, hotels, night clubs, summer and winter resorts, parties, films etc. in over 60 major cities worldwide. And aSmallworld.net is just the tip of the iceberg: in thousands of defined communities, major purchasing decisions are made without interference of marketers.
From TWINSUMER to Master Consumer
As the number of exclusive micro-communities and micro-blogs keeps growing, certain reviewers, bloggers and consumer experts have become so popular that they appeal to large numbers of other consumers, who will trust and follow their recommendations and curated choices even if their profiles fall outside narrowly defined TWINSUMER matches. This is where TWINSUMERISM meets our CURATED CONSUMPTION trend: leading TWINSUMERS morph into mass influencers, or mavens, or whatever you want to call these Master Consumers. From individuals like Josh Rubin, Grace Bonney and Josh Spear to user-generated, curated and edited blogs like gridskipper.com. It's in this space that brands could try to (carefully) connect with the new curators that are influencing so many other consumers, in a multitude of industries. Just don't forget you're the one needing a favor this time.
The TWINSUMER trend is part of an all-encompassing trend changing who and what consumers rely on when making purchase decisions, both need and impulse driven. This movement incorporates everything from NOUVEAU NICHE, ONLINE OXYGEN and CURATED CONSUMPTION, to TRANSPARENCY TYRANNY and TRYVERTISING. Note how none of these related trends have anything to do with old fashioned marketing and advertising. Not the producer's spinful claims advertised on billboards and in commercials dictate what gets bought, but relevant, experience-based recommendations, suggestions and advice of TWINSUMERS, supported by ruthless price comparison engines.
THE PLATFORM IS BUILDING
All of this is just the beginning, as the Digital Generation will be the first group of consumers to grow up with all these new tools and peer-to-peer options:
• they're ready to contribute
• their tens of millions of personal profiles, blogs, homepages are already up and running (whether it's on Yub, MSN Space, Blogger, TheFaceBook.com, Friendster, FunHi, Epinions, Hi5, Cyworld, Meetup, Common.net, Tribe.net or Cu2.nl)
• they're willing to try out all things NOT mass, and
• they're certainly not impressed by traditional (producer) power and authority.
Add to that more sophisticated, open source collaborative filtering, consolidation leading to even bigger sites literally listing, rating and reviewing ALL products and players, big and small, in any B2C industry, while partnering with ever-more powerful price comparison engines and review specialists (long overdue: amazon.com meets Expedia meets Tripadvisor). Oh, expect reviews to become more visual and real-time and entertaining (and potentially devastating) as well. And wait for clever consumers to make serious money from their reviews and suggestions. Personal profiles will become more multi-media (and thus more informative) as well. Enough: more to follow in the inevitable TWINSUMER update.
Still not sure if, or how the TWINSUMER trend will impact your industry? Immerse yourself into any of the sites mentioned above, and you will see how this is not just about finding books and music, but about virtually every B2C segment. Do you still know who is telling your customers to do or buy what? Should you partner with key TWINSUMER players? Can you work with the Master Consumers and highly active TWINSUMERS, as word of mouth has to start somewhere? Can you help your customers find what's really relevant to them, using TWINSUMER tactics on your own web site? Or is it eventually all about superior performance in order to outdo your competitors' reviews? In fact, diving into the millions of online reviews will automatically propel you into the world of CUSTOMER MADE, monitoring the ongoing conversations about your brand and performance between consumers, learning from their invaluable reviews, feedback and suggestions (yes, everything IS related).
Or, for a change, put on your consumer hat, and observe your own (changing) purchasing behavior, which may already contain more traces of TWINSUMERISM than expected. Then apply these learnings to your own industry or business. Exciting, huh? >> Email this trend to a friend.