Posts Tagged ‘market research’

By Bob Relihan, Senior Vice President

Thanks to a generous wife, I am now wearing a Pebble on one wrist and a Fitbit Force on the other.  Even though she wasn’t generous enough to give me Google Glass, clearly it was a wearable holiday at our house.  I felt a bit behind these items by giving her a new iPad - how last year… or even, how two years ago.

178835104Wearable technology was everywhere at this year’s CES.  So, I suppose I am now on the cutting edge.  But, what are we to make of this explosion of wearable devices?  Is this a case of technology in search of problem?  Or, is technology aligning itself with some fundamental human need?  It may be too early to tell.  Wearables are in their infancy.  I have a different device on each wrist, but they cannot talk with each other.  And, they perform different functions.  I should have just one wearable that does it all.  But, what is that “all.”  Right now my Pebble simply mirrors my smartphone.  Yes, it is fun to control the phone’s music with a watch or get a text message by glancing down at my wrist.  Yet, it is “just” fun; it definitely is not crucial.  It is a good rule of thumb that a technology that simply replicates the content of an earlier technology has not yet found its voice.

While its many executions may be clunky now, wearable computing speaks to some elemental human desires.

  • Since the first computer, we have been subject to the power of “the other.”  The computer structures our language and our thinking.  It is not without reason that we spoke of being chained to our computers.  As computers became smaller and their languages and interfaces more flexible, we gained a measure of control. Wearable computing put that technology totally at our service, at least ideally.  Rather than bending our thoughts and perceptions to the structure imposed by a computer, wearable computing enhances and strengthens our view of the world.
  • Social networking does more than keep us in touch with our friends.  Social networking is so successful because it appeals to our ego.  It permits us to continually be in touch with our thoughts and actions and to be assured they fit harmoniously within those of our circle.  Wearable computing makes that immediate and seamless.  So many of these wearable devices let us track and monitor our actions; they provide us with feedback.  In effect, we objectify ourselves and then integrate that objectification through the wearable device.

Robocop may be satire, but there is a sense in which we all desire to have our perceptions and understanding of the world around us augmented and heightened.  We want to control our world with technology, not be controlled by technology outside us.

But what does this mean for research?  We may be moving away from a research model in which respondents’ give responses to surveys, in which the response is independent of the respondents.

  • If consumers want to track and monitor themselves and they have the technology in the near future to do that seamlessly, insight professionals should be able to tap into that stream of self-reflection.  But in this world, the consumer and the response are one; we will be less able to ask direct questions.  Rather, we will need to align what consumers are “tracking” about themselves with the questions we might want to ask.
  • And, that tracking will yield smaller and smaller pieces of data.  We are currently struggling to adapt our insight gathering to the limitations imposed by the size of a smartphone screen.  Imagine how we will have to modify our perspectives if the Pebble is how we connect with consumers.

We are looking at a world in which our connections to consumers are even more immediate than we could ever imagine.

By Bob Relihan, Senior Vice President

Leonard Murphy has just posted a preview of the latest GRIT Study.  In it he identifies the top emerging trends in Marketing Research.  The top five are:

1.   Online Communities

2.   Mobile Surveys

3.   Social Media Analytics

4.   Text Analytics

5.   Big Data Analytics

As Murphy notes, these methods have reached mainstream status with the substantial majorities of researchers either using them or actively considering their adoption.  The next tier of methods has a smaller majorities using or consider them:

6.  Webcam-Based Interviews

7.  Eye Tracking

8.  Mobile Qualitative

9.  Mobile Ethnography

10.  Micro-surveys

These two lists speak to many of the changes in the research environment. For instance, mobile is the environment where we will find consumers and where they will expect to communicate their attitudes and beliefs.  Approaches we have typically used in a face-to-face setting in the past are being adapted to the online and mobile spaces. Big data, of course, is impossible to ignore.

But, if we look at these methods from the vantage point of the nature of the data involved, it is clear to me that seven of the ten are “qualitative” methods. That is not to say, however, that these are focus groups in disguise. Yet, with the exception of mobile surveys, eye tracking, and micro-surveys, these methods demand the analysis of non-structured, free-form data which is the essence of qualitative research. To be sure, some of these methods are bringing a more rigorous analytic perspective to this data.  But, they will only be successful if they are implemented by those who are comfortable drawing insights from non-structured data.  And, that is the qualitative researcher.

Regional Differences Do Matter

December 12th, 2013

By Bob Relihan, Senior Vice President

“Make sure that we get a good regional representation.”  That has often been the charge from the marketing manager to the insights director.  There has been a belief that different cuisines, climates, and experiences would have an impact on attitudes and tastes that could affect how consumers react to new products.   So, we would be certain to conduct focus groups in markets in three different regions or that quotas were set to assure the sample represented the East, South, Midwest, and West equally.  This was simply good research practice.

Then there was the evening I sat in a focus group room in Atlanta and discovered, as I went around the table that every one of the participants was originally from New Jersey.  I had just conducted focus groups in New Jersey the night before.  Why had I made that flight?

Perspectives change.  To be sure, a brand’s sales figures can vary from market to market, but I cannot remember the last time I concluded the differences in brand perceptions from one market to another were ground in fundamental differences in the behavior or attitudes of consumers in those markets.  ”Place” as defined by traditional markets seems less relevant now.  Virtual communities define differences now, or intra-regional differences such as those between an urban core and the suburbs.  We are much more interested in ethnic or generational differences when we strive to be representative.

And, from an operational perspective, with more and more qualitative research being conducted virtually, it has become possible to assure that an online community has participants from all over the country.  There is no need for travel to those four different markets to be “representative.”

But, a recent article by Richard Florida in The Atlantic Cities points to a large-scale study by a team social psychologists,  ”Divided We Stand: Three Psychological Regions of the United States and Their Political, Economic, Social and Health Correlates.”  The team analyzed data from a number of surveys that stretched over a twelve year period, representing 1.5 million people from the 48 continental United States.  They mapped and clustered the occurrence of five personality traits – openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

This is Florida’s summary of their conclusions.

The study identifies three main regional types:  friendly and conventional, relaxed and creative, and temperamental and uninhibited. The maps below, from the study, show how these line up across America’s states.

photo1The shaded areas on the maps above, from the study, show where the three profiles predominate.

  • The Friendly and Conventional Region is the blue area that runs from Michigan through the Midwest and much of the Sunbelt and traditional South. This region is defined by low levels of openness (the trait most closely associated with innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship), low levels of narcissism (the counterpoint to which is a high level of emotional stability) and moderate to high levels of extroversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness. This composite of traits shapes a regional personality that is sociable, considerate, dutiful, and traditional.

As the authors note, “the psychological profile and all the social indicators betray a region that is marked by conservative social values.” This ethos maps onto a region whose residents are primarily white and politically conservative, less likely to move, and more likely to remain close to family and friends. They also have relatively lower levels of education, wealth, innovation, and social tolerance. This region has high levels of social capital and engagement in religious and traditional civic organizations. As the authors conclude, “taken together, the characteristics of this psychological region suggest a place where traditional values, family, and the status quo are important.”

  • The Relaxed and Creative Region is the green area along the West Coast and Rocky Mountains through Idaho, Arizona, and New Mexico. There is also a weaker concentration, identified by the much lighter green shading in parts of the Sunbelt (especially North Carolina) and some of New England (including Massachusetts). This regional profile is high in openness and oriented toward creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship. It is also low in extroversion (less-outgoing, more introverted) and agreeableness and especially low in neuroticism (in other words, it has higher levels of emotional stability).

Demographically, the population includes relatively high levels of college grads, more affluent people and higher levels of ethnic diversity. “Social capital is comparatively low here, but tolerance for cultural diversity and alternative lifestyles is high,” the article notes. Befitting its historical origins as the destination for pioneers, it is an “area where significant numbers of people are choosing to settle, as indicated by the positive association with residential mobility…. It is also a place where residents are politically liberal, as well as psychologically and physically healthy.”

  • The Temperamental and Uninhibited Region is the deep orange area that covers the Northeast, New England and Middle Atlantic states. There are also lighter concentrations in the contiguous areas of Ohio and Indiana, as well as Texas. This region’s psychological profile is defined by very high levels neuroticism (hence the temperamental moniker), moderately high levels of openness, low levels of extroversion (or high levels of introversion) and very low levels of agreeableness and conscientiousness. This constellation of personality traits depict a type of person that is “reserved, aloof, impulsive, irritable, and inquisitive,” while also being “passionate, competitive, and liberal.” This region is highly educated and affluent, with high levels of ethnic and cultural diversity and a liberal political orientation.

If nothing else, this analysis serves to confirm certain stereotypes we all hold of those from different parts of the country.  But, the authors of the study make other connections, seeing their data as providing a psychological underpinning to the politically conservative character of the South and Midwest and the entrepreneurial and creative character of the West.  In their view, both of these conclusions have policy implications.

But, from the perspective marketing research, particularly that conducted in support of new product and communications development, this research gives support to a renewed concern for very specific geographic balance.  One cannot doubt that individuals with the three character traits described above are very likely to have different reactions to new products and communications.  Thus, assuring that the three regions are properly represented in any piece of research seems prudent.  Perhaps, the basic three-market focus group project should feature three markets that appear to be ground zero for the three clusters — New York, Omaha, and Phoenix?

By Bob Relihan, Senior Vice President

We often encourage consumers to think “metaphorically.”  In a focus group or interview, metaphors can be powerful.  Those who use them open up.  They move in new and unexpected directions.  Ultimately, the metaphors put us in touch with the unconscious motivations and beliefs of the consumers who create them.

157601193But, the process doesn’t always work.  You ask consumers to discuss a particular product, and they say it is “like a golden retriever.”  We have all heard the “golden retriever.”  The brand makes them feel good, and a golden retriever makes them feel good.  This is stale, predictable.  We are tempted to say that we have just gotten into a rut of convention.  Ask people to name a dog, and most give the golden retriever.

From the perspective of interviewing technique, the problem is deeper and more basic.  We have confused metaphor with simile.  Not to be over pedantic, but let me define.  Both are figures of speech; both are analogies.  But, a simile uses like or as in the analogy.  In a metaphor, the comparison is implicit.

The difference between an implicit and an explicit analogy is key in dealing with a respondent. When individuals make a conscious, literal comparison, there is no room for serendipity.  You can see the wheels turning.

“Let’s see.  Brand A makes me feel good.  OK.  What else makes me feel good?  Golden retrievers make me feel good.  So, Brand A is like a golden retriever.”

She has added nothing, and you have learned nothing.  She might as well have told you directly that Brand A made her feel good.  When consumers switch to “simile mode” they make a simple literal translation.  There is no expansion; nothing is in touch with their motivations.

So, how can we encourage more genuine metaphorical thinking?

  • Use creative, projective exercises.  Have your consumers draw pictures or cartoons.  Create a category family.  Write a brand obituary.  Describe how a brand smells (even if the product has no smell).  Do anything that confuses the terms of the explicit analogy the consumer might want to create between her emotions and that brand or product in which you are interested.  You can do this by always shifting among senses.  If you are interested in the taste of a product, talk about its color.  If you want to understand the impact of a product’s color, discuss its aroma.
  • Focus on the metaphor’s vehicle.  Traditional rhetorical theory distinguishes between the “tenor” and the “vehicle” of a metaphor.  The tenor is the object or concept in which you are interested.  The vehicle is what is compared to it.  For example, in the opening of Dante’s Divine Comedy, a life in error is the tenor described by analogy to a dark forest, the vehicle. If you have the consumer focus solely on the vehicle–the golden retriever in our initial example of a simile–and discuss only the vehicle–what it means, how it looks, how it feels–you will break the conscious connection the consumers might want to make between the tenor and the vehicle.  In discussing just the vehicle, she will reveal her subconscious associations with the tenor.
  • Tell stories and discuss the images.  If you have consumers tell stories about a brand, you will also break down the obvious, explicit connections.  For example, I used to ask car owners about the most memorable event they remembered in their cars.  And, I would ask them to tell the stories of that event. One woman described driving to the hotel after her first daughter’s wedding.  A young man described bringing his new car to show his father.  In their descriptions of these events were images that ultimately reflected their sense of the significance of the makes of cars they drove.
  • Never frame your question like a simile.  This is the basic rule.  Never ask what a brand or product is “like.”

If you follow these principles, your metaphoric discussions with consumers will be much more expansive and productive.  I will save the value of allegory for a later post.

By Bob Relihan, Senior Vice President

Every so often, one runs into a marvelous confluence of avocation and vocation.  I love cars.  So, I was reading the blog at Car and Driver and discovered a long discussion of the stagnation of the Honda brand.  Cars AND marketing.  I couldn’t resist.  Toward the end of the piece, Dave Marble described an example of how Honda got in the position of creating underwhelming products.

Basic RGB“The [Honda planning] department concocts customer abstracts so interchangeable business drones can comprehend the intent of a new vehicle. In the case of the first-generation RDX, this abstract was “Jason,” a young, upwardly mobile, urban-residing male that needed a turbocharged engine, “Super Handling All-Wheel Drive,” and room to transport all his lifestyle accouterments. Yeah, okay. As it turned out, there weren’t many “Jasons” buying the RDX. Planning got that part wrong—really wrong.”

I was sympathetic.  It reminded me so much of the experience shared by many qualitative researchers of being asked to assemble a focus group composed of members of a specific customer segment (usually the product of a very sophisticated segmentation analysis) only to discover that the particular combination of demographics, psychographics, and behavior apparently does not exist in the real world.

But, I also know that user archetypes can be incredibly valuable.  I have helped develop some.  They focus the minds of marketers and new product developers.  You may not be able to have an actual customer with you 24/7, but you can have the user archetype of your product taped above your desk.

So, here are four guidelines for creating user archetypes that work.

  • Make sure that “real users” drive the process.  Accurate user archetypes are based on close observation of real users — their needs, their wants, their behavior.  This may seem self-evident, but I suspect that the “Jason” had his genesis not in the lives of real car buyers but out of the need or desire on the part of Honda to assure that the RDX was true to their vision of the Acura nameplate and that the RDX was clearly distinguished from the similar Honda CR-V.  To convince themselves that a member of their vehicle portfolio was distinct, they created a “vision” of its buyer that was also distinct, and self-fulfilling.  And, evidently, inaccurate.
  • Recognize the difference between real and aspirational users.  For marketers, their products have two kinds of users — the real flesh and blood user and the person the real user aspires to be by using the product.  Understanding both users is crucial to marketers, but confusing them can cause problems.  For example, the media behaviors of real and aspirational users can be different.  Building a media plan on the tastes of the aspirational user may not reach the real target.  Again, Honda may have erred in this direction.  Jason seems much more like someone to whom an RDX user might aspire.
  • Recognize the difference between a user personality and a brand personality. The marketers or new product developers often have two touchstones to guide their efforts — the brand personality and the user personality.  I have known brand managers with two different types of consumer-created collages in their offices.  One collected images of users and what the stood for; the other revealed images of the brand’s personality.  There can be overlap between the two, but there is rarely identity.  A car, such as a compact SUV like the RDX, might well have the personality of a magician which enables the user to have the personality of a superhero.
  • Be “real” yourself.  Do not overly idealize your user.  He may have flaws, but these flaws may be essential to how he or she relates to your product.

Ultimately, take your user archetype out for a test drive.  Once you have created the archetype, see if you can actually find real representatives.  Talk to them; listen to them.  Does the archetype resonate with them?  Remember, the archetype is a construct to guide your actions, so they are unlikely to play it back literally and verbatim.  But, if the archetype is well constructed, it should reflect their needs, desires, hopes, and fears.

By Walt Dickie, Executive Vice President

telegraphWill Oremus just posted a terrific short piece in Slate on the end of the era of commercial telegraphy. Once the Internet of the Victorian Era, the telegraph industry gradually ceded ground to a succession of newer communications technologies, like that Alexander Graham Bell thingy and, eventually its portable, “smart” version and the modern internet.

The telegraph survived, and was last seen in commercial form in India, where its usage peaked in the 1980s. It has continued on, serving a large population that still doesn’t have either landlines (widely thought to be on their sickbeds) or cell phones.

But now, with losses mounting, India’s government-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (BSNL) telegraph company is scheduled to close. The world’s last commercial telegram is expected to be sent on July 14, 2013. Counting back to the telegraph invented by Samuel F.B. Morse in 1836, that’s 177 years – a good run by almost any standard.

I’ve posted before about how the members of the MR commentariat consistently go overboard on stories predicting the impending doom of MR at the hands of one innovation or the other, and I’ve tried to provide a better framework for thinking about what actually drives historical change in the industry. In short, we’ve got to stop panicking about rapid change in the technical sphere and focus more on how to leverage technological advantage to serve the needs of corporate decision-making if we’re going to adapt and continue to deliver value to our clients.

And the long tail of the commercial telegraph should be an encouragement to the many companies in every industry that are more interested in carving out stable, profitable business models at a manageable scale than becoming the next billion-dollar IPO.

The last time I wrote about this issue of long tails, I used the classic example of buggy whips to make the point that even in the 21st century someone was still making a living off buggy whips: a powerful argument that even the least promising market niches can be fertile ground for someone, even after they’re poor soil for most companies. I had to search around quite a while on Google before finding a buggy whip manufacturer, but I did eventually find the web site (!) of a company called Ashfield Carriage & Equipment still offering them. I’m sorry to say that if you click the link you’ll find the site is now inactive.

I started writing this post thinking that the demise of Ashfield Carriage would make for a sad sort of ending, but then I thought of searching the world’s marketplace, Amazon. And I’m delighted to report that my search for buggy whips there turned up no fewer than nine choices!

I’m not arguing that it’s better, wiser, or more lucrative for your career or business to live on the backside of a paradigm shift, surviving on the long tail of a dying technology. But I am arguing, strongly, that there are a lot more choices and possibilities than just “get with the new paradigm” or “drop dead” if you’re managing an market research company negotiating a period of great change. The telegraph, even in death, and the continuing life of the buggy whip are proof.

By Bob Relihan, Senior Vice President

Mark Harrington has an interesting note under the title, “Is Surveying Obsolete?”  I have a knee-jerk reaction to these articles about the inherent biases of survey research and the folly of asking consumers what they want.  Of course consumers can’t always articulate what they want.  Their answers can be perfectly sincere, as well as misleading, incomplete, and self-serving.  It is the job of analysis, not the consumer, to illuminate their wants and needs.

151934043Harrington continues that in an era of big data, what marketers need to do is observe their customers to assess their true desires.  I will leave the question of whether consumer behavior is any more true or accurate than their pronouncements for another day.  It is true that we now have an unprecedented opportunity to “observe” a large number of consumers in a variety of “locations,” engaged in multiple relationships with products and friends.  And, what many marketers have always wanted to do is immerse themselves in this reality.

But, marketers have also been concerned about the cost of research, and this has resulted in the Rise of D-I-Y research and the tools that make it possible.  Yesterday, someone passed on to me a nugget of information he had gleaned from a few questions he had asked using Survey Monkey.  And, there are much more sophisticated tools available.  But, the question is, “if surveying is obsolete, why isn’t D-I-Y research obsolete?”  They have at their core the same “problem”; they both rely on consumers to report their wants and needs.

True D-I-Y research, the D-I-Y of the future, will be a set of tools and services that lets the marketer truly get up to his or her elbows in the lives of consumers.

  • It will aggregate data from multiple sources.
  • And, it will be able to aggregate and make connections within this data stream over time.
  • It will provide tools that allow the marketer to enter the stream and test hypotheses.
  • It will provide tools to analyze the stream of consumer behavior and identify trends and themes.
  • It will correlate behaviors and make predictions based on these correlations.  Ultimately, this kind of research will look more like Moneyball than social science research.

Old-fashioned D-I-Y research is comparatively simple and straightforward.  This new D-I-Y is not.  Old-fashioned D-I-Y seemed to write the traditional MR industry out of the script.  This new vision of D-I-Y, which I prefer to call I-Y (Immerse Yourself), will have plenty of room for the Industry.

  • Data streams will need to be aggregated and curated.
  • The appropriate tools will need to be assembled into a usable arsenal that can distinguish the signal from the noise.
  • The ultimate needs of the marketer need to be synthesized into the functioning of those tools.  They will need to be tuned and tweaked.
  •  Since the immersion is on-going, there will need to be a kind of institution memory that makes sense of the insights and correlations over time.

In the future, the industry will be less involved in the realm of the craftsman, finely honing designs, data, and results and more in the area of event management.  The researcher will be an impresario, a director, managing and coordinating all the pieces the marketer will need to be fully immersed in the consumer experience.

By Bob Relihan, Senior Vice President

Focus GroupThe title is meant to be a bit clever.  I am not talking about actual focus groups; I am referring to the term.  I have always suspected that focus group was used to refer to any casual, open-ended, small sample, non-projectable research method.  And, I always thought that those who used the term this way were misinformed.  Well, I have to throw in the towel.  I have no better authority than the Pew Research Center.

Its recent project exploring teens, their use of social media, and their attitudes to on-line privacy has generated a good deal of buzz in the press.  It merits an extended discussion in the future.  But, what caught my eye was the research method.  There was a phone survey, twenty-four focus groups conducted in four markets, and “two online focus groups…conducted as an asynchronous threaded discussion over three days using an online platform, and the participants were asked to log in twice per day.”

This is what we at C+R Research call a short-term online community.  To be sure, we conduct focus groups.  We may even conduct focus groups online.  But, we are careful to distinguish between the two methods — focus groups and communities.  We believe each has its strengths that make each appropriate to particular situations and sets of issues.

  • Focus Groups are great when consumers need to be pressed on their reactions by the give-and-take of face-to-face interaction.  This is true when it is important to assess how emotionally committed they are in their reactions to something such as a new product concept.
  • Online communities make it easier for consumers to describe their behavior and feelings at length, often in a nurturing, unthreatening environment.  So, when it is important to explore the behavior of consumers and their emotional involvement in that behavior, online communities are just the ticket. When I want to know the needs that drive category usage and explore the gaps, an online community is a good place to start.

That is why experience is so important.  When the marketing manager says, “We need to do focus groups,” he/she probably means we need to collect information in a way that isn’t a survey.  It is the experienced qualitative researcher, familiar with a range of methods and categories, who can determine whether those “focus groups” should be online communities, individual interviews, ethnographies, in-store observations, or, yes, focus groups.

By Walt Dickie

I have argued that change in the marketing research industry is driven by changes in the corporate communication culture and in corporate decision-making protocols.  The first happens frequently, and we see it every day.  The second, however, occurs less frequently, but it can happen instantly and represent a sea of change. But, what will help us predict the timing or nature of this kind of change? The answer – at least the answer predicted by this model – is that change will come from developments in the greater corporate management environment, which alone has both the power and the interest to alter corporate decision-making structures, rather from change within the marketing department alone.

135137331Let’s look at this a little more closely. What kind of information do current corporate decision-making protocols demand? This is a little tricky to answer succinctly; it seems as though it might require a recitation of all of the types and styles of MR projects that clients commission. But consider that markets as a whole are abstract entities and any analysis or recommendations about them must, out of necessity, be inferential. You can’t go out and talk to a “market” directly; you have to infer its properties. Customers – consumers and businesses – on the other hand, can be addressed directly although you may also infer much about them from various kinds of data.

Looking back at the 30-some years I’ve spent in MR, one repeated demand from clients when customers, rather than whole markets, are concerned, and, one that has only increased over the years, has been for “direct evidence” with “face validity” that bears immediately upon the decision to be made. More simply: modern corporations demand and pride themselves for demanding a certain style of evidence for “evidence-based decision making” when addressing customer-level decisions, and one of MR’s jobs has been to focus increasingly on the collection of data that plainly and, on its face, bears on the customer decision at hand.

So, following the reasoning I’ve laid out so far, we would predict that (a) any new approach that can be reasonably represented as providing more direct evidence for or against the specific customer-level decision at hand will be supported by clients, at least tentatively pending further evidence, and (b) any new approach that does not fit the model of “direct evidence” will wither on the vine unless client companies implement new decision-making protocols or new client companies appear based on different protocols.

I think this perspective helps explain the periodic rush to methods for obtaining consumer data more “directly,” “precisely,” and “scientifically” than the opinion-based methods that MR has always relied on. If, indeed, neuroscience, eye movement, facial expression, galvanic skin response, or quantum entangled ethnography were shown to be more capable of providing unmediated access to consumers’ “true,” interior experience of a product, then that approach would be understood as obviously superior in supporting marketing decisions and would, in fact, sweep the industry. This has not happened yet, however, despite repeated trials.

Will the inferential analysis of consumer behavior – the statistical modeling of customer data, browsing behavior, location, real-world shopping behavior, social media networks, and on- and offline purchasing – prove better at this? The jury is waiting and, of course, some of those “early results” for “Big Data” are tantalizing, but the larger problem seems to be that inferential statistical models are a poor fit for existing corporate decision support systems for customer-level decisions.

Senior-level corporate thinkers and decision makers express regular displeasure with their MR suppliers – and, by extension, their own internal MR departments – for failing to innovate and adapt to powerful new models for generating insight because most customer decision-making protocols favor a “direct” style of customer interrogation while MR departments continue to commission fairly traditional research designs.

What this means for the MR industry as a whole

I draw three main conclusions from this argument:

  1. The pace of change in MR data collection will generally match the pace of change in consumer communication technologies and norms and will be driven by new whatever opportunities and restrictions that accompany those technologies and norms. Since both are currently undergoing rapid change driven principally, but not exclusively, by mobile technology, methodological change will be both rapid and thoroughgoing. Companies that do not stay close to the leading edge of this change will be overtaken by it and suffer in the long run.
  2. Client pressure on MR is now and will likely continue to generally be a conservative, stabilizing force, especially for customer-level decisions. MR companies whose businesses are based on customer-level decision support will see most clients sending RFPs implicitly (if not explicitly) requiring traditional project designs using now-standard “evidence based Q&A” approaches providing “face validity.”Clients will, of course, continue to press for lower costs and shorter timelines. They may adopt “DIY” approaches quite broadly bringing evidence collection closer to the decision, and may require methods based on new consumer communication approaches as they recognize the pace of change in this area. But, radically new research approaches using new kinds of data and reliant on inferential modeling rather than direct interrogation will not occur at anything like the same pace.
  3. Clients that do, at some point, begin to demand that marketing decision-making incorporate and integrate a wider range of modeled consumer behavioral data may change “overnight” from supporting a traditional “evidence-based Q&A” decision model, but only if driven by top-down, wholesale corporate re-structuring of the decision-making environment. MR firms doing business with these clients may be asked to conduct research that incorporates continued efforts based on “evidence based Q&A” with “big” customer data from CRM systems, social media, purchase data, etc., or they may find themselves frozen out by new suppliers whose methods eliminate the need for traditional customer-level MR decision support research.

MR firms that do not stay close to the leading edge of “big data” integration and are not already known for their abilities and interest in this area will have little chance of negotiating this transition. But, not all companies will follow this path and those that do may do so over an extended a period of time. Still, it is quite possible that the pace of change, once established, will accelerate and become essentially universal in a handful of years as new decision models penetrate management training programs and become established in the corporate sphere.

By Walt Dickie

Most marketing researchers are like sports fans: they’re not content to watch the game and see that Team A beat Team B last weekend. They need to work out a story about the strengths and weaknesses of the teams and develop a prediction about what that implies for next week’s games and the teams’ season performances.

I think this personality quirk explains at least some of the current obsession about the industry’s future. Some days it seems like every MR person in the universe is so busy reading and writing blog posts, making and listening to conference presentations, and sniffing out the next clue to the “Next Big Thing” or the “End of MR as We Know It” that no one is getting any paid work done. On this charge, by the way, I’m as guilty as the next guy.

But I’m conscious of feeling a growing antsiness about all of this − not because I think we’ve all gone overboard and should stop, but because I’m increasingly aware that the theory driving most of the blogging, conferencing, and sniffing is way too simplistic.

Here’s how I’d summarize the general approach behind most of the MR blogging I read (and some I’ve written):

100767926There is a new technology/analytic approach/data gathering technique that has produced some very impressive results. A small number of innovative suppliers and their forward-thinking clients have been quietly developing this for a while now, and their efforts are beginning to move beyond the experimental stage. Real tools and platforms are starting to appear, and the leading edge tools and platforms are now coming out of beta and attracting both more investment and more client interest. The buzz is growing among clients/suppliers that this new approach could very well revolutionize/eliminate marketing research as we know it …

What is actually driving this model? What is the underlying mechanism that’s being proposed to drive the model from “some very impressive results” to “revolutionize/eliminate marketing research?”

As anyone will tell you who has ever tried to manage something from the “very impressive results” stage to an actual ongoing business, much less a business capable of overthrowing an industry, early success doesn’t come close to guaranteeing sustainability. A theory that can be reduced to neophilia – Look! A new thing! New things rule! – just isn’t adequate.

So what would a more complete theory of change in marketing research look like?

A good place to start with many questions like this one is to ask, “What defines marketing research as a distinctive activity and business?” I’ve thought about this question a lot over the years, and here’s the best answer I’ve come up with:

“MR is research conducted among the consumers/businesses that purchase or may potentially purchase a product/service, and is carried out to support a corporate marketing decision-making process.”

There are two important points in this definition:

  1. It locates MR as a business between a paying client on the one hand and a customer base on the other. MR plays the role of middleman communicating between these two poles when the client is engaged in making decisions about the customer market.
  2. It distinguishes MR from other kinds of commercial research by specifying the particular institutional role it serves: the client’s marketing function. Other kinds of commercial research, even if they involve the client’s customer base, fall under some other “research” umbrella, not MR.

The usefulness of this approach that it gives us leverage to predict where the drivers of change in MR are likely to be found: consumer communication and corporate decision making.

Communication

I’ve long argued that MR should be understood as being driven by communications – You can go so far as to say that at least the data collection side of the business can be best understood by recasting it in communications terms. How do we communicate with consumers in a way that will enable them to communicate their perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and behaviors so that we can produce, and subsequently communicate, useful analyses and guidance for our clients?

Not only the way we communicate with consumers, but also the content of those communications are determined by the mechanisms, technologies, and norms of communication in the culture. This is one of the drivers of change: we follow as consumers drop telephone and print and take up the web, email, texting/messaging, and social networking.

The same process also drives what we can communicate about: as consumers expand the sphere across which they are comfortable communicating and sharing personal information, they become more comfortable sharing those things with us. This is one way to understand some of the hesitancy we encounter from time to time.

Corporate Decision Support

In most large successful companies, the process of making marketing decisions is not free-form, intuitive, or invented on the fly. Most companies have expended a significant amount of thought and effort developing protocols for making decisions: fixed, well-defined procedures to be followed, questions to be asked, tests to be performed, information to be obtained, and criteria to be met.

Corporate marketing decisions can be seen as being made at two levels: a “higher,” more general level that concerns markets as a whole – their composition, structure, dynamics, and prospects – and a “lower,” more specific level that concerns the marketing of specific products/services within markets. “Higher level” research generally supports broad, strategic decisions; “lower level” research generally supports narrower, more tactical decisions – although this distinction is not always sharply drawn. In order to easily differentiate between the two levels, I’ll refer to these as “market level” research and “customer level” research in what follows.

These protocols are embodied in standard operating procedures, and are followed as a matter of course. Client teams negotiate exactly how to apply these protocols to the specific issues at hand, what corporate resources to expend in following them for a specific case, and how to fit that process into larger timelines. But they don’t question or re-invent the protocols themselves as a normal part of their business responsibilities.

Predicting Change in MR

Considering the different contributions of communication norms and decision protocols and the way these two key drivers evolve lead to what may be a somewhat startling conclusion:

  • The aspects of marketing research driven by the cultural norms of communication – primarily the data collection side of the business – will change regularly and, possibly, rapidly in periods of rapid changes in communication. Such changes will be heavily driven by the processes of development and adoption of new technology.
  • The aspects of marketing research driven by decision-making protocols – client RFPs, many aspects of study design, analysis, and reporting – will tend to change slowly because corporate decision-making standards are created by corporations to interlock with the larger corporate management environment of which marketing is but a small part.

In other words, rapidly changing new communications technology will be put to the service of unchanging corporate needs for some unspecified, but significant period of time. Put more fancifully and colorfully: even if quantum entanglement hyper-neurology is adopted as a data gathering technique, the MR industry will respond by adapting traditional project designs to use quantum entanglement hyper-neurological methods rather than explore radically different approaches made possible by QEHN as long as client decision-making protocols demand the same kind of output – QEHN will be used to evaluate large attribute grids with 10-point scales.