FEATURE1 November 2009

What can market researchers learn from...?

Sick of hearing the same old voices from the same old constituencies? Perhaps the research industry should look a little wider in its quest for inspiration and insight



Facing a tricky decision? Let the pirates take the risk for you

The almost limitless copying and distribution of files that the internet allows has put a flame underneath the age old piracy debate. Our ideas about the nature of intellectual property and the relationship between the users, producers and publishers of digital content are in flux.

One of the few things about piracy that pretty much everyone can agree on is that it is a strong market signal. In his book The Pirate’s Dilemma Matt Mason argues that pirates can add to the value of what mainstream businesses are doing, and that, rather than fighting them, smart companies see them as a source of insight.

Mason tells of his youth as a pirate radio DJ in London, and recalls how he was struck by the ambiguous relationship between legal and illegal broadcasters, which meant pirate stations seemed to be tacitly tolerated. “Most of the music that’s played on pirate radio isn’t music that’s going to get played on the daytime on Radio 1, but once it’s been played enough on pirate radio, music does eventually cross over to the legal stations,” he told Research.

The legal mainstream stations look to the edgier underground stations for the next big thing – using the so-called pirates of the airwaves as an unofficial audience testing service. It’s a pattern that Mason sees mirrored in all sorts of industries and cultural settings. Piracy may not usually be honorable, he argues, but it is often a response to the shortcomings of the mainstream providers – a valuable indication of how you could be serving your customers better.

“It’s kind of counterintuitive to think that if someone’s doing something illegal then the way around it is to copy what they’re doing,” he said. “There are times when the only sensible thing to do is to defend your intellectual property and not take what pirates are doing with it seriously. But if they’re doing something you’re not, if they’re doing something your customers are responding to in some way, it’s probably worth a look.”


Harry Potter

JK Rowling’s books show us how to put the magic back into marketing

If you were caught reading Harry Potter at your desk, you might get away with it by saying you were studying it as a marketing phenomenon. You’d probably find it harder to say you were studying it as a marketing textbook.

But Professor Stephen Brown of the University of Ulster says the books are more than just a fad. “Harry Potter is different because the books are as much about marketing as the outcome of marketing,” he claims.

This comment might make you think that Brown hasn’t read the books, but he has. In fact he’s written his own book on the subject, entitled Wizard! Harry Potter’s Brand Magic. Brown’s preoccupation with Potter may seem eccentric but he’s far from being alone in the pursuit of Potterology – hundreds of academic articles have been published on the subject.

In a paper on ‘Marketing for Muggles’, Brown wrote: “The books refer to almost every element of the marketing mix, as well as aspects of buyer behaviour, environmental conditions, marketing research, and more. In book four, for example, one character is preparing a market research report on cheap continental cauldrons, most of which fail to conform to UK safety standards… Another aspiring importer wonders whether there is a niche in the UK market for flying carpets… The books are chock-full of brilliantly conceived brands and new product concepts.”

The way Brown sees it, the ideas JK Rowling presents put real-world marketers to shame. “Mainstream marketing has become so obsessed with rigour, quantification and rectitude that it has lost sight of the importance of magic, mystery and imagination,” he writes.

Brown calls for “a return to the pre-modern marketing era, to a time before the ‘scientific’ mindset held sway”, but his beef is not with science as such (which would, after all, be an odd position for a university professor to take) but with the poor application of science. “There is more to marketing than crunching numbers, mining data and assembling axioms,” he says. “Marketing is magic.”


Videogame designers

Trouble getting respondents to take in interest in your online survey? Turn it into a game

In a recent blog post at Research-live.com, Kantar’s Tom Ewing raises the idea that “surveys are videogames”. The parallels are obvious, says Ewing. “They’re [both] interactive environments in which people perform actions and tasks in order to progress. The aim is to complete the experience, which ought to be a challenging and interesting one. If the experience is too difficult, or too boring, participants get frustrated and drop out. Some participants cheat, which makes the game faster to complete – but should their score really count?”

Seeing surveys as games encourages us to put ourselves in respondents’ shoes. Rather than railing against ‘bad’ respondents we need to recognise that these are simply people who’ve been presented with a game that’s turned out to be no fun. Give them a good game and the chances are they’ll behave well, stay until the end and tell you what you need to know.

If we look at things this way game designers can teach us a lot, Ewing argues. “Designers have thought a great deal about the problems of structuring an experience – increasing the challenge, keeping people’s interest, giving them different things to do. As the participants become more central to the research, solving these problems becomes more crucial.”

Doug Edmonds has conducted research among gamers for 2CV. He says that, ironically, gamers themselves will put up with lacklustre surveys because they are so passionate about the subject matter. “When you speak to a sample of videogamers about a game they’re playing, they are incredibly enthusiastic about telling you what they think, so they’re actually very forgiving of the design and content of a questionnaire.

“The challenge we face - and it’s increasing in the recession - is one of timing. There’s always a rush to get into field with online research, and sometimes there is a compromise between hitting a start date and being able to deploy interactive ways of asking a question.”

For this reason, Edmonds says, the lessons of videogames will be most easily applied in tracking surveys or around questions that recur repeatedly.


Samuel Pepys

The 17th-century diarist illustrates the value of a sample of one

Samuel Pepys was a naval administrator, a member of parliament, and president of the Royal Society. That in itself is enough to make you a minor historical figure, but the reason Pepys is so significant in English history is that on 1 January 1660 he began keeping a detailed diary, chronicling not only the Plague, the Great Fire of London and the Anglo-Dutch War, but also his intensely personal thoughts and descriptions of his sexual adventures.

Fast-forward 350 years, and John Griffiths of Planning Above and Beyond (whose blog may or may not be considered as important as Pepys’ diary in 2360 ) has been pondering parallels with the world of qual research, where Pepys would be considered a ‘sample of one’. Griffiths argues that because we all now produce so much data online via clickstreams, blogs, tweets, online transactions and so on, we may soon reach a point where “the diversity and detail of a single dataset of an average member of the population is enough to enable us to give an account of what everybody is thinking”.

Griffiths told Research he is amused by how quickly most researchers will brush aside the idea of studying an entire culture through a single person, even though “most history is based on doing just that”. Charles Dickens’ descriptions of his era were so powerful that it came to be called ‘Dickensian’, and the voice of Pepys provides what many consider the definitive description of Restoration London.

“How many more diarists do we need in the sample before we can quote him?” asks Griffiths. “Is it possible that the reason why researchers have never considered the validity of an individual account is that we’ve never had the dataset to do it, and we’ve never had something like the internet to make it practical? If so, why can’t I do it?”



There’s no use having reams and reams of data unless you can distil it into a good story


YouGov’s Peter Kellner made the move from political reporter to pollster. We asked him for his thoughts on what researchers can learn from journalists.

“The first thing is thinking through questions. When clients are less experienced, they frame questions without thinking through what all the possible answers could be. Having been a journalist, one can often point out what the variety of options really is.

“Secondly, brevity and using everyday words is very important. Quite often you find clients will use words that are obscure and ambiguous, or just not normal everyday words. It’s very important that questions in questionnaires are very clear, unambiguous and in a language people understand, and I think being a journalist helps with that.

“When I was on the Sunday Times, whenever we went in on Tuesday mornings there was a notice on the noticeboard from the editor Harry Evans if he had picked up something sloppy in the paper. The one I always remember said: The word ‘miniscule’ appeared in the paper on Sunday. There is no such word as ‘miniscule’. There is a word ‘minuscule’, which means lower case. If the meaning you wish to convey is ‘tiny’, the word to use is ‘tiny’.

“The third thing is finding a story. If you put too many numbers in a news report about a poll, it weighs it down. The question is what do the numbers tell you, not what are the numbers. When you’re writing a report for a client, it’s often interesting to write the one or two page executive summary without any numbers in it. It forces you to think what it means.

“The last point I’d make is, I was a journalist at the time of the 1992 general election and I reckon my only real claim to fame is that I wrote more nonsense about that election than any journalist has ever written about any general election, because I was writing day after day that Labour were going to win. I did my own investigation of what went wrong, and some of the lessons I thought should be learnt from that, when YouGov came along, we were able to apply.”

1 Comment

15 years ago

Nice piece Robert. And the serious subtext of the message about having a wide source of inspiration is not lost. What I noticed while reading the artuicle was how in the experience of my micro little firm (a speck of research flotsam in the South Pacific) those roles you mentioned have occured with incoming and in reverse: with employees moving in from and on to journalism and teen fiction writing (that was me actually) the design computergames (a great analyst - now designing top-end games for Sony) but alas we have had no swashbuckling in our corproate blood, though one of us used the analytical softare R (pronounced Arrrrrrrr.) Does that count? I think not. Seriously, researchers need to be open to the world around them: to be well rounded observers of the human condition. I visited a colleague in another firm recently, and what struck me, as I walked into the den of a rival firm (much bigger and more successful than mine) was the silence of the place: everyone doggedly crunching numbers - immersed in a numeric world of our own making. The Pepysian human touch was missing.

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