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OPINION11 August 2017

Learning from Dr Smelser

Big Data Opinion Technology Trends

People are increasingly uncomfortable with the ‘interregatory environment’ of viewing facilities, says Jim Longo, who believes new technology can help recapture the art of conversation. 

You’ve probably never heard of Dr. Paul "Doc" Smelser.

Doc Smelser, from the early 1920s to 1959, developed and ran what was to become the scientific method at the core of the market research department at Procter & Gamble. He is credited as having created a disruptive and beneficial methodology for achieving the mandate of a maverick who went on to lead this consumer products giant, Neil McElroy.

McElroy had a singular mantra: "Find out what the consumers want and give it to them." It is a fascinating case study on brand management, chronicled extensively in American Business, 1920-2000: How it worked- P&G Changing the Face of Consumer Marketing, by Thomas K. McCraw.

Doc Smelser is described as feisty and cerebral, challenging senior execs on the knowledge base on which they made marketing and brand management decisions. One of the innovations for which he is named as the instigator, was the door-to-door interview.

Smelser hired battalions of articulate young women, and eventually men, to go house-to-house engaging in conversations with consumers about their daily lives.

McCraw describes it like this: “Doc’s interviewers infiltrated neighbourhoods all over the country, going from house to house armed with an imposing array of questions: about laundry, cooking, dishwashing, and every other activity for which P&G marketed a product or was thinking of introducing one.

"Female interviewers were instructed to wear a conservative dress, high heels, gloves, and a hat. As they knocked on doors and talked with consumers, they were to carry no lists, forms, or writing materials. The visits could then seem more casual, even though all conversations were designed to extract copious and specific data.

"Interviewers were expected to have total recall, and often would hurry back to their cars to record what they had learned. During Doc’s 34 years with P&G, a total of 3,000 women and a fair number of men worked as field researchers.”

Conversations. How elegantly simple.

Eventually telephone surveys and focus groups became the proxy for face-to-face, eclipsing door to door as a less costly data collection method of choice, at P&G and elsewhere. In a world where brands sell their products globally, ‘door-to-door’ and even other forms of traditional qual are impossible to scale, in real time, to keep pace with the speed at which decisions need to be made. We neither have the time nor the money for our brand teams or our moderators to travel in the attempt to meet with consumers.

But to this day, the urgent need in brand management is still the same: secure the candid, specific, nuanced insight about what consumers really want in their daily lives, so that every product innovation is aimed directly at the target of providing it! In a globally connected world, technology has enabled many amazing ways to collect and analyse data about what consumers buy.

The ‘whats’ reside in the data silos of point of sale: customer service, what consumers say on social media, what they click on online, and even how they respond to direct questioning via online quant research.

We can project, theoretically, in statistically significant ways, and do predictive modelling to try to guide brand management decisions. But we are still on the quest for full-picture, which can only be realised if we understand the ‘whys'.

When consumer connection and engagement is dismissed as too expensive, not scale-able or not agile enough for the lightning speed of business today, we risk losing the nuance of insight that can only be gained with the connection of a conversation. Until now.

In our daily lives, we consumers access each other using the medium of video through tools like Skype and FaceTime. We are familiar with it, we trust it, we are candid with what we share with family and friends while using it. We make time to engage in conversations, all over the world… through connections formed online.

What we are increasingly less comfortable with is the interrogatory environment of a room with a glass wall. We don’t have time for it, it feels intrusive, we wonder who is behind the glass mirror. We find ourselves on guard rather than opening up and being candid in what we share.

What would Doc Smelser say if he was guiding a brand today? He would say: use these new tools to engage in conversations. Train the articulate, thoughtful ambassadors to ask the right questions, and be sure that there is a method for capturing all the specific data the answers yield.

Create the platforms and repeatable processes that can enable empathy, across the organisation. Do it because it will enable better business decisions, get you to market faster, with products that consumers will want and buy, again and again. 

Jim Longo is co-founder and vice-president of research solutions at Discuss.io

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