Kickstarter Mythology Needs Some Retail Reality

Kickstarter mythology has outgrown reality.

(But let me be very clear. I’m NOT talking about Kickstarter art, music, and movie projects. It was designed for these and they seem to be running pretty well overall.)

I’m talking about Kickstarter campaigns that raise money by Directly Selling new Products that have never been built – and taking orders for lots of them. In the computer business we used to call this selling vaporware and investing in businesses dedicated to vaporware led to the dotcom crash. Segway and Google Glass were both massive vaporware disasters.

Now, by selling vaporware with Kickstarter, we’re seeing amazing train wrecks among the most highly successful money raising campaigns. These train wrecks are all made possible by the mythologies that drive Kickstarter and other crowd funding sites. (Incidentally, a comment below points out this is a far more dramatic version of the direct mail practice of “dry testing”. There is already FTC guidance on dry testing.)

The Mythology of Kickstarter for Inventors. Inventor mythology starts with a belief that it’s enough to come up with a good idea and some money to build it. And Kickstarter appears to “unshackle” inventors so this can happen.
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Big Data. Big Promise. Big Caution.

Big Data imageBig data claims to be the new salvation for all businesses. Because, we’re told, big data will discover amazing new truths. Time will tell.

But in the meantime, most big promises should also be accompanied by big cautions. Which one’s are most important as we approach big data? Recently, on the Financial Times website, Tim Harford wrote a blog post on the topic: Big Data: are we making a big mistake. It is one of the few really thoughtful big data discussions we’ve come across in a while.
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Lets Hold the Panic About Retail Showrooming – It’s Driven by Research Errors

I discovered an excellent blog post (link here) this week about marketers being mis-led by major research mistakes. One of his main examples? How “showrooming” fears have been blown out of proportion..

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The Good and Bad of Steve Jobs’ Market Research Legacy

Have you heard the “Jobs Excuse”? When someone introduces a bad idea with “well Steve Jobs says” or “…just like Apple…”. It’s an old name dropping game that hopes to make even horrid ideas sound good.

In the world of market research, we hear it most often through one popular quote from Mr. Jobs:

“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” (BusinessWeek, May 1998)

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Why I Don’t Use Dial Testing (Perception Analyzers) to Research Infomercials

I’ve spent nearly 20 years improving infomercial sales based on audience testing our shows in research. To do this, we don’t use dial groups. That surprises many of my colleagues so I’m regularly asked “why”. Read more of this post

Mediocrity: The Biggest Danger to Advertising Research

A recent AdAge article quotes Bernbach as saying “The more you research, the more you play it safe, and the more you waste money. Research inevitably leads to conformity.” (Link here.)

It’s sad that the creative community all too often comes to this conclusion – only to use the idea of non-conformity to justify all types of advertising sins.

Yet I understand what might lead Bernbach to take this position: too much research is born in mediocrity. Truth is that a great deal of advertising research is a bureaucratic ploy – designed to deliver bureaucratically controllable success.

This research becomes no longer about finding the keys to exceptional success. It’s cautionary research to help people keep their jobs and help executives develop “plausible deniability” for failures.

This research is no longer about weeding out bad ideas in order to put money to more productive use. It’s about killing ideas that might threaten the status quo. Or it’s about killing any fresh new understanding that might challenge the organization’s carefully crafted (but inadequate) theory about the consumer. (It’s my experience that every organization can discover new insight about consumers with exceptional research.)

Bureaucratic research is born in mediocrity & hides behind statistics. What’s most destructive about this research is it looks just fine and has all the bells & whistles. Beautiful reports are generated from (expensive) blue chip research firms. Statistical analysis claims to show exact margins of error and large staffs execute a bureaucratically perfect job.

But while statistical margins of error are extraordinarily important they mean very little. Hugely more important than margins of error is whether the survey participant answered the question we thought we asked. Because if they answered the wrong question, the research is 100% wrong – even if it claims a +/-3% margin of error.

This type of research may be needed within a corporation. But it leads to…nothing productive. It doesn’t find unexpected profitability. And it kills many good ideas just to find a few bad ones (that were probably already obviously bad). And it leads companies to eventually fail because it allows companies to stay within their safe zone.

YET, Creative Teams Err When They Echo Bernbach’s Quote. I seriously doubt if this quote reflects the depth of Bernbach’s true opinion – he’s much too savvy to have minimized research across the board. Still, I have heard exactly this thought parroted by creative teams across the world.

Partly, some creatives suffer a kind of research trauma – having heard consumers questioned closely about things like the colors in the ad. (First rule of good research: Consumers are NOT creatives. Don’t ask them to critique creative choices.)

But that’s no justification to avoid research. I find that most often creative teams don’t really want to learn – they might find their work isn’t influencing consumers the way they thought it was.

Exceptional research is quite threatening and challenging – it reveals the unexpected. Embrace that truth and we find amazing power. But, its much more common for creative teams to circle up in the safety of non-conformity and write off all research.

Exceptional research is about learning. Research cannot, and will never, deliver the laser-like accuracy that too many executives hope for. But that doesn’t mean it’s a “failure”. Rather, research is about learning. Because if any creative team tells you they know all the answers you should fire them on the spot.

Let me try an analogy for research from my reading of history in the American west.

Suppose it’s 1850 and you’re in Oregon wanting to go to Sacramento. There are no roads and there aren’t even established trails.

The successful strategy is to do research. Read everything you can on the territory and search out all the maps. Then talk to anybody who’s been over even part of the territory – guides, pioneers, Native Americans, and farmers. And then, build a strategy – a plan – based on everything you’ve learned – complete with alternative courses in case the plan has flaws. Then continue to re-investigate your plan as you proceed. And be brave, but savvy.

Unfortunately, agencies too often just pick up a compass and head south only to starve in the wilderness, be killed by outlaws or be killed after encroaching on Native American lands.

And the most safety seeking corporations would prefer to sit and wait for 130 years hoping someone develops a camera to get a satellite image of the territory.

Marketing success takes the courage to look the truth in the eyes. Over the course of my career I’ve become more and more convinced that marketing courage is critical to success. But as any soldier will tell you, the courageous train and prepare themselves for action. And when the time comes, they act with little concern for their safety – because that’s what it takes to achieve their goal.

Unfortunately, I find the creative call to “non-conformity” is all too often the call to safety. What takes far more courage is sitting still and listening to consumers so you communicate with them in ways that get their attention better and lead to more action.

Do you use research courageously? If not, you’re leaving tremendous profit for your clients untapped.

Copyright 2011 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved.

Want Consumers To Pay Attention To Your Ads? Make Them Meaningful.

A few weeks ago I ran across this article titled “Four Reasons Why We Choose to Watch Ads”. Seemed like a smart read because I always love to see simple lists about advertising. Read more of this post

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

The New (Old) Truth: Mass Media is the Key to Building Brands

For some time, marketing has been dominated by the theory that the way to success is getting your most loyal consumers to buy more. As a result, it’s become popular for marketing “guru”s to declare the end of mass marketing.

There’s just one problem: it’s not true. The best discussion of this reality that I’ve seen recently is found in Byron Sharp’s book “How Brands Grow” (2010, Oxford). Let me share a few of the realities I found in this excellent, and challenging, read. Read more of this post

Reading the Fossil Record: Why Mobile Retail Tracking Can’t Replace Focus Group Research

There was a post on Retail Wire this morning that pondered whether retailers will need traditional research once mobile tracking is “in place”. The question is interesting because it reveals a very common flaw in how people think about research.

Developing conclusions from mobile data is the equivalent of scientists reading the fossil record. When I was a kid, scientists had been observing the fossil record for hundreds of years. So, they really thought they knew what the truth was. Dinosaurs were reptiles, they had reptilian skin, they were cold blooded, lived isolated lives, and modern day lizards are their direct descendants.

Fast forward to 2011. I’m no paleontologist. But it’s my understanding that fossil prognosticators now believe that some (many) dinosaurs had feathers, that some (many) were herd animals, they were pretty fast moving, that some lived in family based units, and that birds essentially evolved from dinosaurs.

The original scientists weren’t bad at their jobs. In fact, they were brilliant. The problem was in the observed data. They created solid, grand theories from the observed facts they knew.

The Key to Observed Behavior is What You Can’t Observe. Paleontologists erred in their theories because there were thousands and millions of fossil truths they couldn’t see – they hadn’t yet been discovered or analyzed.

Mobile data puts us in a similar spot. Ethnographic observers are in a similar bind as are direct marketers who rely purely on response. No matter how hard we work, observational research misses more data about human consumers than it captures. And without that data we mis-lead ourselves into error.

What’s fascinating is that as we create grand unified retail theories from this data, behavioral data becomes a type of departmental Rorshach test. Your company is likely to project onto the research the things that help individual careers. Or, it may project the results of your latest session with a highly paid consultant. What’s least likely is that it finds actionable consumer truths.

Wise companies will continue to rely first and foremost on data that helps us see motivation because motivation is the key to changing profit in big ways. Of modern research, its not just mobile that lacks insight into motivation. True “ethnographic research” is purely observational and is quite weak at discovering things that drive sales. (Perhaps that’s why so many firms claim to do ethnographic research but really do in-home one-on-one interviews).

To get to motivation, you have to use qualitative research of some form. It has to be executed by professionals. And it has to be interpreted with all the best care to avoid similar theoretical jumps to the errors noted above. But somehow, I find the challenges in qualitative data much more evident where the errors in things like mobile data are dramatically more insidious.

At the same time, I’m not suggesting we ignore the mobile opportunity! Mobile data offers opportunity for some fun and interesting bits of learning about store organization. But mobile data is limited and, even considering only in-store behavior, I’d probably get considerably more value from Paco Underhill-style teams of in-store observers.

Copyright 2011 – Doug Garnett