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OPINION18 November 2011

Don't shoot the messenger...

Opinion

Watch how they deliver. Ipsos Mori’s Oliver Sweet on why researchers should take a leaf out of the journalism playbook when it comes to simplicity in storytelling.

Market researchers interview hundreds of thousands people across the country every year on every topic, from health and happiness to ageing and anti-social behaviour. In very timely fashion we even interviewed over a hundred young people in London, just before this summer’s riots, on life and consumer culture. We found a jealous disparity between what young people aspired to (designer brands, being close to celebrity culture, entrepreneurial spirit) and what they derided (‘posh’ people, living to work). Their frustration between what they expected from life and the reality of a recession-hit country was palpable; all the pre-requisites for social unrest. Our findings cut to the heart of the issue.

“Researchers often think they should be writing the news, but journalists are much better at it. They might not be armed with statistics and analysis models but they understand how to deliver messages”

And yet it didn’t make the news. Instead, a broadcast journalist interviewed two drunk girls in Croydon who said they “want stuff rich people have got” and that sent shockwaves through the nation. Our story about how the dream hadn’t delivered was not considered interesting. So why, given our robust and analytical procedures, do researchers often go unheard?

A lot can be explained from recent research we conducted for UNICEF on child well-being in the UK, Sweden and Spain. The research combined methodological expertise with academic rigour to see what the UK could learn from the European countries, with the results designed to act as a springboard to lobby government about how to improve children’s lives.

The press saw the research as commentary for what is happening with today’s children, seizing upon the ‘compulsive consumerism’ we identified that is gripping parents and children alike. It was mentioned in all the broadsheets, featured on all the main news channels, with numerous commentators wading in to offer their opinion. The Times put the story on four of the first five pages, showing the importance of child well-being. Fittingly, page three was dedicated to the opening of the new Westfield shopping mall; the sexiest new pin up of today’s ‘compulsive consumerism’.

Yet the purist in me was not happy that they had misquoted the research. What we found was that consumerism is more likely a product of increasing inequality rather than a cause of it, and that to suffocate this unhealthy obsession we need to address rising inequality. This can be combated through the introduction of a living wage so that parents can spend more time at home, rather than buying stuff to compensate for the lack of time spent together. And most importantly, the research is certainly not a ‘guilt trip to parents’ – as some commentators described it – but a call to protect parents from unfettered advertising to children.

But the reports of the research struck such a chord with the nation that it started widespread debate about whether to blame the government, advertisers or parents; even Mumsnet got involved. A mother that took part in the research wrote to thank us, and to say that other mothers had congratulated her at the school gate for taking a stand against an issue they all felt was important. In the end, it didn’t matter that people had cherry-picked the findings – what really mattered was that the research was making a difference. Our findings were for policy makers; journalists had translated them for the public.

While researchers often think they should be writing the news, journalists are much better at it. They might not be armed with statistics and analysis models but they understand how to deliver messages. Researchers are in a great position to understand the convoluted lives of consumers but we don’t always translate that into a simple, clear message. If we expect our clients to act on our findings we need to learn a few hard truths from journalists on how to simplify the message.

Oliver Sweet is head of the ethnography unit at Ipsos Mori

10 Comments

8 years ago

All the best, Ollie. Pass on my regards to Jo and the Ethno team

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8 years ago

Fantastic! True words spelt out clearly.

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8 years ago

Very interesting

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8 years ago

Well done Oliver; lecturing to the City University Graduate Centre of Journalism students on Wedbesday, passing out your article as one of my handouts.

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8 years ago

Nice article Olie. I'd add that getting the message heard and acted on is also about knowing what your audience care about - what they will be talking about after we have left the room.

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8 years ago

This seems to dovetail neatly with a piece on Research-Live last month, about the value of 'telling a story' as compared to focusing on research rigour and methodological details. The truth is that research done well doesn't sell; the press isn't interested unless there's a 'story' behind it (and that's 'story' as in something that fits an agenda or that they feel will attract readers and viewers). And, as stated in that previous article, it puts us as researchers in the tricky spot of having to balance rigour and thoroughness with the reality of trying to 'sell' the findings - because if the analysis we produce is ignored, is there a point to in conducting the research?

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8 years ago

I feel this article deconstructs itself - visually it's difficult to "get into". There are no bullet points. It's long. There are lots of long, non-broken up paragraphs. I totally agree with the message, but the medium here suggests the author needs to engage even more with the art of short-story telling with impatient/time-starved audiences.

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8 years ago

"There are no bullet points" This is one of the best things about the piece, which took me two minutes to read, with each paragraph leading elegantly into the next and moving the story along. The inclusion of bullet points would have cut, what, 10 seconds off that time? ;)

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8 years ago

Interesting article. " they understand how to deliver messages" As a research buyer I could not help thinking that Journalists perhaps should also be used to help prepare debriefs and research reports.

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8 years ago

Totally agree, we need to learn : Identify what is the key point that are clients, and people looking for behind the survey Go straight to this point if we want to enlarge the audience (Of course, I do a distincition between the public audience and MR professionals) ==> Adapt our language and our speech

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