Crystal Balls or Navel Gazing?

Aug 02 2010

Has market research dropped the (crystal) ball?

I came into the market research industry because I was curious about people.  I love uncovering the motivations and behaviours of others, and enjoy exploring and connecting data to find new meanings and inspirations.

I have been reading a lot of discussion about the future of the industry, including the latest issue of Admap, recent issues of Research World, several articles and blogs, and a breakfast talk wittily titled “W(h)ither market research?“.   I have read some great pieces, but much of the discussion has seemed (at least to me) to forget the original and distinct role of researchers as the voice of customers within business.  There is focus in the discussion (and more broadly in the industry) to focus on technology and business models (process).   The focus should be on  new ideas which change our understanding of how humans behave, make decisions and find meaning in the world.

Interestingly, the latest issue of Admap includes an article which traces the history of market research from the 1940s to the next decade. (Market research really began a little earlier, in the late 20s, when advertisers started to consider audience feedback in helping develop better copy.)  However, the article covers many of the significant events in the industry’s history.

Changes in technology and business model are not new to market research.  When I first started, I did not have my own computer and presentations were hand written on transparencies.  Despite this, technology does not feature strongly in the article, and rightly so.  The advent of the computer has advanced our capacity to process data (and arguably powerpoint has reduced it), but it did not fundamentally change the role of the researcher as the voice of the customer.  Recent and future technological changes will continue to empower efficient use of greater amounts of data, but need not change the role of research if we focus on what is important.

What the article highlights is that new models of human behaviour drove the development of our industry, especially in it’s early decades.   For example, in the 50s disagreements between Dichter and others caused the split between qualitative and quantitative research, in the 60s Carl Rogers’ theories shifted research perspectives to the role of customers as participants, and in the 80s Peter Cooper developed approaches to co-creation (not so new after all?) .  I strongly believe that this will continue, as developments in neuroscience and psychology are profoundly changing our understanding of behaviour.

Stan Sthanunathan of Coca-Cola gets the direction right when he says, “We’re too focused on understanding consumption behaviour and shopping behaviour.  We need to understand the human condition, which you’ll only know by observing, listening, synthesising and deducing.”

The researcher’s condition

It can seem daunting to keep up with developments in neuroscience and psychology, but the effort is worth it.  Much of research (qualitative and quantitative) continues to follow outdated 50 year old models of behaviour.  Our understanding of decision making has moved on, but survey questions have not.

Much of the behaviour we seek to understand is habitual and unconscious.  This means that it is often not deliberate or rationalised (although not irrational), and outside conscious thinking.  When asked questions, participants will usually provide an answer, although these answers may well reflect the drive to create consistent internal narrative (called confirmation bias) than the real reasons for the behaviour.  We all want out our model of the world to be consistent and predictable, and when asked to explain our behaviour seek an explanation which fits our mental model, although not necessarily the truth.

The best example of confirmation bias I know comes from experiments studying the left and right brains, where different pictures or words are presented to different sides of the brain, which then correctly provide different descriptions of the stimuli.  When confronted with the discrepancy, participants make up a story - for instance, if one half of the brain sees a spoon and the other half an apple, the reason for the different answers might be that “I need a spoon to eat the apple.”

Brainy research?

What does this mean for research?  I should make it clear that I don’t believe that brain scanners need to replace researchers, although the technology will develop and continue to provide insights which supplement that of other data collection tools.   However, they are decades (and maybe centuries) from replacing more human-based investigation, if for no other reason than that brains do not exist in the real world on their own - we are social animals.

We know that our internal representation of the world is just that - an internal representation or model reconstructed from the input of our senses interpreted in the light of our previous experiences.  Memory is a reconstruction of experiences with a similar emotional resonance and context matching a current brain state.  Each time we remember an event, there are subtle (or maybe less subtle) changes to our perception of  the event.  We also know that context is critical to memory - when we remember an experience, we remember everything about it.  Accurate recall of the experience is dependent on recreating a similar context.

Consider what happens when we ask a participant to rate a long list of attributes in a shopping mall (or focus group room), at their computer, or even on the phone while they are trying to watch the latest episode of their favourite TV program.  It may be that most (or even all) of those attributes are not relevant to the participant (and it may also be that the brand or product is not relevant either).  By asking a question, we are asking participants to construct a credible narrative as to why they like or dislike (or buy or not buy) a particular brand.  And we are asking them to recall these items in a completely different context.

My conclusion is that a lot of participant responses are based on pseudo-science, and do not reflect the real triggers of behaviour.  That’s not the fault of the participants.  It’s squarely the responsibility of researchers to understand how to ask the right questions, and more importantly when it makes sense to ask them and when it makes sense to keep quiet.  If we are to continue to ask questions, we must ensure that responses reflect an appropriate context, and that the questions we ask are relevant to the individual participant.  That is, we must find ways to eliminate irrelevant questions which only lead to irrelevant answers.

Observing and listening

This leads us to a second key theme - the increasing importance of listening and watching to understand real behaviour.  Ethnographic research, and other tools which focus on understanding behaviour within a social and cultural context, have been used in market research for a decade or more, and will continue to grow in importance.  Listening and watching overcomes the issues in asking research participants to recall their behaviour (if not always the issues in understanding the reasons for that behaviour).  Ray Poynter argues eloquently for the role of listening in Admap and Research World, focusing on the role of social media and online communities in helping companies to create dialogue with customers - focusing on listening to their concerns rather than asking questions which focus on marketers’ concerns.

Watching and listening will also be transformed by the availability of behavioural data and our ability to mine that data for insights.  That could be transactional data, online discussion boards, and other databases which will provide rich sources of information about real behaviour.  Mobile platforms will become increasingly important, with the ability of technology to capture the location, speed, social connections and interactions of customers (as well as more personal feedback when they are willing).  Participation is an increasing problem for research, and listening will continue to gradually replace questioning as the basis of data collection.

Synthesising and deducing (aka data, data everywhere)

The Economist devoted an issue and special report to the deluge of data earlier this year, and the first theme of Wendy Gordon’s Admap article is the challenge to intelligently use the increasing amounts of data available to researchers and marketers.  However, businesses seek greater simplicity and less complexity.  The challenge for our industry is that most researchers are not comfortable with synthesising multiple data sources, creating clear and holistic understanding from diverse (and sometimes vast) bodies of knowledge.

Market research cannot avoid the challenge if it is to remain relevant.  Real insights only come from integrating knowledge, connecting the dots to create new (and simpler) meanings which can create real business value.   If we seek to inspire clients, we must not be afraid of creativity, as long as ideas are based on sound understanding of the customer as well as the business context.

Let’s create an inspiring future

Market research still has a bright future if it focuses on it’s role as the link between business and their customers.  We can only shine in that role if our thinking, models, and (yes even our) processes keep up with developments outside the industry.  I continue to be inspired by understanding other people, and take great enjoyment from using that understanding to inspire clients.  I am confident that many others feel the same way!


A history of research by Sheila Keegan, Admap Magazine, July/August 2010

The Future of Research by Wendy Gordon, Admap Magazine, July/August 2010

Don’t explain the past, predict the future by Stan Sthanunathan, Admap Magazine, July/August 2010

Stop asking questions and start listening by Ray Poynter, Admap Magazine, July/August 2010

The intelligence explosion, Research World Issue no 13, October 2009 “Data, data everywhere” from The Economist, 25 February 2010

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