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    This is the personal blog of Simon Kendrick and covers my interests in media, technology and popular culture. All opinions expressed are my own and may not be representative of past or present employers
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21st century market research

I’ve just finished reading Communispace’s latest position paper “You are now leaving your comfort zone: 21st century market research” (link points to their blog post, which in turn links to the pdf). It is unquestionably one of the best research papers I have read in quite some time.

It has to be taken with the caveat that the paper is promoting their position as providers of large-scale, continuous research communities and that the recommendations are focused around the relative strengths of this methodology. Nevertheless, I found myself in agreement with the majority of the points made.

  • Actionable: I loved the quote that it is “more important for research to be actionable than irrefutable”. It is to an extent a straw man argument, since 20th century “gold standard” techniques are still rife with bias, but I am in total support of “good enough” research. Trading efficiency for supposed accuracy has diminishing returns and with our complex multi-dimensional environments, no research can be truly predictive or offer complete accurate validation. Shifting the emphasis of debate from data quality to data application is crucial, in my opinion
  • Professional respondents: “Professional” respondents are inevitable in research, and I like the notion of accepting this and including them as “actors”. I was not aware of the ARF’s research showing that professional respondents actually give better quality results. but presume this is where professionals don’t lie about themselves in order to pass the recruitment screener i.e. they are “acting a role”. It is a good observation that, over time, it becomes harder to fake and so responses become more authentic and trustworthy
  • Openness: Transparency and self-disclosure are important measures in reframing respondents as participants. We should be moving away from treating the people we research as emotionless lab-rats. Instead, there should be a two-way dialogue. Obscure projective techniques may indeed relax people into opening up, but I believe the researcher revealing elements about themselves facilitates a better environment for open discussion. Similarly, why hide the research sponsor and leave the person second guessing (unless of course it is highly sensitive NPD)
  • Exploratory research: I also agree that the strength of research lies earlier in the process. Validating hypotheses may be important in offering reassurance, risk assessment or measurements of success, but there is a massive opportunity in terms of idea generation and creative development. I don’t really like the term co-creation but there is opportunity for collaboration which creatives and strategists should view as an opportunity to better relate to their target audiences, and not a threat (since ideas ultimately need their expertise to be worked up into viable and coherent campaigns or executions)

Inevitably, there were also a couple of points I didn’t agree with

  • Real-time: Real-time interaction and feedback is fantastic in some areas – customer service and closing a sale, for instance. Research is not one of these areas. Interpreting research needs consideration and contextual understanding; real-time can make us too trigger happy
  • Natural: As long as research uses recruitment techniques (nearly always necessary in order to speak to the right people, and the right balance of people), it will never be truly natural. “Naturalistic” maybe, but not natural

But on the whole, it is a great read and I would recommend you all to take a look at it.

A final thing that struck me about the paper was the use of a couple of quotes from industry leaders. When I read presentations, reports or papers from marketers or strategists, they are often illustrated with quotations from peers or thought leaders in the space. The research industry doesn’t really have that. The “researchsphere” doesn’t have the same vibrancy as the “plannersphere” and so the trade bodies and the trade press need to play a much more prominent role in providing platforms for client-side industry leaders to speak from. Thus far, they do not seem to be doing so. All talks and papers I see seem to be project- or sales-based; there is very little commentary on the evolution or application of research from their perspective.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/expressmonorail/3046970004/

Considering the collective opinion

Life is not logical. The whole is different to the sum of its parts.

Yet the majority of quantitative research is not structured to reflect this.

It assumes that survey respondents are considered and rational individuals, able to make an informed choice when asked to consider a series of options, or able to adequately communicate their thoughts, opinions or attitudes.

Yet, in most instances this isn’t true

  • The school of behavioural science, currently championed by Rory Sutherland at the IPA, portrays humans as mannequins to be manipulated by an invisible hand, or nudged to predictably irrational conclusions
  • Those who believe Google makes us stupid talk about the rise of distributed memory. We are now more wired to remember a wide range of data superficially, rather than a depth of informed knowledge
  • Our hectic lives preclude a degree of considered choice on non-special occasions, so we blink, “thin-slice” and make gut reactions
  • The paradox of choice and analysis paralysis mean we prefer to make choices on a more limited number of options than are perhaps available – this screening process is by no means optimal
  • The individual is not an island, but part of a community

This latter point in particular has been on my mind recently.

There have been attempts to engineer research by identifying influentials or mavens (link is a pdf) but I’m not aware of any technique that satisfactorily conveys the intertwining impact that our personal relationships and media exposure have on our thoughts and actions.

We might follow Herd behaviour. So, if the media constantly mentions Facebook, it leads people to try it. And if Academy Members hear that the Hurt Locker is the favourite to win best film, then they will vote for it.

But then there doesn’t appear to be a guarantee that this prophecy is self-fulfilling. A Labour victory at the 1992 election was seen as a foregone conclusion, yet people stayed at home or kept their Conservative biases hidden until the day of polling. And the hype surrounding Second Life didn’t convert us all to living vicariously through an online avatar.

So why not? Duncan Watts has worked extensively on this. He argues in favour of randomness, where an initial option gains some traction that is in turn exacerbated as people validate it. This makes some intuitive sense – if I am searching on Amazon, I might initially limit my search to the highest rated items, even though those rating them might have highly different needs for the product to my own.

Is it possible to predict which ideas or concepts will eventually succeed? I know Brainjuicer have had some success with their predictive markets, but it appears to be an area open for innovation.

Would we need to run full simulations (either controlled experiments, or computer models) to judge which environmental factors will have the largest influence?

Or would it be possible to infer a “herd multiplier” to frame a concept in the likelihood of it being adopted by a community or the media?

Or could we go back and question people on their expected behaviour in the context of what their actual behaviour was, in order to get them to post-rationalise the differences?

Or, will this always be a problem with quantitative research, and instead we should look to smaller sample groups of people to test how ideas and preferences disseminate and iterate through a group of likeminded people?

I don’t know the answer. But it is certainly something worth thinking about.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/28191556@N02/3160824946/