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Lo-res_482106262-SWhen marketers search for insights into how and when consumers use their products, they face a few seemingly insurmountable challenges. It is hard to gauge what consumers do in the privacy of their own homes, because it isn’t as if a marketer can place a hidden camera in someone’s bedroom. They can ask questions, but people often don’t tell the full truth about what they do, whether because they’re embarrassed to admit what their late night snacks really consist of, or because they just plain don’t remember how they go about the mundane task of brushing their teeth.

But that sort of behavioral information is exactly what market researchers need to be able to design new products that can meet people’s actual needs, as well as to communicate with those users in the most effective ways. And here’s where the selfie—that ubiquitous, popular, seemingly silly form of communication is making all the difference.

By paying consumers small fees to take selfies as they perform basic, mundane tasks, several service companies are enabling product firms to gain a totally new and far more accurate view of what their customers are doing. For example, Crest asked users registered with the site Pay Your Selfie to take shots of themselves using various Crest-branded products. The collection of thousands of pictures revealed a notable insight that was totally new to Crest: A lot of people brush their teeth between 4:00 and 6:00 p.m. Through a little more analysis with some additional data, the company realized they were getting ready to go out for social events after work. They wanted fresh breath for happy hour! The insight has prompted Crest to initiate a completely new campaign to target and emphasize the benefits of several of its products for just such purposes.

Other selfie requests by other clients of the data gathering service involve other basic tasks, like cleaning a bathroom or buying a particular brand of beer in the store. When a Canadian healthy fast-food chain asked users to depict themselves eating healthy snacks on the go, it was a little surprised by just how many people snapped shots as they ate Snickers bars. This evidence of consumer behavior and consumer perceptions showed the company that people’s definitions of healthy are broader than it might have assumed. Snickers might take note of the information as well. Evidently, people see this candy as somehow healthier than other versions, a benefit that it could readily leverage in its advertising.

In addition to traditional marketing insights, the selfie-based data can help companies decide appropriate new locations and market segments for their stores and products. For example, if people mostly show themselves consuming the firm’s products in their offices, the company likely should expand into business districts rather than near residential neighborhoods. When a call for selfies of people eating breakfast showed that Millennial contributors were eating a lot of Pop Tarts and Froot Loops, it seems likely that Kellogg’s reoriented its advertising budgets to target these older buyers, rather than the young children who have traditionally constituted its target market.

The users who upload their selfies receive a relatively nominal payment: from about 20 cents to $1 for each verified picture. To be verified, the shot needs to complete the assigned task and be visible and appropriate. That last criterion has been an interesting challenge for some companies. As selfie-takers become more and more comfortable with the idea of sharing pictures of themselves performing their everyday tasks, many of them are providing pictures in which toothpaste is running down their chins or they are only partially clothed. Of course, that’s information that marketers can use too: 11 percent of the men who participated in the toothpaste task were not wearing shirts in their selfies. What might toothpaste producers learn from that sort of intimate information?

Discussion Question:

What are the advantages of having consumers provide selfies of their consumption behaviors, rather than asking them to report on those behaviors?

Source: Courtney Rubin, “What Do Consumers Want? Look at their Selfies,” The New York Times, May 7, 2016