NEWS3 September 2010

For the motion

For the motion

The research world is obsessed with asking questions. Even in times where response rates are declining we keep on bombarding our customers with research, very often in the form of lengthy surveys. We need to take action.

One thing we can do is data recycling: not collecting additional information if we can re-use existing data to answer our questions. Today there is plenty of it available: customer care centres write down the questions they receive, contact forms on websites provide you with information on what your target group is looking for. Just think of the insights you could find by connecting all the pieces of research you have conducted in the past year – we are sitting on a pile of information that is growing every day.

Thanks to the rise of social media we also have access to large amounts of unsolicited feedback. If consumers spontaneously give their opinion on your brand and product, why would you collect the same information through interviewing?

Observational research is the future because it gives more control to your consumer. For too long we have placed ourselves in the position of power. The researcher decided what questions had to be asked and the task of the consumer was only to respond, with a narrow set of options for doing so. Making use of existing information is a way of empowering the consumer. When we observe online conversations the topic of our research is determined by what that customer finds important. People are free to talk about what they want. When listening to their conversations we often discover topics that we did not expect.

Another advantage of observation is that consumers are bad witnesses to their own behaviour. Try to remember how often you visit a social network site. For low-involvement or habitual categories, we do not remember what we did. In fact, we sometimes don’t even know what we are doing. Only a limited part of our behaviour is preceded by cognitive reflection – the majority is driven by unconscious processes and emotions. Even if we are aware, it is hard to put our own behaviour into words.

Therefore, if we interview customers, their answers are biased. Can we expect that a research participant remembers habitual behaviour? Can we use in-depth interviews to research drivers for and barriers to the consumption of a certain drink if people do things unconsciously? Observational research helps us to understand the customer in the heat of the moment. It eliminates memory bias and gives us access to real behaviour.

The information is there. So are the tools. Methods like social media netnography enable us to listen to conversations and observe people online. Observational research provides us with new information that is less biased without putting additional pressure on our precious respondent resources. We are ready to conduct research without asking questions. What are we waiting for?