One of the more interesting magazines I read regularly is the Stanford Social Innovation Review, dedicated to (in their words) “strategies, tools, and ideas for nonprofits, foundations, and social responsible businesses.” The Fall 2006 issue of SSIR had an article “The Other CSR” (also available in PDF format with the original figures) that I found quite relevant to Firefox and the work of the Mozilla project in general, and I thought it was worth discussing its key ideas and their implications.

The article starts with an anomaly: If a lot of people think that “socially responsible” products are a good idea (which appears to be the case based on surveys), why are such products not more successful than they are, and what if anything could be done to make them more successful? For example, the article cites the failure of the Product Red initiative to take off, as well as the fact that fair-trade coffee accounts for only a very small percentage of the market.

To explore these questions the authors introduce the idea of “Consumer Social Responsibility” or CnSR (named by analogy to Corporate Social Responsibility or CSR):

CnSR can be defined as the conscious and deliberate choice to make certain consumption choices based on personal and moral beliefs. It includes two basic components: an ethical one relating to the underlying importance of the social aspects of a company; and a consumerism component that implies that the preferences and desires of consumer segments are partially responsible for the increasing influence of ethical or social factors.

CnSR shows up in two ways: as expressed activity in terms of purchasing or nonpurchasing behavior; and as expressed opinions in surveys or other forms of market research. [emphasis in the original]

It’s the difference between activity and opinions that is the source of the anomaly mentioned above: if someone says that they’re interested in socially responsible products, that doesn’t guarantee that they actually will buy and use them in practice.

The authors then proceed to discuss various studies showing the following:

First, people are not generally aware of the “social attributes” (as opposed to the “functional attributes,” or features) of products. An example in Firefox terms might be people knowing that Firefox has tabbed browsing, but not that its source code is available under a free software license, or that it is created by a collaborative development process in which users can participate.

Second, there is a relatively large group of people for whom social attributes are indeed important, perhaps 30 to 50 per cent of the market or even more, depending on the type of product. (This was demonstrated in the studies by creating hypothetical products with a mix of functional and social attributes and having people make a choice between products with differing attributes, in situations where there was no clear superiority of one product over another.) Interestingly enough, membership in this group does not appear to depend on income level, educational level, geography, or any other demographic characteristics. As the authors state,

CnSR is not just the purview of wealthy, highly educated females in liberal Western democracies. Rather, it is something embedded in the psyche of individuals.

From the point of view of Firefox and the Mozilla project this is good news: It means that to the extent that there are people who value Firefox for what it represents in addition to what it does, those people can be found anywhere, and are not restricted to the traditional stereotypical populations of well-educated technically knowledgeable individuals in developed countries.

The studies mentioned above also demonstrate that with few exceptions people are not interested in socially responsible products that are inferior in other aspects:

We also found that although some consumers will pay more for products with positive social attributes, they will invariably only do so when the functional attributes of those products meet their needs. When presented with two alternatives at the same price, one with good social attributes but poor functional attributes and the second with poor social attributes but good functional attributes, consumers almost always choose the product with poor social but good functional attributes.

Thus, for example, although I am sympathetic to the ideals of the free software movement I use a proprietary desktop operating system (Mac OS X) rather than a GNU/Linux-based desktop OS, because I perceive OS X as superior to Linux desktops like GNOME or KDE in the functional attributes that are important to me (ease of use, UI polish, availability of key applications, and so on).

After a discussion of the various ways that people from different cultures justify their decisions not to use socially responsible products, the authors call for organizations to be more “proactive” in terms of promoting consumer social responsibility, and offer a set of recommendations:

  • Make sure that the social issue you’re trying to promote is well-aligned with the product you’re marketing, and vice versa.

    For example, if we want to promote Firefox as a socially responsible product then we need to carefully think about which issues are both intimately associated with Firefox and are understandable and relevant to the typical Firefox user. It’s unlikely that we’re going to promote Firefox as a way to (say) fight AIDS (at least, I don’t know of anyone proposing that); however there are other social issues that may bear some relation to Firefox and may be of significant interest to people within the Mozilla project, but just don’t resonate with typical users. Which issues fall into which category is a question worth further exploration.

  • Be skeptical of what people tell you is important to them with regard to the social attributes of a product. As noted above, people often say they’ll do one thing and then actually do something else instead; where people do behave according to their stated preferences, the number of such people may be very small compared to the total market. An arguably better approach is to directly test the effectiveness of different strategies through experiments. For example, the article mentions an experiment by Home Depot where it did pricing tests in different geographical areas to determine who would pay extra for lumber certified as from non-old-growth forests, and how much of a premium could be justified.

    An analogous experiment in Firefox terms might be to randomly serve up different versions of product information and download pages, each promoting a different social attribute of Firefox, and then measure relative download rates for viewers of the different pages.

  • Make sure that your product is not only socially responsible but also functionally usable, especially in comparison to competitive products. As noted above, most people will not use functionally inferior products regardless of how socially responsible they are.

    Firefox is actually in a good position here, given that it’s generally acknowledged to be competitive with if not superior to other web browsers with which it’s typically compared, e.g, Internet Explorer, Opera, and Safari. (Indeed it’s doubtful that Firefox would have attained the success it has if that were not the case.) That means that if there are social attributes of Firefox that would be attractive to some users, they will be more likely to choose Firefox than they otherwise might be, because they won’t have to sacrifice functional attributes that are important to them.

  • Describe the social attributes of your product in a way that speaks to users’ particular interests and is also sensitive to cultural differences between users.

    For example, we might want to claim as a social attribute of Firefox that it protects users’ privacy. But this is over-general: What exactly is meant by privacy in this context? Do we mean protecting users’ personal information from corporations operating online web sites? Allowing users to transmit confidential information safe from government eavesdropping? Enabling children to hide their web surfing habits from their parents (or vice versa)? Also, attitudes toward privacy differ even among countries and regions of similar economic attainment and political systems, for example between the US and the EU. Which attitudes should Firefox reflect?

  • Where possible emphasize the benefits of social attributes in terms of users’ own preferences and goals. (The authors refer to this as “[focusing] on the consumers’ natural desire to change.”)

    For example, many advocates of open source and free software have emphasized not the general benefits of making source code available (i.e., from society’s point of view) but rather the specific benefit of being able to fix bugs oneself (as opposed to waiting for a vendor to do it), to create a personal customized version of software, and so on. This specific approach won’t necessarily carry over to Firefox, given the non-technical nature of its user base, but the general idea of emphasizing the benefits for each user considered individually is I think sound.

The authors conclude the article with the following advice:

The only way to get consumers to act socially responsible is first to understand what motivates them to make the decisions they do and, second, to ingrain in them a belief that the social component of their purchasing is as functional as any of the other attributes they normally use in deciding on a purchase.

Good advice I think, and well worth heeding as we look for more ways to differentiate Firefox and other Mozilla-based products from their competition.