Why do people buy?

This is an extension of a previous topic on this blog, called selling an idea.

I have had several discussions with colleagues over the past few weeks about the role of crowd funding in scientific and engineering research. The colleagues I work with now thought it was a pretty good idea, but as usual everyone had a different idea of how it should be done. One example is requesting from the general public just small amounts of funds each, which add up substantially when thousands sign up. Another example is providing each grant recipient a small portion of money (say $5,000) to use for crowd funding, say for researchers who have just missed out on a grant but had a high quality application.

One of my colleagues decided to bite the bullet and ask to crowd fund a significant scientific project in a burgeoning field related to mine – that of atom microscopy of biological specimens (http://www.indiegogo.com/atom-microscope). I thought it was an excellent idea and was enthused about the proposal generating more public interest in science and microscopy.

I decided to show the site to an ex-colleague of mine, without any introduction except “what do you think of this?”. The response was phenomenally and vehemently negative. Being a traditional scientist and engineer, he was opposed to mixing crowd sourcing (which appeals to people’s emotions), with science (which appeals to people’s logic and reasoning).

This made me think that not all people are scientists or engineers, and made me think of why people buy a particular product over a similar one. My ex-colleague said it was needs and social pressures. The little red book on selling said people buy because of the seller and the product.

I was trying to argue that people don’t necessarily buy because of needs and social pressures, by pointing out that you have a certain relationship with the seller (salesperson or company). I then realised that you are often introduced to a product by referral, i.e. via your social networks. Before TV and radio, our social networks were limited to who we knew, so it was difficult to find out objective information about a product.

But now, with information freely available via the internet, our social links are just a search away, and our social network is now extended to strangers whom we have never met. People who put up reviews of products, and websites dedicated to reviews of products, are examples of communities where you can find out about a product first hand from people who have had experiences with it. So the internet is not just a web of information, the search has become a powerful tool to expand our social network. The search has become very much a valued tool, the way trusted people with specific knowledge about the product are valued. The search has become our trusted source of information.

How does this relate back to why people buy? People suddenly have a wealth of choice in how they choose a product. My mother loves to research a less frequently bought product before she decides on the product model, the shop, and the price. But the things she buys every week? She already has a relationship with certain products, and she keeps track of price fluctuations based on seasonal changes, before she decides to buy. Only when her social network of people, mass media and the internet refers her to something different will she try it.

And how does this relate back to crowd funding in scientific research? A marketplace already exists for research projects – that of grant funding through various agencies whether government or private. Crowd funding appeals to us in a different way to how grants are usually assessed and funded. Funding is by people who have access to information and funds, has a desire to do something they cannot (whether through time or skill or otherwise), and has hope that it is feasible. These traits are not limited to people with wealth such as venture capitalists. Crowd funding permits those with limited funds to contribute to something specific they want to buy into, not just something someone else thinks they should. Crowd funding appeals to our emotions in a way science is not meant to, but there is a certain place for intuition in science and engineering. In short, I believe in people’s intuition in determining whether a science and engineering research project is really needed or not, based on the information through their social networks. And that is why I think crowd funding will work for scientific and engineering research projects.

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