Understanding Consumer Attitudes: What Your Customers Really Think

digital analytics

As a business owner, you need to know what your customers and prospects think. Understanding consumer attitudes toward your brand and those available from your competition is really the first step in marketing to them. If you understand their attitudes, you can make changes to your business model, advertising message, and even to the products themselves. However, if you don’t have a handle on what consumers think about your business, sales will languish regardless of the intensity or cost of your marketing efforts. Even if your sales seem acceptable, you can find yourself with declining sales when a product comes out that meets their needs better. Now, is the time to build an understanding of consumer attitudes.

understanding consumer attitudes

Understanding consumer attitudes

Fortunately, there are several ways you can find out more about opinions held by customers and prospects regarding your brand and others. Naturally, you can ask them directly, but there are other subtle ways of gathering intelligence. Remember, customers won’t always honestly tell you what they think about you, so crafting the right kind of research is critical for success.

Today, we’ll discuss several tools available for understanding consumer attitudes, including:

  • Focus groups
  • Surveys
  • Secondary data
  • Expert opinion
  • Social media

Each of these tools has strengths and weaknesses, so you may find it necessary to use a combination of tools to triangulate toward a better understanding.

Form a focus group

Focus groups are just groups of individuals who join together to discuss a particular topic. Commonly, you need the following for an effective focus group:

  1. A trained moderator to draw out reticent members, control the flow of conversation toward the goal, and tactfully shut down overly enthusiastic members who try to dominate the conversation or impose their opinion on the group.
  2. A carefully constructed group of 8-12 members who share some level of commonality. You likely need to enlist many more people than this number to ensure you have a group composed of this number.
  3. A room that allows for observation and filming
  4. A well-thought-out question guide that explores the entire subject thoroughly and prompts members to explore the subject more deeply but doesn’t lead members toward desired conclusions
  5. Some form of compensation to encourage participation. You might offer food and drink or a cash stipend

Most focus groups involve company representatives behind one-way glass so they can observe and offer suggestions for additional questions. I once conducted a focus group to understand consumer attitudes toward a local brewery. We sampled the company’s products and asked for thoughts about the product. The group was very negative about the company’s signature brew and the company representative nearly came through the one-way glass to tell participants they were wrong. That’s why you don’t involve them in the focus group — it leads participants toward certain conclusions.

Often, companies schedule multiple focus groups to allow for different attitudes, while reducing the differences within a group.

As you can imagine, there are drawbacks to focus groups such as the cost and time necessary for multiple groups, reliance on the moderator and the question guide, as well as logistical issues such as scheduling.


netflix survey

Surveys are a great tool for understanding consumer attitudes as they’re much cheaper and, depending on how you administer the survey, fast. The great thing about email surveys is that customers fill them out anonymously and fairly fast while mall intercepts might allow you to collect necessary data in just a few days. 

But surveys have their drawbacks, too. For instance, the Netflix survey above, while appearing to ask a reasonable question for understanding consumer attitudes, makes the mistake of leading respondents by using the term satisfaction. It assumes the respondent is satisfied and just asks for their level of satisfaction without allowing them to voice dissatisfaction. It makes respondents feel like they’re abnormal if they’re dissatisfied and deprives the company of valuable insights.

Anonymity also introduces problems as you have no idea who really filled out the survey.

Secondary data

The above types of market research involve primary data — data collected to address a specific question or satisfy a specific goal. In contrast, secondary data was collected for another purpose. Retention statistics, a type of secondary data derived from sales figures, are a common method you can use to measure how customers feel about your products and services. Tracking customer purchases over time is particularly useful, especially as it also aids in sales forecasting. If you notice an increase in retention after a particular event, you can take that as evidence that your strategy is working. Likewise, a sign your product is slipping in consumer attitudes comes from observing a drop in demand for your product. You can use retention data to evaluate specific campaigns or your overall marketing.

Website analytics (ie. Google Analytics) is also a great tool for evaluating your success and understanding consumer attitudes as well as changes over time. More nuanced than retention data, website analytics provide a broad range of insights. The value of secondary data is that insights are based on real behaviors rather than those viewed through conscious thought.

The primary drawback of secondary data is that you’re looking into a black hole. You can observe behaviors but have no access to factors leading to those behaviors. Thus, you’re guessing what caused the behavior (and you suffer from impacts from factors your never thought about) and presuming that similar circumstances will lead to similar behaviors, which is a tenuous assumption.

Expert opinion

The people in your organization who interact with customers are in a better position to tell you what customers like and what they don’t like. This is especially true for front-line workers such as your sales staff or your social media managers. Often, they are in a direct position to observe issues on the ground that senior management can’t see.

in-store sales from tweets

This is one of the reasons why front-line staff are so valuable (and why many companies make a point of employing them in such numbers). They can collect information on the ground and learn more about the people in their care. Top companies regularly carry out staff surveys, delving into their experiences with customers, finding out what is working and what isn’t.

An obvious drawback of these expert opinions is that they’re opinions. We filter our interpretations through our own biases and this impacts our understanding of consumer attitudes.

Social media

Social media is like being invited to the consumer’s kitchen table. You gain valuable insights into what they’re thinking, how they share information about your product, their behaviors, and their relationships with others. But, remember, this is secondary data, and, in this case, it’s from a group that self-selected to share their opinions. It’s not random and it’s sometimes not valid (meaning it’s not repeatable). For instance, users tend toward being more positive or more negative on social media than in real life. Users only share exciting things on social platforms, not the humdrum of daily life.

And, users know they can’t trust what’s shared on social media. In fact, 59% of US adults don’t trust news they discover on social platforms, with platforms like TikTok and Twitch being the least trusted platforms. However, if you take what you find users saying on social media with a grain of salt and only pay attention to what’s said and not draw any statistical conclusion from what you find shared on the platforms, they can act to enhance and colorize your understanding of consumer attitudes.


Of course, there are other ways for understanding consumer attitudes. For instance, Sam Walton used to run his stores by visiting his stores and listening to what shoppers said during their visits. The story goes that every trip, every vacation meant visiting stores along the way to “manage by walking around”. Whatever tactic or tactics you use to glean insights, weigh the benefits and risks associated with the tactic and do your best to manage the risks. Construct instruments as free from bias as possible, select as diverse a group of respondents/ informants as possible, and use appropriate techniques to draw insights from the data collected.

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