The Misleading Desire for Market Research Innovation

The other day this New York Times article popped onto my radar. While I wasn’t surprised by the content, it reminded me that today’s innovation obsession leads people to sell dramatic change regardless of whether it’s appropriate.

Take research. Is there any good reason to expect that there’s a “magic pill” that makes market research dramatically more effective? Research learns about a marketing fundamental that cannot be completely knowable: how to get people to buy products.

We would all be wise to reject any magic pill claims for research. There are a great many excellent research techniques – the key is applying them in ways that are effective and evolving them wisely as technology allows.

None-the-less the NYT article starts down the yellow brick road of research innovation.

Our article today starts with the researcher attempting to justify seeking innovation.

“We’re savvy, we’re jaded, we’re tired of advertising,” Ms. Sanna said.

Isn’t it odd that the agency and research people spit this phrase out with the most angst? (I once called this attitude on the part of agencies “self-loathing”. That finally got the attention of some of my colleagues.)

Certainly consumers aren’t always thrilled with advertising. But listen to them with an open mind and you’ll hear their primary frustration is that advertisers have stopped saying anything meaningful.

Even worse, the claimed research innovation has nothing to do with resolving any consumer frustration with advertising. So what is really going on here?

Is this drive for research innovation really just hoping to find different answers – ones we’d rather hear? A great deal of the market research used today should be criticized for applying a good technique in the wrong situation or for poor execution. But that doesn’t set up a need for research “innovation”.

Obviously, the desire to innovate is the desire to set your research firm apart and make loads of money. But research innovation sells by offering agencies and clients the opportunity to avoid inconvenient truths – like the reality that research reveals their ad campaigns aren’t effective.

It’s much easier to hope that an “innovative” research method will return a better liked answer than to confront an agency’s own shortcomings.

Let’s consider the specifics in this article. This sounds like a fun technique. But it’s justified based as being more “spontaneous” than focus groups.

Hmmm. There is no reason spontaneity should be an end in itself. But a well constructed focus group has always been able to be spontaneous.

Of course, the NYTimes wouldn’t write about something as powerful, but already understood, as focus groups. So this team uses innovation to get page space.

Is it a smart innovation to have people express feelings through art? Not really. Art is a very poor communication medium for most people. I’ve worked a lot with art and the subconcious process. Years of drawing classes. Years working with and around psychologists. Decades as a musician. Twenty years in advertising and 10 years teaching advertising. Married to an artist and good friends with many.

A few people express effectively what’s hidden for them through art. But that is a minority group – probably no more than 10% of the population. The vast majority are easily influenced by comments from the researcher, other people around them, or, in the case of collage, the materials offered. If anything appears to come clear in their work, it’s an accident into which very little should be read.

The Most Fundamental Weakness: You’ll never know how your moderator influenced a collage. The single biggest danger in research is that the researcher or client influence the answers. That’s more likely with art based research.

In the case described by the NYT there’s tremendous influence imposed by the Barbie – a symbolic element that carries a wide range of powerful meanings. The researcher might have thought Barbie was a brilliant stroke. I think it invalidates the entire process.

A Barbie is such a strong symbol that it will work subconsciously. For example, maybe they tell you an upside down Barbie represents life out of control. Unconciously, the participant may have placed Barbie to show resentment for the way the doll influences body image expectations. Or it might reflect self-criticisms, a bad marriage, or rejection of a role expected by society. Placing her upside down could have been an act of anger that wouldn’t ever be acknowledged to a stranger – a stranger like a researcher.

Collages probably tell us more about the researchers. What a beautiful Rorschach if we wanted to learn about everyone interpreting the research – the researcher, the client, the agency, and anyone else. A collage interpretation probably reflects the researcher’s own prejudices more than those of the research subject.

It’s sad they abandoned a reliable qualitative research mechanism like focus groups or individual interviews. But they have an answer for this. And it’s silly. Consider what the article impugns:

“Experts say…”. WRONG!!!!! The writer should have said “…people selling a new research idea told me…” Nothing wrong with it. But the author should remember that these people have an agenda that affects their income.

“Responses can be influenced by the marketers presence.” Of course they can. But only if you really screw it up. What had these researchers been doing – holding the groups inside client facilities?

“…One person may dominate a whole group”. Only with pathetically poor moderators – who have you guys been working with? It’s fundamental moderator training to ensure a balanced discussion. And it’s simply not that hard.

My favorite focus group critique (not used here) is: Focus groups are a problem because people influence each other. To which my reply is: Of course they do. That’s why we bring them together in a group.

Here’s why focus groups find important things: What one person says helps another dig deeper, then that one helps a third, then the third leads the first to consider something else, and finally a fourth reveals a deeply buried truth that’s very critical. And you can’t get to that truth WITHOUT them helping each other discover it.

“‘There’s no better way than nonverbal communication to understand how people feel,’ Ms. Freeman said.” My god. Didn’t she think about that comment before she said it?

Let me recommend my blog post (here) about the extreme danger of placing interpretations onto things you can only observe. We need to be constantly aware of how scientists reading the purely observational fossil record have been so wrong so many times. Which of your personal prejudices led to your personal interpretation of someone else’s “nonverbal communication”?

Research must deliver actionable truths – those that will accurately be used within your strategy to choose the best course of action or to reject a poor course of action. Does this new research advance us along that path in any significant way? No.

So the next time someone suggests we need “new types” of research, take a deep breath. Then send them to your competitor. It’ll serve the competitor right.

Copyright 2011 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved

About Doug Garnett
Doug Garnett is an expert introducing innovative consumer products and services to market while driving higher return on innovation investment. His career has been spent in innovation and he is the president of Protonik, LLC - an innovation consultancy focused on marketing and innovation. Prior to founding Protonik, he was founder and CEO of ad agency Atomic Direct.

One Response to The Misleading Desire for Market Research Innovation

  1. Pingback: Neuroscience: The Hot New Advertising Research Myth « Doug Garnett's Blog

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