I've been thinking more about market research recently - partly after an interesting chat with Peter Hutton and also from conversations from our very own John Winsor, who's a bit of a radical on the topic.
I used to make a very nice living from qualitative research, but became more and more disillusioned. More and more often, I realised how little value businesses were getting from it.
What I'm enjoying about this blog is the quality of comments. I find this rather liberating as I don't feel my post has to be a frightfully balanced review of the topic but can be a bit of a "conversation grenade". That's the spirit in which I'm pulling out the pin and lobbing out these three points. And I'm quite sure John W will pitch in soon after...
1. Avoidance, not curiosity
So often, research is commissioned as an act of politics. For instance, a marketing director wanted me to research financial advisers in the London area. When I asked why, he revealed that... well really he wanted to test some consumer ads quickly, but he didn't have time to do consumer recruitment, so IFAs would have to do. (That in itself is a pretty questionable shortcut). Then it turned out that he wanted to test direct reponse ads - where it's nearly always simpler and cheaper to do a split run and see which ones work in the real world, rather than gather the questionable predictions of consumers.
After running through the pitfalls, what emerged was the real reason for the study. The director wanted his agency to change strategy, but didn't feel able to get them to change and needed research to back him up. Of course, research is usually crap for this since it lends itself to multiple interpretations. And instead of a scary but real conversation with his agency, he was willing to throw money at a highly artificial conversation with a group of absolutely marginal relevance.
That's an extreme case of a phenomenon I've seen a lot of. Scratch many research briefs and you'll find a conversation that needs to happen inside the business. An elephant under the table that's not being talked about.
And when research is done to prove a point, as a substitute for a "fierce conversation", when there isn't genuine curiosity, I think it's likely to be a waste of time and trouble.
2. A fake conversation.
Boy did I become tired of focus groups. How weird that the nearest some marketing teams get to customers is to observe them from behind the safety of a one-way mirror in a focus group facility. And that's assuming they are observing, rather than knocking back the beers, checking their emails or continuing their internal politics while the conversation goes on next door.
I harboured a secret desire to stick the camera in the viewing area and do a debrief on the pyschology of what goes on in there. It would probably be way more interesting than telling people about the consumer conversation. For more insights, here's a great article on my own site, written by Leapfrog Research: What are the main issues facing viewing facilities? (Word format).
As for quantitative research... the effort to squeeze people into those agree/disagree batteries has its uses, but it so easily traps us into trying to put numbers on things that defy measurement. And it's another way of keeping the customer at a distance in a one-way conversation loaded with the marketer's preconceptions.
3 Obsession with the explicit
The third problem is that market research fixates on what can be made explicit in a relationship. Yet there is so much evidence that way more happens in real human conversations than might appear from the words exchanged. For a crude example, just consider the difference between reading email and meeting someone over coffee.
Malcolm Gladwell's Blink has some great stories illustrating the ways in which we deceive ourselves, so that asking us why we do things (which is often what market research does) can be a truly awful guide to what really motivates us. The danger here is that some researchers will leap on this as on opportunity to sell deeper expertise, complicated methodologies attaching electrodes to brains etc in the preposterous belief that if you drill deep enough you can find out "what's really going on".
OK, maybe that may turn up something interesting... but just look at the shabbiness of this as a way of conducting a human relationship. It continues to treat customers as objects to be "done to" and experimented upon.
What this seems to miss is that all human relationships, however "scientifically" managed, are two-way streets. When we set ourselves up as objective researchers we delude ourselves, for we ourselves are affected and influenced by what we do in a myriad of ways. And what happens inside a marketing department that treats customers as objects? I think you'll find that they expect each other to be treated as an object too... and think what that does to the quality of conversations inside an organisation.
When we go out and actually talk with customers, cutting out the middleman, we expose ourselves to more than just an exchange of information. We allow ourselves to be changed, to be moved, perplexed, provoked, saddened, cheered and to experience a real connection. Perhaps that's what some marketing deparments are afraid of ?