MRS Annual Conference 2012
All posts from: March 2012
There’s a short list of books that everyone in research circles seems to be expected to have read. Fortunately, these books are usually based around an idea that can be summed up in a couple of words (Nudge, Blink, Predictably Irrational, The Black Swan) and everyone bangs on about them so much at conferences that you can discuss them confidently without bothering to read them.
But there’s as much to be learned from books that have, on the surface, nothing to do with research or business. After all, researchers are supposed to be interested in the world in general, not just the world of research.
On the second day of the MRS Annual Conference, Razor Research’s Chloe Fowler chaired the Research Book Club, at which four speakers discussed books that have inspired them in their work, and the audience chipped in with their own recommendations.
Jonathan Wakeham, co-founder of the London Comedy Film Festival, brought along Comedy Rules by Yes, Minister co-writer Jonathan Lynn. Humour is underused in research, Wakeham argued, as a way of revealing and communicating truths. People talk about comics having a skewed view of the world – but perhaps it’s more about having a clear-headed view of a world which is skewed.
Comedy also teaches us to not take things too seriously, he said, and to remember that what we’re doing is ultimately “not that important”.
Andrew Bradley of BritainThinks spoke about George Orwell’s 1984. The book’s depiction of constant surveillance in a totalitarian state is particularly interesting in a time when observational research and tracking of online activity is a growing part of a researcher’s toolkit, he said.
Rose van Orden of BBC Audio and Music brought along the business bestseller The Trusted Advisor by David Maister, Charles Green and Robert Galford. The book defines trustworthiness as a combination of intimacy, credibility and reliability – divided by self-orientation. If we want to be trusted, we have to remember to be “other-oriented” said van Orden.
Layla Northern of Boots recommended Nickel and Dimed, in which undercover journalist Barbara Ehrenreich chronicles her experience in a series of low-wage jobs in America. It’s a great example of immersive, observational research, but also flawed from a research point of view, because Ehrenreich ends up influencing those around her, and is at times unable to see the working class world she enters through anything other than “a middle-class lens”.
Other recommendations included Annie Pettit’s The Listen Lady (via John Griffiths of Spring) and Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland (via Tom Ewing of BrainJuicer).
If you want to hear more about what other researchers are reading, and share what you’ve learned from the books that have inspired you, the book club is becoming a regular MRS event, starting on Friday 20 April.
Marcus du Sautoy, professor of mathematics at Oxford University, likes Pi – both the mathematical constant and the film of the same name.
His MRS Conference talk began with a clip from the movie, which follows a mathematician’s descent into insanity while trying to look for mathematical patterns in the Jewish Torah.
“Mathematicians are pattern searchers,” du Sautoy explains. “That’s where mathematicians and researchers have so much in common.”
Max Cohen, the protagonist of Pi, believes that “there are patterns everywhere in nature”, you just have to how to see them. But that way lies madness, as Cohen discovers.
In the era of big data, it’s tempting to go looking for those patterns that can help us understand and ultimately predict human behaviour. But du Sautoy’s talk was both a lesson and a warning about the danger of seeing patterns where none exist, and in thinking that all patterns are predictable.
The pattern behind prime numbers, for example, continues to elude the brightest minds in the field, du Sautoy said. There is no way of knowing where, in the sequence of numbers, a prime will occur. “They seem to have a very random behaviour, but they can’t be random,” du Sautoy said. “A prime is a prime.”
Elsewhere in maths there are instances where a pattern looks to have been established, fooling you into thinking that you can predict where it goes next, only for it to end up “somewhere unexpected”, du Sautoy said.
And yet randomness can be understood thanks to a branch of mathematics called chaos theory, which recognises that there are systems that are so delicate that small changes in variables can send them spiralling out of control.
“With chaos theory, it’s not necessarily true that you can’t make predictions,” says du Sautoy, “but it is important to know when you can and when you can’t.”
Earth’s weather system is a good example of this, he said. Five-day forecasts can be reasonably accurate, du Sautoy explained, but attempting to make predictions into the sixth, seventh or eighth day and beyond becomes nigh-on impossible, with too many possible variables to consider and too many possible outcomes.
All of which seems to apply to the study of human behaviour. If a researcher were to ask any one of us what we would buy if we went shopping tomorrow, or how we would vote if an election were held the next day, we – and thus they – might be able to predict our behaviour with some accuracy. But next week, next month, next year? Who’s to say.
In choosing who to vote for at an election, which candidate characteristics are most desirable to the electorate? This was the question Joe Twyman, director of political and social research at YouGov, and University of Nottingham professor Phillip Cowley sought to answer.
“Philip’s idea was to check different characteristics by changing attributes within the candidate biographies,” explained Twyman in his MRS Conference presentation.
“We tested four questions: Which is the most approachable candidate? Who is the most experienced? Who is the most effective? And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, who would you prefer as an MP?”
Twyman and Cowley discovered that female candidates – all other things being equal – tend to score much higher for approachability and lower for experience, but these differences in perception do not translate into a difference in preference.
“We’ve known this for a long time: what I wanted to do was repeat this with different characteristics to see the relative importance of each,” said Cowley. “Religion we found had almost no effect; age had some effect.”
It seems too much education can also hurt a politician’s chances of winning. “The British like uneducated candidates,” Cowley said, with 18 seeming to be the optimum age to leave education.
The characteristics that made the biggest differences to voting preferences were occupation and “localness”.Twyman and Cowley said the public could be put off by the idea of a professional politician even if they recognised the experience that came with it. On the other hand, they like the idea of a candidate who is a GP – though quite how that squares with a dislike of well-educated candidates is anyone’s guess.
But GP or not, being a local candidate is was what matters most.
Guest post by Alastair Heggie
And the winners of the MRS Conference Awards are:
Lisa Edgar, The Big Window, and David Bunker, BBC
It’s all in the mind: Changing the way we think about age
Don’t tell me, show me: Finding answers without questions
Research and the business of change: How research can kick-start innovation and power the new
Chaired by Debrah Harding, the Market Research Society
Peter Dann, The Nursery
How people see brands in social media
Victoria Guyatt, Ipsos Mori
Research is no island: A positive outlook for the Met Office
Best Overall Contributions
Paul Childs, Join the Dots
Victoria Guyatt, Ipsos Mori
Katie Kaylor, Phones4U
Jerry Latter, Ipsos Mori
Sara Sheridan, Firefish
Naomi Stoll, Opinion Leader
What can you learn about market research from playing Guess Who?
The classic board game was the starting point for a study looking at perceptions of people who work in research, results of which were presented by Mark Hirst and Naomi Stoll of Opinion Leader at the MRS Annual Conference today.
The issue of talent in research is a big one. Yesterday, Kantar’s Eric Salama picked out “recruiting the best talent” as the top thing the industry has to focus on to ready itself for the future.
Hirst and Stoll asked recent entrants to the research business which of the characters in Guess Who? most resembles a market researcher. Most of the respondents agreed that their initial image of a researcher was something like the balding, bespectacled, geeky Tom (as opposed to, for instance, the more youthful Frans or the cosmopolitan-looking Maria).
However, they also said that their experience in the industry had taught them that most researchers look nothing like that. In fact, there is no single image that fits the range of different people working in the industry.
Most of the young people whom Hirst and Stoll spoke to described having found their way into research pretty much by accident, and the same was true of today’s conference delegates: a straw poll confirmed that only about a quarter of the audience had sought out careers in research, while an overwhelming majority had fallen into it.
So if the people coming into research never expected to end up here, and come with false expectations of what a career in research entails, what does that mean for the industry?
Not all of today’s audience accepted the idea that the research business has an image problem – or that any kind of drive to raise its profile would make any difference. In fact, in these tough economic times, many agencies receive more CVs from promising grads than they know what to do with.
Ben Toombs of TNS-BMRB argued that “falling into” your career shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing. After all, research needs people with open minds and broad experience of life and business. Steve Phillips of Spring Research agreed, saying that anyone who has wanted to be a researcher since they were small is probably “a bit weird”.
Chloe Fowler of Razor Research said the talent challenge is less about people starting out in research, and more about what happens further down the line. She sees an exodus of senior people who’ve been in the industry for eight or nine years and start to find that if they want to progress further, things are expected of them that they never signed up for.
But there was agreement on one point. When the audience were asked if they loved their jobs in research, almost all the hands in the room shot up.
Depending on who you have been listening to over the last few years, neuromarketing is either going to reinvigorate market research or make it redundant. Or it’s just a fad. But in this afternoon’s session on the science of the mind at the MRS Annual Conference, it felt like neuroscience might be gradually becoming accepted as another tool in a researcher’s box.
“Research has failed to capture true emotions.” That is the view of TNS’s global head of neuroscience Cristina de Balanzó Bono. But at the same time she conceded that neuromarketing is a “cottage industry” that “overpromises its deliverables” and suffers from a lack of buying expertise among clients.
But when old and new methods are combined, the results are positive, said de Balanzó Bono. A study on TV ads with two panels – one using neuroscience techniques and one using traditional techniques combined with biometrics – produced deeper insights than either would have done on their own, she said.
FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) has helped TNS predict behaviour change, and is the only way to determine reactions to brands when consumers go into ‘autopilot’ when shopping, she said.
Sparkler is another agency that has been using neuromarketing alongside more traditional techniques. Founding partner John Robson said: “It’s an addition not a subtraction in terms of available methodologies.”
There were words of caution, however, from long-time neurosceptic David Penn who warned researchers to beware of the “neuromaniacs” and their promises, highlighting recent books on the subject by AK Pradeep of NeuroFocus and Martin Lindstrom.
“If brains are in control,” Penn said, “then our free will is an illusion.”
Gamification is hot right now, and no wonder. It’s the perfect retort to people who warn of the death of surveys. Here, at last, we have a way to make surveys fun and engaging, to make it an experience people want to take part in. But the course of gamification doesn’t always run smooth.
MRS Conference heard this morning from Engage Research director Andy Barker and Heinz consumer insight manager Lisa Hunt who embarked on an experiment to try to gamify a focus group about soup.
Instead of the normal group discussion, participants took part in game-like exercises, some based on familiar party games. In one instance they were tasked with using only five words to describe soup, while in another they were challenged to make a sentence about soup by asking each member to say one word that followed on from the person before them.
Did it work? Yes and no. Hunt said engagement levels were “great” and that the responses they obtained were similar to those collected from the firm’s Facebook page. “That gives it credibility,” she said.
Barker, on the other hand, was less impressed. “It’s not naturally introspective,” he said, and he worried that the games “disrupted the dynamics of the group”.
“I think it started to get on people’s nerves because there was too much energy,” Barker said. Gamification “runs the risk of turning qual into infotainment”, he warned.
As delegates learnt from Magnus Lindkvist on day one of MRS Conference, the average life of a company is about the same as a woodpecker: 12 years. The case studies heard in day two’s session on The Business of Change showed how research can be a driver for innovation which allows businesses to survive in increasingly competitive markets.
“McDonald’s, for the first thirty years of its life, had a relatively easy task,” explained Tom Peck, director of consumer insights at McDonald’s Europe. “Round about the year 2000 things started to change; it got a lot harder to grow the business by opening new restaurants so we had to target same-store sales growth.”
“We had to focus more on what consumer’s want, why do they want it and how we can react to that.”
Melanie Johnston, qualitative director at TNS-RI showed how the agency used multiple research methodologies in its work for McDonald’s to generate data and, importantly, to “turn that data into insights, and those insights into actions that would benefit the brand”.
TNS-RI used exit interviews, static cameras, accompanied trips and observations to track customer journeys. They were able to see and hear the customer experience through the eyes and ears of a child by using cameras mounted in glasses worn by a six-year-old. “It is quite astonishing how something you think you have designed to be very exciting is actually pretty dull when you are the size of a child,” Johnston said.
McDonald’s used these insights to brief a design team so that they could build a prototype store in Milton Keynes. Peck said: “We replaced the rather staid, boring, 70s-style with a new, wonderful experience.” Stores incorporated digital entertainment for children, flexible seating and unobstructed sight lines so parents could see their children playing.
Building prototype stores was a great research tool, said Johnston. “We had this marvellous opportunity with pilot stores actually up and running so you could see the results of our insights. Instead of asking customers, ‘What would you do, if…’ we could see how they behaved in a real environment.”
Guest post by Alastair Heggie
Age, youth and beauty were the dominant themes in this morning’s MRS Conference session on culture and trends.
Lisa Edgar of The Big Window applied some research rigour to the old saying, ‘You’re only as old as you feel’, coming up with a model of “perceived age” that showed itself to be a more reliable predictor of behaviour than “chronological” age.
Edgar called for a more nuanced view of age - which will be especially important as the number of people who are either past or approaching the age of 50 tops 50% of the UK population within 20 years.
Up to the age of 30, Edgar said, most people perceive themselves to be older than they are. After 30, the perception reverses, and people consider themselves younger. At 70, she said, a person might feel that they are only about 58 years old.
But people of all age groups can either feel young at heart or old at heart, and this is how the BBC recently looked to segment TV viewers, to work out what types of programmes appeal to people of various ages - both actual and perceived.
The broadcaster’s head of research David Bunker is clearly a convert to the idea of perceived age and its usefulness for things like programme development and scheduling. “It tells us something more insightful than ‘That person was born 30 years ago’,” he said.
But what of those people born less than three decades ago. Are they ‘the Con-Demmed Youth’? That was the question posed by Nicola Turnill and Andreas Thorslund of Dipsticks Research (with ‘Con-Demmed’ being a play on the cynic’s favoured shorthand for the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government).
They had prepared their own segmentation of the 18-24 year-old demographic which found wide attitudinal differences - again underscoring the limitations of age in understanding people’s attitudes and behaviours.
Research uncovered a group of “go-getting”, ambitious females; a “passive massive” happy to go with the flow of life; and “cotton wool kids” cushioned by the wealth and support of their parents. They also identified a growing number of people defined as “shundergraduates”: the happiest group by far, who shunned university education (hence the name) but are in full-time employment and married, perhaps with kids.
And then there is the “minimum rage” group: an underemployed, unhappy bunch who lack ambition and drive. This is a group the media love to make us fear, especially during last year’s outbreak of rioting. Turnill and Thorslund didn’t say so, but one can’t help but feel that these are the real condemned youth - in the true sense of the word.
Finally, turning to the topic of beauty, Karen Fraser of Credos and Elizabeth Fagan, executive marketing director of Boots, talked about how the retailer had adapted the campaign for its No. 7 brand of cosmetics to address a growing frustration among women at the ‘fake’ photoshopped beauty often seen in advertising.
Fraser, a recent Research interviewee, drew on the results of Credos’s Pretty as a Picture study, which you can read more about here.
If you want your research career to progress you need to learn how to act, said author and broadcaster Oliver James in his day two keynote at the MRS Annual Conference.
Forget everything you learned at school, he said. Don’t bother to try and create “objective metrics” for achievements in your working life - your chances of success all boil down to whether your boss likes you or not.
Using the research he carried out for his upcoming book on Office Politicians, James said flattery and putting on the correct “appearance” is the way to get ahead.
James gave the example of ‘Horatio’, who worked at a financial institution. When he joined the firm, he started work on a new product but couched it in a wall of jargon that gave confused co-workers the impression he knew what he was talking about and was therefore an authority figure. That same jargon impressed the boss, and Horatio enjoyed a “meteoric rise” through the company.
“It involves a lot of acting,” James said, “and a lot of knowing which combinations of tactics to use and who to aim them at.”
The persona that you present to those around you is key, not what you may actually know. James said: “If you’re clever in office politics you can be stupid elsewhere.”
The danger is, of course, that other people will be playing the same game as you – and those people might have “sub-clinical psychopathic tendencies”, James warned. People like Stalin and Gordon Gecko are out there, he said, and studies show that they are four times more likely to work in senior management…
MRS Conference delegates would have been cheered to hear of the importance the entrepreneurs behind Ella’s Kitchen, Go Ape and World First place on customer insight – but not all is rosy in the relationship between SMEs and market researchers.
Paul Lindley, Rebecca Mayhew and Jonathan Quin all recognise how crucial customer understanding has been and continues to be to the success of their businesses, but actual, proper market research – broadly accepted during the debate to mean ‘stuff you buy from research agencies’ – is only used sparingly.
For SMEs, especially those just starting out, buying research agency services is very expensive, says Lindley. Steve Phillips of Spring Research agreed that the economics of the research industry are not set up to cater to this market. “The incentive for research agencies is to go for big multinational clients,” he said.
Lindley challenged the industry to find a model that could work at the smaller end of the business scale: to change the cost structure or find ways for SMEs to syndicate and spread the expense of a research project.
Entrepreneurs are comfortable putting together a SurveyMonkey survey for their customer database to make sure they are hitting satisfaction targets and meeting expectations, so agencies need to look wider than that, Lindley said – a point also made by Mayhew, for whom the delivery of research is only the beginning. Entrepreneurs want to know where that work can go next, and where it can take them.
The trio agreed that for the most part, entrepreneur-led businesses are driven by gut instinct, but there comes a time when an outside perspective is needed. “As an entrepreneur, you are very close to your brand,” said Mayhew, “and you have to realise that bringing in outside people to talk to your customers about you is quite a good investment to make.”
But it’s an investment that has to be weighed against the many other things entrepreneurs have to spend their money on. Once agencies can figure out a cost-structure that appeals to SMEs and they can demonstrate the ROI of the work, the final challenge is to get better at selling what they have to offer.
Quin said: “I get people trying to sell me services all day long but I don’t think I have ever been sold market research.”
The transformative impact of new technology and consumer change on market research “has become a cliché”, said Cambiar’s Simon Chadwick in this afternoon’s MRS Conference session on the future of research.
Agencies are expected to do more with less – and faster. All this while grappling with new methods, a huge flow of new sources of information, and rapidly evolving global markets. But there’s no point complaining, because, as Coca-Cola’s chief marketing officer Joe Tripodi said at a research event last year, “if you don’t like change, you’ll like irrelevance a whole lot less”.
“We need to seize this role as synthesisers of information,” said Chadwick, urging researchers to position themselves as thought leaders. MRS CEO Jane Frost agreed, but said it won’t be easy. “There’s a huge opportunity here, but there’s a skills gap. It’s very interesting to me as an ex-client. I would have loved to see agencies that understood my business, but also had the influencing skills.” She called on researchers to have more faith in themselves and make their voices heard.
Kantar’s Eric Salama agreed. “A lot of our people don’t feel comfortable giving a point of view. They feel very comfortable delivering the data – they don’t feel comfortable saying, ‘What I think you need to do is x.’”
Danny Russell, vice chair of research client body Aura, said agencies need to understand that their clients see research as just one of countless sources of insight. “At Aura, the only thing that we talk about is insight,” he said. “Research is one part of what makes that up.”
But buyers who don’t foster effective partnerships with their agencies must take some of the blame too, Russell said. “Unless clients open up and give agencies the additional information to turn research into insight, it’s really tough.”
In his MRS Conference session on behavioural economics, BrainJuicer’s chief operating officer Alex Batchelor described how he asked ordinary people to act as ethnographers to determine the causes of binge drinking.
“The idea of using ordinary people as ethnographers is not new… but trying to use it to see something through the lens of behavioural economics was where we did something different,” he said.
Batchelor summed up behavioural economics with the slogan, “We think a lot less than we like to think that we think; Most of the things I do are really automatic.”
Our decision making processes are influenced to a great degree by social, environmental and individual biases.
To study how these effects influence drinking behaviour, “we picked the drinking capital of Europe: Newcastle. Apologies to all you Geordies but it is something you are really good at.”
They discovered that people drink faster when standing up than those sitting down, and those without anywhere to put their drink down, drink faster still. Being with a group of faster-drinking people influences you to drink fast, and the people who drink fastest of all are those in fancy dress, perhaps because they feel the need to drink to over come the feeling of looking silly.
The policy implications of this research are that measures to tackle binge drinking should address the unconscious instead of the rational mind.
For example, the availability of free drinking water should be advertised, opaque glasses could prevent people from seeing other people drinking fast, and seating should be provided for drinkers who don’t want to stand.
And for bar owners looking to turn a quick profit: you should have “a dressing up box for customers: you’ll make back the investment in days”.
• Attendees of the annual conference regularly say that networking is one of the chief reasons they come. Sticking with the theme of behavioural economics, Batchelor prompted a debate about what could be done to improve mingling and networking opportunities at conference using gentle “nudges” to encourage interaction.
Suggestions from the floor included: “Tables, with assigned seating so you would not just speak to your colleagues when you get there”, “Making people opt out of the party instead of opting in” and “Getting more clients involved”.
Guest post by Alastair Heggie
Debate chair Nick Southgate said the MRS Conference had never heard much from the design research industry. Who are these people and how does their work compare with more mainstream research?
Katie Leckie, the head of research at design agency Kinneir Dufort, spent a decade as a ‘normal’ researcher at the likes of Ipsos and AstraZeneca before making the jump tp design research. By the end of the session members of the audience were openly admitting their envy of her work.
So what’s so different about carrying out research for the design industry? For a start, the research “plays a fundamental part” in every project, be it for graphic design, consumer goods or industrial products.
Leckie said that her research team and the design and innovation team “are very close” with both influencing each other through every step of the process. This ensures that “value isn’t lost between the stages of a project”, she said.
Speed is another factor. Members of the design team are present, either in person or looking through the focus group glass, and can knock up new stimulus overnight in the firm’s model making facilities to show consumers the next day.
This capacity to “make things more real” allows consumers to have an input, which could lead to changes, at every step of the process. “In effect we’re asking them to co-create with us,” she said.
Tom Ewing and his band of Research Outlaws challenged themselves, and MRS Conference delegates, to imagine a world where asking questions of people is banned. It is, admitted Ewing, a bit of a fanciful notion. Surveys are fairly harmless, after all – although Ewing suggested that there might come a time where they get so long and tedious people “might start dying of boredom”.
But jokes aside, he said there are intellectual challenges to the validity of asking direct questions of people, who are routinely shown to be poor witnesses and predictors of their own attitudes and behaviours. ‘Ask a silly question and you’ll get a silly answer’ – or so the old saying goes. But perhaps all questions have an element of silliness to them…
This survey-less future scenario served as the setup for an Apprentice-like session, where a Unilever director of household care products, Arindam Som, challenged the Outlaws to answer two briefs: How to make cleaning an enjoyable and engaging experience, and to find out why UK consumers are more paranoid about germs than their European counterparts. Each Outlaw went away and came back with their own solutions to the problems.
Siamack Salari, the founder of EthOS, pitched a mobile app that allows consumers to document their lives on video for analysis by researchers. His key insights: consumers use distraction strategies to make cleaning enjoyable but engagement comes from seeing the difference cleaning makes.
David Bausola of Philter Phactory presented his Weavr technology - best known for powering BrainJuicer’s ‘research robots’, the DigiViduals. He rejected the term ‘bot’, describing them instead as fuzzy logic systems that blog themselves into existence using a demographic and personality profile to find web content created by ‘people’ like them. His key insight: why do companies care what consumers think, Weavrs could be installed in appliances like washing machines, allowing the machine to tell you what soap powder it needs to clean your clothes the way you like. Scary stuff.
Next was Steve Phillips of Spring Research, who used behavioural economics experimentation to determine that ‘mastery’ of the cleaning task makes for higher engagement and enjoyment levels, while semiotician Greg Rowland explored history and national identity to explain why the English are paranoid about germs.
“In England,” he said, “we don’t like ourselves, we don’t like each other and we don’t like our bodies.” Current advertising for cleaning products feeds germ phobia, Rowland says. The Englishmen is looking for a product that says, “Good enough is good enough, you have cleaned enough already”.
The Outlaws provided plenty of scintillating stuff, proving that a future without surveys is certainly survivable – although it might not be entirely desirable for some. “That was great,” remarked one delegate to another at the end of the session. “I agree,” his friend replied. “I wouldn’t buy any of it, though.”
Social media research remains a thorny area. In the Brands and Social Media session at MRS Conference, Dominic Scott-Malden looked at the implications of social media in a world where people are increasingly cynical about brands. Simon McDonald and Annelies Verhaeghe of InSites Consulting looked at conversations about brands online, and the varied levels of success that brands are having in tapping in to them.
Peter Dann of The Nursery revealed results of research into how people see brands in social media. He was the second speaker to quote Saatchi & Saatchi’s Richard Huntington saying that the way brands use social media remains “clumsy, inept and disrespectful” . “There seems to be fairly wide agreement that brands are getting social media wrong as much as they’re getting it right,” he said.
People who talk about brands in social media generally want to be heard, but they don’t like “hawkers and stalkers”, so it’s important to respect people’s expectations of privacy, which remain somewhat confused. But the application of old research rules to the new world of social media is misguided and unnecessary, Dann argued. “The principle of informed consent just doesn’t apply [in social media] any more than it does in any other published media,” he said.
After tracking comments posted (publicly) on Twitter, Dann asked the people who wrote them if they minded their tweets being used for market research. Not only did all but one of them say yes, but most of them were surprised that anyone would even bother to ask.
Public social media “is a forum where researchers belong,” Dann said. “If we don’t embrace this area ethically and professionally, I can assure you there are plenty of social media practitioners out there less guided by ethics than we are, and they don’t have any such compunctions.”
“Big data is the single biggest disruptive change that is going to happen to this industry in the next few years,” said Vision Critical’s executive vice president Ray Poynter, speaking during the Research Fusion session at MRS Conference.
Poynter observes that social media and other advancements provide big pools of data for analysis, and the communities which are polled for data will grow to several hundreds of thousands of members.
Surveying communities of this size will require a change to how research is carried out and who it is done by. “The moderator of the communities of the future will be a bot”, says Poynter.
Research Now’s director of strategy and knowledge Johnny Caldwell thinks that the challenge for research companies is making sense of vast amounts of data “which is already out there”, thanks to social media.
He advocates persuading people to download tracking apps, “so we can follow them, measure their social media usage and we know who they are”.
But is there a risk that having a tracking app installed on a phone or PC will alter the user’s behaviour? In Caldwell’s experience, “after about 2 weeks people revert to their normal behaviour – like a focus group where people soon forget there are clients watching”.
Guest post by Alastair Heggie
Imagine how much easier work would be if you had someone to iron out all life’s little creases, leaving you to just do you your job. Chances are that if you’re a Google researcher you already have that someone – thanks to a unique-sounding collaboration with your research agency.
In a presentation by Google at today’s MRS Annual Conference, senior user experience researcher Lidia Oshlyansky explains that the tech giant will employ an outside research agency to take charge of logistics and operations, leaving its own research team to concentrate purely on gathering insight. That’s the relationship between Google and River Research.
River’s operations director Belinda Brown has to make sure that whenever Oshlyansky and her team head to the world’s emerging markets to gather feedback from locals, their path is clear and hitch-free.
Tasks that need to be done range from the mundane – such as getting the correct visas and making sure that any equipment won’t be confiscated at customs – to being on call in the UK at 4am to reassure a researcher in India that they are on the right train.
Oshlyansky said: “We’re depending on these guys. There’s an enormous amount of trust and they’re not only getting us from A to B they are making sure that the research gets done.”
Reputation is consistently among the top three concerns of CEOs. “It keeps them awake at night,” said Sandra Macleod, group CEO of Echo Research and chair of the Research and Reputation session at the MRS Annual Conference.
But what role do researchers have in managing corporate reputation and designing communication strategies?
Typically their involvement is limited to measuring reputation, but this isn’t as simple a task as some would have you believe.
As with all research projects, it’s important to decide what you are and what you aren’t measuring, but definitions of reputation are varied and confused, according to Rupert Younger, director of the Centre for Corporate Reputation at the Oxford University Said Business School.
“Reputation is a word that gets used and abused,” he said. “People confuse it with brand image, legitimacy, rumour and status.”
Younger’s definition of reputation, based on 30 years of work by the Said Business School, is: “Expectations about a company’s future behaviour or performance, based on perceptions of past performance.”
He said it was important for companies to recognise that reputation is not owned by the company itself but the public, and it is based on an individual’s own experiences of the company, whether direct or indirect.
This means that a company can have multiple reputations, depending on the audience. Measurement can succeed “if you can isolate the reputation that you want to measure”, said Younger. “But it is quite hard to have a sensible debate about aggregation” - that is, distilling a company’s multiple reputation scores to just one number, as surveys like Fortune Magazine’s World’s Most Admired Companies tries to do.
Successful measurement, Younger said, lies in “valuing the specific signals sent out to specific audiences”.
But despite the inherent difficulties in measuring reputation, it is important, not least in helping an organisation know when to correct its behaviour, said Stephen Whitehead, chief executive of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry.
A problem with a particular stakeholder group can quickly bring about regulatory involvement “if you don’t change that reputation,” Whitehead said. He also called for reputation measurement and management within companies to be owned by the board, not the PR or corporate communications department. “Behaviour change belongs to the board,” Whitehead said.
Finally, Graeme Traynor, a partner in Brunswick Research, argued for a much broader role for research - not only measuring reputation, but helping companies design reputation strategies and communications plans.
Firms are smuggling to build reputations in an environment of “information overload” and widespread “default public scepticism” about corporate motives.
“Companies can look to research to help them figure out how to cut through that,” said Traynor. “The challenge for the industry is to look at the inspiration behind reputation, not just mechanistic measurement.”
Anyone who was at last year’s MRS Conference will remember frenzied trendspotter Magnus Lindkvist, and he was back to kick off this year’s event.
In a presentation that involved Angry Birds, Justin Bieber, pornography and potatoes, Lindkvist tried to pin down what it means to be a market researcher – especially as so many people ‘fall into it’.
One of the biggest trends affecting the researcher’s role has been the move from scarcity to abundance. Food was once scarce and, in developed countries, is now abundant – overabundant, even. Similarly, Lindkvist said, “we have moved from a world where the majority of problems facing organisations had to do with information scarcity, and we’re now dealing with infobesity”.
The internet puts a vast library of information at our fingertips, and yet it doesn’t always leave us better informed (Justin Bieber tops the search listings, not Stephen Hawking), or make our decisions easier. “More information just means more divergence, more contradictions. You get more insecure – what should I believe? What’s going on?”
Digging out insight, then, isn’t necessarily any easier than it ever was. Lindkvist reminded the audience that insights should feel “uncomfortable”. Big ideas that bring about change do not generally meet with smiles and consensus – they meet with controversy and resistance. “Discomfort is the only sure sign that you are really exploring the foggy future that lies ahead,” he said.
And with that, Lindkvist took off his clothes off to reveal a skintight onepiece morph suit in the colours of the Swedish flag. Now that’s uncomfortable.