OPINION28 April 2017

Face up to the complexity of research

North America Opinion

Researchers and clients must look beyond the individual survey and look at the broader picture of how it fits into successful business strategy argues Rebecca Brooks.

Complexity cats cradle_crop

Research models do not work. It could be argued they never did, we just now live in an age where their flaws are so exposed that we can no longer ignore them. Gone are the days of limited distribution, narrow purchase channels, and small competitive sets. Today’s shoppers have become accustomed to a world of rapid innovation and limitless access, opening up choices and reducing barriers. This encourages shoppers to re-evaluate their brand preferences every time they enter a category.

In this new frictionless economy, emotions and irrationality, which we’ve been able to traditionally de-prioritise in research, are emerging as the most influential factors in decision-making. 

This isn’t a revelation to smart researchers. In the past 10 years, research companies have been looking at engagement, emotion, ‘brand love’, advocacy, and a number of other metrics to capture the ephemeral and hard-to-quantify emotions and irrationality. But, we have to do so much more than asking consumers to rate their emotions during purchase on a scale or building algorithms and models off operational and behavioural data.  We can’t just make adjustments – we have to disrupt and revolutionise or become obsolete.

As we saw clearly during the 2017 Super Bowl, human complexity and diversity are centre stage in advertising and entertainment. Every commercial was trying to top the previous one with messages of compassion, inclusivity and individual uniqueness.  Brands and marketers are not driving this cultural change. Gen X, millennials and Gen Z are voting with their wallets and supporting brands that align with their values.  

Yet, when a brand surveys its customers, brands become narcissists. Questions are designed to answer marketers’ questions, but they are not capable of getting valuable insights. When that customer is thinking about buying in their product category, can you imagine even one shopper is thinking, ‘this brand is a leader in the category’? They aren’t. They are thinking about their own needs, their own priorities, their own barriers. 

The brand – if they think in terms of ‘brand’ at all – comes into play only if it aligns with the consumers’ needs and priorities. Questions need to be written from the shopper’s perspective.  Analysis needs to expose the details and the trends.

As new ways of reaching consumers and research tools continue to proliferate, it’s more important than ever to have a platform-agnostic research team to help you find the right solution to your business needs. 

Clients have many internal stakeholders with different demands, but ultimately they are purchasing research to find actionable answers to specific questions. An innovative, successful market research company will work hand-in-hand with the client by curating methodologies and technologies to find the right approach for the challenge. 

Research companies must see beyond the project and understand the decisions the client is going to make from this data and how the research can best help their business succeed.  If you are a client who gets a proposal for a research study that feels a bit generic, you aren’t being understood and the research won’t meet your needs.  If you’re a research company with a plug-and-play mentality, you are sliding down the slope towards commoditisation

What research companies need from clients isn’t more money or longer schedules, it’s the investment of their most precious resource – their own time. Time spent at the table discussing the history that brings them to need this research. Time spent debating and discussing the methodology and survey instrument. Time testing and experimenting. Time brainstorming how the research partner can help evangelise and promote the research results into the clients’ organisation. 

As researchers, we not only need to acknowledge the complexity and introduce tension between facts and emotions, but also look for reductive ways to capture it. We have to let go of our history of models and think more specifically about each research challenge.

By Rebecca Brooks, author of Cherishing Complexity:  The Power of Acknowledging Human Intricacies, Alter Agents