Can you remember why you did something online?What was the last thing you downloaded? Was it a video, an ebook or a music track? The chances are you can remember what you bought online recently. But can you recall why you bought it or downloaded it? New research suggests that we think we know, but actually we have no idea.

When you ask people why they bought something the often confidently answer. Indeed, knowing this is a fundamental part of market research – discovering why people buy your products and services helps you target them more appropriately in the future. However, in an intriguing study on the recall of buying intentions, researchers at the University of California have demonstrated that we often cannot remember why we bought something.

It turns out that people make things up…! And they frequently cite different reasons for buying or downloading something at different time intervals. Combined with other studies which show we use the context of the situation in which we are asked to recall something to shape what we say, this is another piece of research which shows you simply cannot rely on what your customers tell you.

The problem is not that they are lying – the difficulty this research reveals is that they think they are telling the truth. Yet the “truth” they are telling changes from one occasion to the next…!

So, you may well conduct research on your website to find out why customers buy particular items from you, but what this research suggests is that you should take that information with a large pinch of salt. What you need is other data to help you analyse the information – such as metrics on the speed of purchase, or the revisit frequency before something is bought. Such data can give you an insight into actual behaviour, rather than perceived behaviour.

Your customers can give you useful information to help you sell more online – the problem is sorting out the real truth from the perceived truth.

What your customers tell you should only be part of your market research – you need to combine it with independent data to get a much more accurate picture.

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