Monday, April 01, 2013

The Consumer Behavior At the Core of Community Marketing

Apparently, a study has surreptitiously been conducted about the safety of using smartphones during airline take-offs and landings without the knowledge of the FAA.

Among other habits, a survey of 6,000 business travelers globally by Four Points by Sheraton inadvertently revealed that 12% of these most frequent of air travelers never turn off their smartphone during a flight.

Even though business travel has continued its long, slow decline, now 22% of travel volume, the 1,000 business air travelers sampled in the U.S.A, where they make up more than four out of every ten passengers should be statistically significant enough to help inform an FAA to drop restrictions on at least smartphones.

But it isn’t just at 30,000 feet that things are so slow to catch-up.

A survey by ExactTarget a few months after I retired in 2010 revealed that over 85% of purchases are made within 15 miles of home or work.  Other surveys show that the vast majority of purchases are made within 7 to 10 miles of home or work.

When people are traveling away from home, the radius shrinks even more dramatically due to a consumer phenomenon called “cognitive (aka subjective) distance friction” where the “impression formed in the mind of the distance between places that are not directly visible” seems like 20 to 1 compared to home.

Studies of the friction of distance or the related distance “decay effect,” a “decrease in interaction between two phenomena, places or people as the distance between them increases,” commenced more than 80 years ago as automobile travel spread across the country.

Notable from that time are studies still relevant to define the minimum distance between shopping centers and malls and the clustering of competitors.

Realizing the billions of advertising dollars at stake, in the 1920s outboard billboard companies, followed in the 1930s by radio stations and in the 1950s by television stations and eventually even some newspapers, declared war on the identities of communities believing consumers could be persuaded to disregard distance.

It clearly didn’t work.

An example is the so-called “common” market area used as a media measure embracing where I live stretches far more than a 100 miles from north to south and nearly as far from west to east making many truly local advertisers feel fleeced.

Yet, studies show that community identities have grown even more dear to residents and in addition to being inundated by 10,000 ads per day, obfuscations such as this may be why more than 80% of television viewers skip ads altogether including nearly 9 out of 10 leading Millennial and Generation X consumers.

Beginning nearly 50 years ago studies revealed that residents on foot begin to resist walking at distances of 6 or 7 minutes or from a quarter to a third of a mile.  Again, resistance for visitors sets in at even shorter distances.Distance Decay Curve for Auto Trips  Study Access To Destinations  How Close Is Close Enough

In 2008 researchers with backgrounds in geography, engineering, travel behavior, economics, architecture and environmental design, transportation and urban planning based at the University of Minnesota, the University of Colorado and McGill University plotted rates of “distance decay” on a reverse-J curve for people walking, bicycling, taking transit and driving automobiles.

This ground-breaking analysis included travel for a variety of objectives including work and school, as well as discretionary purposes including shopping, restaurants and recreation where toleration for distances proved even shorter.

As depicted in the chart for single-occupant auto trips show in this blog, (note the distances are given in kilometers and rounded a km is approximately .62 miles) for travel to a restaurant for instance, nearly 40% will travel about a tenth of a mile and only a few percent will travel more than 10 miles.

Distance tolerances for shopping and entertainment are only very slightly less restrictive.

The graph also helps explain why only between 1% and 3% of visitors to either Durham NC, where I live or nearby Raleigh, NC, the next metro over, will combine a trip to both communities on the same trip and usually then only with a local escort.

Impedance is much greater for visitors to a community because cognitive friction dramatically increases when someone is new to a route or when it extends over where names are duplicative (e.g. the ubiquitous reference “five points” in the state where I live,) over hills and dales, on irregular road patterns and/or without geographic points of reference e.g. a mountain.

The study shows that distances don’t increase that much with a passenger in the car.  GPS systems can mitigate some resistance but they also remind the traveler of the overall distance involved and the complexity of the routing which results in selection of a closer objectives.

Coherent, comprehensive, community-wide wayfinding systems executed down to the level of specific facilities have been shown to mitigate some effects of distance fiction or decay within a community.  However, it is not clear they overcome the impedance between communities.

Studies on local search indicate that tolerance for distance between locations is retracting, not expanding.

Local search is rapidly shifting to mobile devices using both apps and increasingly optimized websites.  A recent study by Telemetrics and Nielsen reveals that not only are the vast majority of local searches in an automobile but there is a heightened sense of urgency with more than half expecting to find a location either in walking distance or within a short drive and this is even more true of categories such as restaurants.

Overall, only 23% expect a further driving distance and less than 1 in 4 have no expectation of distance.  Year over year the trends show that location is becoming even more relevant leading some to reference “local searchonomics,” a term aptly coined by a firm named 15 Miles (presumably round-trip.)

Last week, two people in the travel sector emerged from a meeting in the Durham Convention Center and asked a bystander how much it would cost for a taxi ride to Raleigh.  Asked why, the two visitors professed to be “foodies.”

After explaining it would be approximately $100, the bystander added that as for a national reputation for foodies, they were better off remaining in Durham for dinner and gave some suggestions.

I suspect there might be several sources for their confusion.  One might expect they should know better being involved in travel, but ironically many working in that sector are oblivious to consumer behavior, hoping to fool travelers by pretend locations.

Their geographic ignorance may have been fueled by a friend from Raleigh or someone who had traveled there, who was unfamiliar with or negative about Durham as well as insensitive to their pocketbook.

These two visitors may have been misled because Raleigh is the first name listed in the co-owned airport or a flight crew may have truncated the welcome on arrival creating the misimpression the area was somehow centered around that community and they were traveling to a suburb.

Actually, like many the area is polycentric, there is no dominant center.

Or they may have picked up a Raleigh-centric impression from the news media based there or someone working at their hotel in Durham but who lives in Raleigh and lacking knowledge of Durham may have decided to send them to where they live instead.

There are several lessons in this blog for community-destination marketing organizations:

  • Focus visitor information on the community you represent.  Breaking down visitor information by district is extremely useful.  Going into general information about other destinations is only confusing.


  • If the community you represent is in a centric vs. poly-centric area or located in the environs of a larger community, never buy into the “table crumbs” theory or expect that visitors will commute to visit your community.

That Kool-Aid has been sold for decades but it isn’t supported by sound consumer behavior research.  Focus on serving visitors to your community.  Encourage other communities to do the same.


  • Sit down with airport officials, airlines and media outlets that serve your community and help them understand consumer and travel behavior, especially in polycentric-areas.


They may blow you off at first.  Many have a huge stake in perpetuating obfuscation but at least try to sensitize them and explore nomenclature that will be sensitive to businesses in your local business climate and to consumers, especially visitors.


  • There are many reasons to leverage resources through coop marketing, particularly in projects where communities with various affinities in your state can morph in and out of projects.

Never let another organization or community throw a “greater” label over your community.  Any coop venture should recognize individual community brands and identities.

The use of “greater” is often superimposed for purposes of hegemony but more often it has been a way in the past to rationale over-reaching or poaching back when membership models were in vogue.

Avoid using feasibility consultants who still deploy antiquated “centric” models.  They are responsible for tens of thousands of underperforming community facilities.


  • Try to reason with the US Postal Service to assign street delivery designations and zip codes so they are consistent with physical locations.  Searches are GPS based so they ignore these mis-identifiers but they are still confusing to visitors.


  • Optimize your community’s website for mobile devices.  Less than 5% of local businesses, organizations and events have done so and even when they catch up, one of a DMO’s most important marketing assets for residents and visitors is a well-curated, comprehensive, mobile and location friendly aggregation.

Good data on consumer behavior should be at the core of community-destination marketing.  Community marketing is about guarding and promoting community identities.

This isn’t parochial or just about jurisdictions as some with other agendas may try to dismiss. It is all about relating to consumer behavior.

Savvy communities such as Durham, NC now draw up top 70% of patronage for restaurants, shopping and entertainment from visitors – many of them daytrippers –not by dismissing or trying to subvert consumer behavior regarding distances from nearby communities but by emphasizing community identity, brand and allure as a visitor destination.

1 comment:

Carlene Byron said...

The other issue not referenced here is the sense of travel "nearness" people have to wherever they regularly commute. That is to say, those who regularly pass the Brier Creek shopping center (as one example) on their daily commute think it's closer to their home than stores and restaurants that actually are closer to their home but are not regularly driven by.