OPINION6 February 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Lesson


As Peter Jackson’s latest trip to Middle Earth shows, new technology only goes so far towards delivering an engaging experience. Storytelling is key – and that’s true for research too, says Jeremy Rix.

The implication is that more advanced techniques deliver improved outcomes: improved decision-making in client businesses, better products, services and customer experiences. But is this is always the case? And how much of our creative thinking, as an industry, is actually applied to figuring out ways to improve the experience of our customers – the end users of research? Would your average marketer, product manager or senior decision-maker say that the insight business gives good customer experience?

“Whatever the technique, it’s still a bunch of people in a room with a projector and some charts. The extent to which the client feels truly engaged is roughly proportional to how well the story is told”

It was The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 3D HFR (that’s high frame rate) that got me thinking about this.

The movie business is enjoying a love affair with 3D. As a ‘technique’ it’s a gift. It’s got good marketing spin. It’s new (second or third-time round). It’s harder to rip-off and make available cheap or free via downloads. You can charge more for it than 2D. You can retro-fit old properties and re-release them. A total win-win. And as a film geek, I can get excited about the reduced motion blur that HFR delivers for panning across landscapes and in action sequences, even if it makes more mundane sequences appear televisual.

But what about the experience of the average cinema-goer?

The jury on 3D is still out among the film-going public, judging by the fierce debate online: for every Life of Pi there’s a Texas Chainsaw. And HFR seems to have been more of a miss than a hit. Fundamentally, regardless of how many dimensions it shows in, and how fast the frame rate, the product is the same. You buy your ticket and popcorn, sit back in your chair and are drawn into the big-screen, surround-sound experience in rough proportion to the quality of the film rather than the technology that’s delivered it.

Which brings me back to our industry.

Research techniques are a gift. They give good marketing spin. They’re new and exciting. They’re harder to rip off. You can charge more for them. You can probably even retro fit old data to them and re-release it. As insight geeks, we might be able to get excited about the techniques that are used to collect or analyse our data. But what about the experience of your average research user?

Regardless of the techniques used in the research, my guess is the experience of the average marketer, product manager or senior decision-maker is very similar. Fundamentally, it’ll come down to some degree of involvement in the set-up and design of the research, but mainly it’s the experience of having a bunch of insights presented to them for an hour or two in a room in the office they work in. Whatever the technique, it’s still a bunch of people in a room with a projector and some charts. The extent to which they feel truly engaged with the insights is roughly proportional to how well the story is told and sold by the person who’s presenting it.

Techniques have changed and developed but the customer experience hasn’t all that much. We’re an industry that is prepared to risk on methodology but which can be risk averse on communication and delivery.

To extend the analogy, the research-user experience needs to move beyond cinema. It needs to move into publishing, storytelling, theatre, events, interactive experiences, games and quests. Like cinema, customer insights struggle to compete: users of business information are overwhelmed with content from inside and outside of their organisation. This information may vary in quality. The techniques used to gather and compile it might range from basic to sophisticated.

But one thing’s for sure: what will make it stand out is the way in which it’s delivered. Ultimately what counts is the customer’s experience.

Jeremy Rix is founder and chief listener at Oko. He’s online at Rix is presenting a workshop to co-create the future of research at MRS Annual Conference on 19 March. More details at


11 years ago

I agree with you Jeremy; and the more we talk about methods and data the more we actually talk ourselves down the value chain

Like Report

11 years ago

Interesting piece, and a perpetually relevant topic. But I only half-agree with: "The extent to which they feel truly engaged with the insights is roughly proportional to how well the story is told and sold by the person who’s presenting it." The bigger problem I see - both every day and in the wider industry - is not about how to engage people with the insights. It's about actually *relaying* the insights. What I receive as a research client is a set of charts saying "we asked this, these are the numbers who gave each answer". It's meaningless, and I don't care - I'm a good enough researcher that I know precisely what numbers we expect, and exactly what in the question made them more likely to give answer x than y. What I rarely - if ever - hear is what it means. What's the underlying motivation/ attribute/ behaviour that's reflected in these responses, and how does it relate to the question that prompted the study? It's enough to make me think that a) the majority of research relationships are broken and b) I could be a great research consultant. Both of those are probably wrong, but as a research buyer, I'm not getting what I'm paying for.

Like Report

11 years ago

We as researchers are very much 'technicians' first and 'salespeople' second - hence the current state of play. But behind every great movie you have extraordinary scriptwriters, directors, producers etc. who all have very systematic (albeit extremely creative) approaches to their craft. With a dud script you have a dud movie and a poor user experience. With a dud questionnaitre design, poor sampling frame, sloppy fieldowrk, bad weighting techiques etc. you get poor data and a poor user experience. So while I agree we need to greatly enhance the final step in the customer delivery chain - the insights and actions presentation - just like in making movies, ensure you have the best practioners (who never make it to the red carpet) and let them do their best work and your presentation will shine.

Like Report

11 years ago

Nick, I think we may actually be agreeing with each other more completely than you've suggested. For me, the insight story IS the insight not (just) data + what it means for the business. It must always be told in the business/ market context if it's to engage the audience. And it should act as the stimulus for fresh ideas and a driver of action. There's a responsibility on agencies to be imagintive, bold, risk-taking and adventurous in telling this type of meaningful insight story. I'd hope that you could challenge your agencies to do more - it'll be better work for you and your business, and also more exicting and interesting work for them.

Like Report

11 years ago

In my experience, the output of market research is often given much less time, budget, thought and effort than the research design, data collection and analysis. Research into what time people spend on the different elements of a MR project supports this. I am not sure that the movie analogy is working for me as it stands if only because making a movie is creative, whereas the process of market research is not. In fact the skills required to ensure research is done brilliantly are not the same skills that are required to ensure it is communicated brilliantly. On the other hand, if researchers treated the output of their research as a creative project in itself (like a movie?), the product of research would have more impact, relevant and power than most of the materials we produce now.

Like Report