OPINION23 September 2011

Thoughts on Esomar Congress: don't lose your balance

Whatever research methods you choose to use, approach them with caution, take them in moderation and don’t lose your balance.

With so many different ideas, techniques and viewpoints on show at Esomar Congress this week, it’s hard to identify an overall message, if indeed there was one.

For me, the most memorable quotes came from clients urging researchers to be less ideological about methodologies, more creative and more focused on supporting “good judgements”.

A presentation by the Dutch research association MOA about its efforts to adapt to a new business landscape prompted some similar comments about the industry’s need to move with the times and not define itself too narrowly.

But on the other hand, the most convincing examples of new approaches in action (which included gamification, behavioural economics, neuroscience, netnography and mobile research), were the ones that deployed these techniques in moderation, and in combination with more established ways of doing things.

It seemed that what these presentations had in common was the importance of balance. Researchers need to avoid becoming too enamoured with one way of doing things, while not lurching too wildly in another direction either.

Jon Puleston and Deborah Sleep, for instance, showed how gamification can deliver richer feedback. But it wasn’t new technology or flashy visuals that made their work impressive – it was the simple things like tweaking survey questions to make them more personal, human and fun.

In her summary of the event, Forrester’s Reineke Reitsma said that while there are many exciting emerging methodologies, we need to stand back and make sure we still see the wood for the trees.

The clearest example of this, Reitsma said, was the presentation by Sangeeta Gupta of PepsiCo India and Anjali Puri of TNS about video ethnography. They argued that while such approaches can be seductive for clients because they get so close to “gritty reality”, researchers need to remember to take a step back. “Microscopes don’t lie, but they sometimes obscure more useful perspectives,” they said. It was an unusually cautious view of a fashionable research technique, but one which seemed to ring true.

Stephen Phillips of Spring showed a similar desire not to get too attached to a particular way of doing things. He began his session on behavioural economics by saying: “To be honest I’m really not interested in behavioural economics – I’m interested in market research.”

The impatience of clients with debates about methodologies should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt, since it’s impossible to be methodology-neutral without somehow working out which one is best for each case. But researchers do need to remain pragmatic and open-minded, and question whether they favour one approach over another for the right reasons.

So don’t be afraid to try new research methods, but whichever ones you end up using, approach them with caution, take them in moderation and don’t lose your balance.