NEWS3 September 2010

Against the motion

Against the motion

I admire the enthusiasm market researchers have for new listening techniques. Such techniques are certainly powerful, and I have incorporated them into my own research toolbox. What I haven’t done is thrown my toolbox away. Listening techniques are not a Swiss Army knife that can be used for dozens of different purposes. They can spoon up information, but they can’t cut it very finely.

Certainly, listening techniques can replace questions in some contexts. Want to find out the first-day reaction to a new videogame, film or television programme? Fielding a survey to this low-incidence population would be ridiculously costly – but you can easily monitor social media to learn and categorise the range of first impressions, ‘listening’ in on conversations between friends and social media followers. Listening also reflects issues that you would never have thought to research, providing answers, as it were, to questions you would never have asked.

But once you’ve used a listening approach, you quickly learn that there are many things people aren’t talking about. Nothing is more disappointing to a new end-user eager to utilise social listening techniques than to discover that his brand or her market simply isn’t widely talked about. Many low-incidence brands, whether for b2b firms or for b2c brands in prosaic categories, don’t yet provide a sufficient volume of conversations to listen to and learn from. People must be asked about them.

And even when brands and markets are widely discussed, there often are large gaps in the conversation. Many times social media conversations simply do not address issues that are very important to brands and researchers – or can’t address them because no one outside the sponsoring organisation knows about them. Researchers must ask about these things.

Yet asking has fallen into disrepute. We are inundated with automated online survey questionnaires, with their awkwardly worded questions, their tedious prompts and their interminable length. Asking is often done poorly, but it can be done well. We forget the humble discussion guide. Suitable for wide-ranging explorations of topics, or for interviews with major accounts, the discussion guide lays out the key topics to be covered broadly, while sometimes providing quite detailed questions. Yet the discussion guide, unlike the self-administered computerised online survey, allows the human interviewer discretion. To hear what is being said, and to seek to clarify: to probe for greater detail, to ask the well-timed question that uncovers a crucial insight. The impromptu ad-hoc question is as powerful a research technique as any.

We do not simply have ears to listen, or tongues to ask. We have a brain that connects them: a social brain. We need the conversational give and take of listening and asking, asking and listening. And through such conversations come data, research and insights that listening alone simply cannot provide.