Six lessons from the front line of marketing research
Market research is a vital tool in the marketing kit box and in constant flux. Rob Grant examines the drivers of innovation in research and six implications for marketers.
Any market researcher who introduces themselves at a dinner party faces a conundrum: will people think I stand on street corners – with a clipboard – and ask questions of passers-by? It’s an enduring and hard-to-shake cliché, but it no more reflects market research today than a Model T Ford does the car industry.
Over several decades, research has moved from paper questionnaires to automated telephone, online and now mobile surveys. It’s almost unbelievable to think that, until fairly recently, responses from hard copy surveys were manually tallied by large teams of researchers. Focus groups have changed less, but the techniques used to elicit and visualise responses continually evolve. Even the lines between qualitative and quantitative research – historically split between different departments or agencies – are blurring.
For marketers, who wish to be armed with the most compelling insights, it is important to understand the possibilities available. Increasingly, powerful and actionable research is seen as a source of competitive advantage. Brands with the closest connection to consumers come out top.
Macro themes shaping research
To understand how the research environment is changing, and where it is likely to head, a series of interlocking drivers need to be explored. Each area, individually or combined with another, dramatically affects how marketers should approach research.
Rise of behavioural economics
Academic thinking has long influenced marketing research. It’s no coincidence that practitioners of both fields are called researchers. The disciplines of mathematics, psychology, linguistics and sociology, among others, have left their mark and continue to influence. Certain breakthroughs endure. Others fade away. Neurolinguistic programming, anyone?
Behavioural economics, an offspring of various social sciences, looks like it will go the distance. Today, it directly influences research and shows no sign of being a fad. In a nutshell, behavioural economics suggests, in contrast to classic economic thinking, that people behave irrationally, driven by emotions rather than logic. While the ways people act are not always in their best interest, however, they exhibit predictable patterns due to a series of biases in their thinking. Understand these systems and you can better intervene, to guide people towards your products and services.
Research has always strived to explain behaviour, often by looking at the attitudes supposed to drive it. The problem is, if you ask a person directly why they did something they will post-rationalise and look for sensible explanations.
Nick Palmer, managing director with research and strategy agency House of Brand, believes research needs to watch more and ask for explanations less. “Behavioural economics will tell you the real way to understand people’s decision-making is to observe it, not to ask them, because people do not know.”
Ubiquity of technology
Big technology changes once happened every decade or so. Then they became annual. Now it seems almost daily and the changes have major implications for research.
Consumers themselves interact in entirely new ways, facilitated by a variety of different interfaces. They possess, in their homes and now in their pockets, access to technologies of immense power that change how you engage with them.
Marketers, via agency partners or directly, can also take advantage of computational power their predecessors only dreamed of. Analysis tasks that required a server farm the size of a real farm can now be done on a laptop or outsourced to another country for overnight processing. This means you can find the specialists required from a global marketplace and reduce costs.
Chris Thomas, founder of quantitative and sensory research agency Play Research, recognises technology drives much of the change that occurs in research.
“Technology has opened up and we can now live more in the world of consumers, rather than bringing them to us,” says Thomas. “Almost every consumer has a smartphone now and that brings many possibilities. Also, as a supplier, the whole world has opened up to me. I have software from the UK, people in Europe creating forums, coding done in India. So, we can do more with the budget and the clients get a better result.”
Reframing of society norms
Put simply: people don’t live like they used to. Society today is characterised by short attention spans, on-the-go lifestyles and an explosion in media interaction. No longer does a family sit down to dine together at 6pm before they sit down to watch one TV screen for the rest of the evening. Far from it. Brands need to engage consumers in different ways and so do researchers.
Louise McDonald, director of specialist qualitative research agency Click Research, recognises a need to interact with consumers in ways that reflect how they live their lives. “It’s unrealistic to expect genuine consumers to dedicate extended periods of time, when it suits you not them, to take part in research. Research methods need to reflect how busy people are and how fluid their lives are today. Otherwise, whom are you engaging with?”
Big data a reality for all
Arguably, no marketing topic garners more attention than big data right now. Not that many know what to do about it. As Dan Ariely, behavioural economist and author of Predictably Irrational, famously said, “Big data is like teenage sex: everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it.”
Companies now hold a colossal amount of information on their consumers, aided by technological advances in the ability to store large volumes of data. The advent of call centres, loyalty schemes, social media forums and review sites has added to the realm of possibilities for a data miner digging for riches.
Yet even researchers, who should be experts in the data world, are only making early incursions into this minefield. Part of the problem is that companies still do not recognise or make available the rich rivers of data they possess. Dr Avi Ratnanesan, CEO of data analytics company Energesse, feels there is colossal potential waiting to be unleashed.
“Every company has a tonne of data they didn’t know they had, just sitting there. So much data where customers actually tell you what they think and feel about your brand. Often the answers are there, but they are overlooked.”
Research rulebook for marketers
In the face of such sweeping changes, marketers need to adapt their insight gathering approaches to survive and thrive. But where to start, with so many new possibilities? Six overarching rules are worth considering every time a research need arises.
1. Love is all you need
Since people act more on feelings than logic, a good understanding of emotions is required in research. Marketers need to ensure emotional lines of enquiry are given sufficient weight and fight the urge to ask detailed, rational questions.
Nick Palmer thinks emotional questioning is vital. “Arguably, three years ago the iPhone had been overtaken by other phones. But you didn’t see people queuing outside a Samsung store to buy a new model. Consumers had built an emotional connection with Apple that drove decision- making. So why in traditional surveys do we just measure the rational?”
Questions in research can cover softer areas like ‘brand love’ or explore perceived ‘brand closeness’. For example, in online surveys, consumers can position themselves on a visual that shows their proximity to a brand. Another way to move from the rational is to not only record a consumer response, but the time taken to answer. The technique is called ‘implicit association’ and shows a lot about how people feel towards brands.
Beyond the realm of surveys, in the emerging field of advanced text analytics, it is now possible to capture emotions. No longer are responses classified as just positive or negative. For example, from a call centre conversation about your brand, you can see if a customer is delighted, angry, happy, frustrated or joyful. Then marketers can explore why and develop strategies accordingly.
“We can now look at large quantities of data and measure a whole range of emotions. After a lot of analysis, we found the greatest source of improving a product or service lies in the delight and frustration emotions. Frustrated consumers are still engaged with the brand and actually offer you ways of making it better,” says Dr Avi Ratnanesan, founder and CEO of Energesse.
2. Pictures paint a thousand words
Piles of magazines, pairs of scissors and a pack of glue sticks. A common sight in focus group rooms across the country. And for good reason. For many years, researchers have used imagery to help respondents express feelings that words alone cannot convey. The problem: it is time consuming and labour intensive.
Step forward the internet, a treasure trove of billions of easily accessed images. Now people can be engaged in a survey or online forum and asked to find pictures themselves that express their emotions. Yet images are only just the beginning, as now most consumers have a high-powered video camera in their pockets. Welcome to the world of self-ethnography, where research participants do the hard work of capturing themselves on video for you. Marketers can use this technique to gain a close connection to their target audience, as they live out their lives and express their thoughts. A little creepy? Perhaps, but extremely insightful.
Click Research’s Louise McDonald often uses video techniques in her work. “Clients are hungry for video representation of their consumers. We have so much information, but what we’re short of is being in touch with consumers, as their lives constantly change. The environment they are in, the tools they use to cook, the dynamics of the home, who they are with. It’s a great complement to other data points.”
3. Live for the moment
It makes little sense asking people about breakfast at 9pm at night. Likewise, no one who bought a soft drink four days ago can explain why they chose it. And if your brand cures sore throats, you’d better speak to people when they actually suffer.
The closer marketers are to the moment a product is needed, bought or consumed, the better they can market it. Historically, research paid little thought to the timing of interaction with respondents. Focus groups were held on a Tuesday night, because that’s when the moderator was free. Surveys were conducted all day long, to collect responses as quickly as possible. Now technology allows marketers to engage with their target audience at times better aligned with their brand.
“Your methodology should be aligned with the way consumers experience the brand, because then you’re in touch with how they feel and what they are thinking when it matters,” says McDonald.
One increasingly popular way of doing this is through the use of apps. People are recruited to download a specialist research app and then answer questions or complete tasks at fixed times and in certain locations. It is even possible to interact with consumers throughout an entire day and discover how their needs and feelings change, hour by hour. Or intercept them in a fixed location, using GPS tracking, to get an instant reaction to an in-store issue.
4. Give power to the people
A good meal relies on the best ingredients, matched with the right technique. Similarly, great insights come from the quality of the people you recruit and how you engage them. Marketers need to put themselves in a respondent’s shoes when considering research methods. Would you want to spend 40 minutes completing a survey? Or travel one hour to a focus group on a cold winter night?
Engaging with research respondents at their convenience is one way to put the consumer first. But it doesn’t stop there. Probably the main thing marketers can do to more realistically engage consumers is to ask fewer questions.
Play Research’s Chris Thomas feels that briefs with too many objectives are counterproductive. He says, “Marketers need to realise that a 30-minute questionnaire is almost an impossible thing to do. You may get people through it, but we’re worried about the data. We are turning down certain projects because we don’t think it’s a good respondent experience. Ultimately this leads to poor data at the back end.”
Think a little about the people who take part in research and you realise the process is hardly inclusive. Especially for qualitative research, it is hard to engage introverts, people for whom English is not their first language, those living outside major centres and younger audiences. And they may be a large share of your customers. By switching to more self-managed approaches, like online forums and bulletin boards, you can get the best from a wider range of people.
McDonald fully embraces this ‘democratisation of research’. “I find it impossible to get more than two words out of teenage boys in focus groups. It’s really hard. But on a recent online forum the boys were writing rich, emotional essays for me. Full of deep insights for the brand. They’ve actually got a lot to share; they just don’t want to express it verbally.”
5. Keep it simple, stupid
The more precise your question, the more likely you’ll get the right response, right? Wrong. Tightly defined questions force people to rationalise and create views that don’t exist in the first place. Besides, you may miss the issue that really matters. Open questions in surveys, for example, can provide deep, fresh insights that would never emerge from the structured questions. In the past, analysing these responses has been hard work, but now we have whizz-bang computers to do this.
Dr Ratnanesan specialises in extracting deep meaning from often ignored open questions and believes they are a great underutilised resource. “As soon as you ask closed questions, you lose a big opportunity. With open questions, customers can tell you exactly what they think and now we can analyse this. A lot of times we go too narrow, too quickly and miss the pot of gold sitting there.”
Questions can also be formed that are less direct and prone to post-rationalisation. A great way to reframe a question is to ask people what others think. Studies where respondents are asked to which brand they would invest their money in, as opposed to which they like or know, are often insightful. In addition to asking fewer, broader and less direct questions, it is wise to ask them less frequently. House of Brand’s Nick Palmer feels that high-level brand measures are taken too often. “A big issue is over-measurement. Brands are slow-moving things. Behavioural economics tells us they are based on beliefs that are deep set. So don’t measure them so often,” he says.
6. Ask no questions, be told no lies
Counterintuitive it may seem, but the ultimate way of avoiding over-rationalised, meaningless responses is to stop asking questions. It seems like career suicide for a researcher, but many recognise that at times we ask too many questions. Marketers therefore need to ask their agencies to consider methods that require no direct questions, relying instead on observation.
Text analytics can almost be considered ethnography in the way it observes naturally occurring brand interactions, with no interviewer bias and no questions as such. “There are lots of broken models in the market research paradigm at the moment, in terms of how questions are asked. Early adopters are using text analysis, because you avoid the biases inherent in conventional research,” says Dr Ratnanesan.
Beyond this specific methodology, there is wide recognition that powerful insights come from a blend of information from multiple sources. Marketers should freely share their internal data with research agencies. Nick Palmer is delighted when clients open up their information to him. “It’s about letting agencies in a bit,” he says. “Making them feel a part of the brand team. Collaborating. A good research agency should be hungry for data and information. The more you share with them the better.”
More extreme, although growing rapidly in accessibility and affordability, is the use of eye tracking, facial coding and biometrics. Originally the realm of academia and niche agencies, this technology is now being deployed by research agencies to further build their insight into consumer behaviour.
Understanding exactly where consumers are looking, and for how long, is insightful in the development of communications or websites, for examining store layouts and in creating optimal packaging, with the correct message hierarchy. Although different technology options are available, they typically monitor and record two things: where the head is looking with one outward looking camera and where the person is looking with cameras trained on the eyes. Units are now portable, so consumers can walk around stores, scan across shelves or sit and watch adverts.
Chris Thomas uses eye-tracking technology to reach the parts direct questions cannot and finds it invaluable. He explains, “What people say they saw can be very different to what they actually saw. This is a different approach; it’s more factual. A client will come to us unsure how people are navigating in-store. We’ll get people to shop wearing the headset and have quite a natural experience.”
No one is entirely sure where technology, societal change, academia and data growth will take research next. As the ancient adage says, change is the only constant in life. Perhaps the old image of the clipboard-carrying researcher will even fade away. Marketers who act as early adopters of new research techniques have an opportunity to pull away from the pack. Brands that act on fresh insight will always stand out. It may be hard to pin down, but understanding the real drivers of consumer behaviour should be a marketer’s goal. The truth is out there.