What's love got to do with marketing

More than you might have guessed, according to some recent research from comedian Aziz Ansari and NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg. With the June publication of Modern Romance: An Investigation, the co-authors shared their findings from a serious research project--including extensive interviews and focus groups--asking men and women of all ages, all over the world, about their communications experiences in the realm of romance.  

On Thursday, at HubSpot's Inbound conference in Boston, Ansari and Klinenberg took the stage to present their findings to a crowd of more than 14,000. Here are four highlights:

1. Age has a lot to do with preferred modes of communication. 

One topic Ansari and Klinenberg explored in their book was a common dating question: If you meet someone at a bar and get their contact info, what's the best way to follow up? Should you call or should you text?

The answer depends on the age of whoever is being contacted, Ansari and Klinenberg found. A woman in her 30s or older was more likely to view a call as a positive sign. "He's calling? Ooh. That's very old-fashioned and interesting," is how Ansari described it. By contrast, he said, women in their 20s were more likely to view calling as a negative. "They're like, ew, why is he calling me? That's [effing] gross. Leave me alone." 

These same expectations apply to the fine art of how to break up with someone. The older you are, the more being dumped via text (as opposed to in person or over the phone) seems like an affront. 

You can extrapolate how to use this finding from a marketing perspective: If you need to reach out to customers or prospects about an emotional or sensitive subject, don't use a one-size-fits-all approach. 

2. More choices does not equate to happier outcomes.

Citing The Paradox of Choice, a book by psychologist Barry Schwartz, Ansari and Klinenberg pointed out that more options doesn't necessarily lead to happier customers. "Study after study shows the reverse is true," said Klinenberg. Options make choosing harder in the first place; they also make it easier to second-guess your choice.

Ansari cited the work of Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Business School and author of The Art of Choosing. In Iyengar's experiments, customers buying jam at supermarkets were much happier when they made their selection from a shelf displaying four types of jam, as opposed to 25 types.

"That's what's happening with relationships, too," said Ansari. "There's too much jam out there." For instance, he joked, you might be out on a date; you go to the bathroom, look at your phone, and you're intrigued by someone who's noticed your profile. Later, out on the street, you see more "jam," just walking around.

The takeaway: Your customers may want options, but you don't have to overwhelm them. The sheer number of options won't make them happier.

3. When you're collecting data on how people behave, study their actions. 

Call this ethnography 101. If the goal is to study behavior, you need evidence of behavior--you can't just take people's word for it. You have to see how they act when they're behind the wheel, as opposed to trusting their narrative of the drive. 

Likewise, Ansari and Klinenberg asked to look at the phones of their subjects. Tellingly, there was often a gap between how a subject described her texts with someone, and how the texts came across when you actually read them, as a complete stranger to the situation.

For example, one woman was describing her texting correspondence with a guy she'd just met. She was enthusiastic. But when they collected her phone, the authors saw that she'd named the guy "Kevin don't text me Thursday" in her contacts. "Not a common last name," deadpanned Ansari. More to the point, by looking at the subject's phone, Ansari and Klinenberg gained a new, useful insight into this particular subject that they otherwise would not have learned. 

4. If the goal is getting people to open up, recruit a celebrity--or make the process seem less serious. 

Klinenberg told the crowd that one of the perks of working with Ansari was his clout as a celebrity. People were willing to share with Ansari what they'd not normally share with someone identifying himself as a social scientist, as Klinenberg does. 

You might not be able to work with a celebrity, but you can certainly add an element of levity or relaxation to your market research. For instance, one health care entrepreneur hoping to learn more about what senior citizens would want in an app hung out at the local IHOP. He knew it was a relaxed setting where his subjects might see him as just another dad buying pancakes for his young children, rather than a researcher.