OPINION24 May 2010

Back to the future


Sarah Buckle has been a researcher and marketer for nigh on 25 years, developing through-the-line communication campaigns for Mars, Scottish Courage and Volvo. Much has changed in that time, particularly when it comes to the tools and technologies at the researcher’s disposal. But some things never change, she argues. A researcher’s real skill is – and always has been – based on the quality of insights, conclusions and recommendations they draw from the research itself.

It’s nearly a quarter of a century since I started work as a market research graduate trainee. Back then we had to write our questionnaires in longhand and allow enough time for them to work their way through the dreaded typing pool which was run like a factory production line – first in, first out with no deviation. Just getting the questionnaire written and ready to dispatch could take a couple of weeks. And preparing a presentation could take a month. It seems unbelievable now that we sent handwritten drafts out to a professional calligrapher who would craft our acetates for us. No chance for last minute changes in those days.

Of course no one wants to turn the clock back, but do the technological advances we’ve grown used to always help us as much as we think they do? Does the fact that things can be done quickly mean they should be done quickly? How many times do we send out a quick first draft of something which is 80% there only to spend a disproportionate amount of time getting the final 20% right? Are we really quicker overall or can we simply do some things more quickly?

Perhaps we should think about the discipline involved in getting things right first time – the need to get our ducks in a row at the front-end of the process, not on the way to the debrief. Combine that with the immediacy of today’s technology and we have the recipe for an even speedier but perhaps less frenetic future.

Can’t see the wood for the trees
How would you like your research, by post or face-to-face? Deciding on the broad methodology 25 years ago wasn’t a major consideration but these days it can be daunting. The digital revolution alone has transformed the way we recruit and talk to people. Add in telephone, EPOS, CAPI, CATI, PDAs, self-completion touch screens, ethnography, storytelling, brain scanning, eye tracking and biometrics and a young researcher is like a child in a sweet shop facing the agony of choice.

Layer on the increasing sophistication of the analytical tools and models available to us and the world really is our oyster. Get it right and we get a deep and meaningful insight into people’s lives (much deeper and richer than all those years ago). Get it wrong and we end up with a lot of meaningless noise. So how do you decide which approach is the right one when every methodology is fighting to gain a bigger share of the research pie?

The skill in making the right decision is to simplify the process, step back and focus on what to ask people not how to ask them. Otherwise, it’s like having the latest sat nav at your disposal without knowing where you want to go. Decide on your destination before you choose your route – know what you need to ask and the choice of methodology and analysis will fall into place, just like in the old days.

Everything but the kitchen sink
Which brings me neatly on to objectives. Before you can decide what to ask, you need to know why the research is being commissioned – the objectives. The demise of client research departments and recessionary pressures seem to have resulted in a kitchen sink approach to objective setting over the last ten years. Instead of five or six clear aims, every project (even four groups) has about 20 objectives.

Of course many of them aren’t objectives at all, they’re simply discussion points or questions you might want to ask to achieve the objectives. Not the end of the world you might argue, but sloppy objective setting can get in the way of deciding what it is you’re really trying to find out or help your client to achieve. And this can send you off down the wrong methodology route, resulting in more of that meaningless noise rather than clear direction – a lot of findings with little insight.

Applying rigour at the outset, even if simply in terms of differentiating the real objectives from the onesthat are nice to have, might help frame research projects and state what they can’t achieve as well as what they can, making sure we over-deliver rather than over-promise.

Less is more
One of the major steps forward over time has been the demise of the dreaded full report – a document which took ages to write, cost a lot of money and was rarely read by the client. Sadly, though, with its departure we lost the honed and lithe presentation of findings. Today’s debrief document is a fantastic medium for capturing the depth and breadth of the research findings, but should it also be the document that’s presented to clients?

When the norm was to produce two documents, the presentation of findings included charts that could be read from the back of the room with just the real highlights included. Would we serve our industry better if we did the same today as a matter of course? If a product test reveals the only differences in response to two products are by age, do you really need to see every cross-break in the presentation charts? Why not simply show the total and the age groups?

Too often the presentation chart production process is decided before anyone has even looked at what the data is saying. A more interesting and engaging debrief can be prepared if the analysis of the data determines which charts are produced. As well as simply providing too much information for a one-hour session, the current modus operandi means that the narrative within the data can get lost, and surely this is what clients are paying for – an insight, a story, a view point told clearly and with conviction.

Which is what it’s all about, isn’t it? The only reason research is conducted is to guide clients in their decision-making, and that hasn’t changed. Nor have the qualities that make a researcher a really good researcher, the sort of researcher who puts their neck on the block and offers a solution not just a deck of one-size-fits-all charts.

Qualities like the ability to plan ahead, attention to detail, grasping the real objectives, an enquiring mind, a creative approach and the confidence to say what the research means, not just what it says. And finally, here’s a piece of advice I was given many years ago by a researcher turned marketing director: “Researchers are always saying how complex things are but the real skill is to show how simple things can be.”

And that’s as relevant today as it’s ever been.

Sarah Buckle is clients services director for Leapfrog Research & Planning.


13 years ago

I have little to add (for a change) and simply want to say I couldn't agree with you more!

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13 years ago

The pace certainly didn't seem leasurely at the time, but it sure seems so in retrospect. And I enjoyed writing the full report, and I even had clients who claimed to enjoy reading them. Today's frantic pace makes it harder to provide the same level of quality on the questionnaire itself and the analysis.

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