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Szu-chi Huang: Pursuit of a Mutual Goal Can Turn Friends into Foes

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Szu-chi Huang: Pursuit of a Mutual Goal Can Turn Friends into Foes

Marketing research finds that peer support in programs such as Weight Watchers fades as members near the target.
A woman running at sunset.
When pursuing a mutual goal, those who succeed may turn their back on the others. | Reuters/Sergio Moraes

Imagine two people enrolled in Weight Watchers. One just joined and aims to shed 20 pounds. The other signed up months ago and has just five more to go. During the regular meetings of Weight Watchers, the member who recently joined is talkative and generously shares dieting strategies, while the more veteran member is withdrawn, departing the meeting soon after the weigh-in.

It’s a common scenario when two people are working toward similar goals, and it has implications for companies and organizations that serve them, says Szu-chi Huang, assistant professor of marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business. People pursuing a goal often start out highly engaged with others, discussing tips in forums or exchanging ideas and encouragement at group gatherings. But as they reach an advanced stage, their relationship with others changes.

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“Their perception of one another shifts from being friendly to decidedly distant,” says Huang, coauthor of “From Close to Distant: The Dynamics of Interpersonal Relationships in Shared Goal Pursuit.” The paper was recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research and examined the change in people’s interaction with others as they approach a goal.

The paper, coauthored with Susan M. Broniarczyk of the University of Texas at Austin, Ying Zhang of Peking University, and Mariam Beruchashvili of California State University at Northridge, finds that early in a pursuit, people often feel uncertain about how to achieve their goal or whether they’ll reach it, so they view others in a similar stage as companions, or even friends. They pass on helpful tips and cheer each other on. But once the goal is in sight, people feel more confident and believe they don’t need support from others, so they become distant and keep useful information to themselves.

The researchers analyzed interviews with 51 members of the commercial diet program Weight Watchers, separating out members who were early in the weight-loss process and those who were in a late stage. All of those in the early stage spoke of companionship, noting that they felt close to and willing to help fellow members, compared with just 42.1% in the advanced stage. By comparison, almost 79% of those in the advanced stage expressed feelings of distance and reluctance to share information with other members, compared with 44.4% in the early stage.

That withdrawal matters. The more consumers distance themselves from others who have a similar goal, the more likely they are to feel disengaged and perhaps drop out altogether. “It’s a problem if people stop interacting with others who share the same goal,” says Huang. “If people stop sharing in forums, the forum can’t go on.”

“For consumers, sharing of information increases joint welfare,” she adds. “We all learn more if you share with me and I share with you. Without sharing, we lose that joint benefit.”

The research is important for marketers, particularly those that offer any kind of group forum where customers exchange information – for example, weight-loss programs that hold regular meetings, or retailers that host online chat rooms where customers trade tips on collecting points in reward programs. It’s also relevant to other organizations that emphasize group settings for participants with a common goal, such as smoking-cessation programs or Alcoholics Anonymous.

The findings suggest that companies and other organizations should consider different ways to keep customers committed to sharing and fostering companionship, says Huang. For instance, they might want to try giving participants information that highlights differences among them. In one experiment, the researchers studied people who signed up for a 7-day walking program with the goal of taking 100,000 steps over the week. Participants stated that they were joining for either “health” or “appearance” reasons, and they were assigned a partner. Some participants were told that the partner joined the program for the same reason they did, and the rest were told that the partner joined for a different reason.

The researchers found that those who were told that the partner joined for the same reason they did felt more certain about how to make progress and shared less information as they approached the end of the program. By comparison, those who were told their partner joined for a different reason experienced greater uncertainty throughout the program and consequently remained engaged and offered lengthy tips through the end of the program. “Hearing that others have different reasons to pursue a goal could elevate feelings of uncertainty,” says Huang. “If people feel uncertain about how to approach the goal, they’ll stay friendly with others and keep exchanging information.”

Once the goal is in sight, people feel more confident and believe they don’t need support from others, so they become distant and keep useful information to themselves.
Szu-chi Huang

Another approach for companies might be to try making the pursuit more complex for advanced participants. For example, in another experiment, advanced participants in a credit-card rewards program were more likely to stay engaged with others if they had to follow a complicated plan (for example, a percentage-by-category point structure) to accumulate reward points, compared with those given a simpler plan (fixed-rate point structure). The more-complex plan increased feelings of uncertainty on the best way to approach the goal, leading participants to keep connected with others.

“This research sheds important light on how marketers can better motivate customers to share goal-related information with one another,” says Huang.

Szu-chi Huang is an assistant professor of marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business and the 2014-2015 Spence Faculty Scholar.

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