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Helping consumers make everyday choices in the face of big data
By Robin Rusch

“It’s not the customer’s job to know what he wants.” So said Steve Jobs. Yet, the last decade has demanded exactly this from the consumer. Content and product overload burden the consumer, paralyze the act of decision-making, and devalue the product. Delivery options based on data mining through consumer behavior patterns serve to narrow, rather than broaden, the consumer’s exposure.

As consumers, we have always benefitted from assistance when making decisions. Whether from a brand owner, a product dealer, or a content editor—someone out there curates a selection of options, and depending on service level, is on hand to guide us. Successful brand owners and businesses built their reputations by offering inside knowledge.

Aggregators reduce decision burden, but limit choices
The rise of aggregators over the last decade — businesses built around collecting existing content or products and offering them cheaply or freely en masse — redefines the way we make choices and eliminates the role of curators. Google offers up endless results at the click of a mouse and Yelp locates businesses based on proximity. Amazon delivers any product imaginable, generally at the lowest price.

The benefit of aggregators is that they reduce data overload by using behavioral tracking and relational sorting (“if you liked this, you may also like that”). Google narrows our search options based on popularity of choices overall and your own choice history as evidenced by past clickthroughs. Netflix awarded a $1 million prize in 2009 to the team that improved its recommendation algorithm “to connect people to the movies they love” (a conundrum referred to as the Napoleon Dynamite effect). These entities take into account not only past actions, but also mine social network behavior to intuit our preferences, thus narrowing our choices by presenting selections likely to appeal to us.

If you already know what you want, or you want what you’ve always had, you’re in luck. But what happens when we only get what we expect and know, again and again? These systems don’t broaden our exposure to the new or unknown. In fact, our worldview, our general openness, and our proximity to new ideas narrow against our own limitations every time we make a choice on an aggregator. Those wishing to expand their tastes or knowledge must either assume the burden of becoming expert, or seek a curator to sort and advise for them.

Aggregators pose another threat by driving down value and, in some cases, cutting out the brand or producer altogether. This is starkly evident in publishing, where readers skirt paywalls by finding free published material or simply avail themselves of alternatives (e.g., opinion blogs replace journalism). But it also stands true for items sold through aggregators like Amazon, where manufacturers sell their products below or near cost -- threatening sustainability and, typically, the brand promise. Sometimes, the mega-retailer eventually does away with the brand altogether and offers a house brand instead. For 15 years, Amazon provided a cheap, well-stocked alternative to the brick-and-mortar bookstore. Last fall, they replaced the need for publishers with CreateSpace. It enables one to use free tools to self-publish and distribute books.

All this would seem to benefit the consumer. Choice, control and low cost are concepts we’re programmed to value. If Amazon can offer great publishing, why would we object? But is Amazon offering great publishing? Can it be trusted to help me choose the perfect omelet skillet, the right memory chip, and a good read by a new author? No, and it doesn’t offer to; it merely sorts options by what I, or other people like me, chose in the past.

Brands will benefit by informing consumer choice
For all those consumers who care only whether something is cheap, there are others overwhelmed by choice, those without the time or interest in becoming an expert in every decision, and those who truly wish to be delighted by new discoveries. As we enter 2012, the need for brands, curators, editors, and trendsetters to inform and expose choice to the customer is crucial. Their value will be welcomed for lessening the burden of decision-making, simplifying our lives, and, at the same time, broadening our input and experiences beyond our own limitations.