BBH has recently embarked on a much-needed and much-welcome crusade against what they labeled as Wind Tunnel Marketing, emphasizing how consumer research makes innovation and differentiation less likely to happen.
So, is research bad?
As always, it’s a complicated matter. Let’s distinguish between exploratory research (that will be discussed in this post) and confirmatory research (that will follow in the next one). Let’s define exploratory research as what you do when you don’t know what to do, whether we’re talking about a product launch, an advertising strategy or virtually any business issue. In this case turning to your users sounds like a good idea, but:
- People don’t know what they will want in the future: as Henry Ford put it, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse”. And you can’t blame them for that: figuring out the future of your industry is your job, you shouldn’t ask them to do it for you.
- People don’t know what they want today: “Consumers’ ability to discriminate and make consistent preferences is low, and lower that they believe it is” (P. Raghubir, “The sense and nonsense of consumer product testing”)
- People lie: according to a survey that we run when I was working on a toiletries brand, consumers replaced their toothbrush once a month. If that were true, we could have all retired and moved to Florida. (However, lies themselves can be quite insightful…)
All in all, we’re asking consumers to look at our life and make it easier, while we should be looking at their life and make it better.
Having said this, exploratory research can still be incredibly valid and valuable, and here are some tips to make it work:
- Diversify your methodology: when a fellow planner from my Publicis days was working on a beer brand, he knew that if he used focus groups he wouldn’t have gotten many actionable insights from a bunch of teens locked into an office and put under scrutiny by an adult moderator. So he opted instead for ethnographic research, going out with them for a few weekends in a row (yes, advertising can be a tough job!) and observing group dynamics first hand. What he got out of it was a promising insight that no competitors had been working on yet, and that led to a campaign that didn’t look like a buddy com or a soft-porn.
- Diversify your participants: don’t just talk to current users v non-users; talk to former users of your product; to recent adopters; talk to the distributors and the influencers; talk to those who designed it and built it; to the person who came up with the idea for it. There’s a wealth of interesting insights behind a product, and all of them could be inspiring, provided that they can generate a human response.
- Look for unexpected analogies: people wouldn’t know how they’d react to the change that you’re about to bring in your industry, but they might have experienced something similar in a very different environment. For instance, there are similarities between mobile phones and politics; or between The Economist and a toilet cleaner. (No offense intended for either of them!)
- Diversify your inputs: It’s hard to be imaginative while questioned by a stranger amidst other strangers, in an estranged environments. Use stories and objects (people think better with their hands) to stimulate the imagination and whenever possible take them out of that brain-annihilating cage that is a focus group room!
- Probe for more: don’t take the “what” into account, ask the “why”, and then again. And then again. If we asked a car manufacturer what’s good about his car, we wouldn’t be happy with “it’s got four wheels, and it takes you places”. We would keep probing, until something revealing comes out: maybe it’s safer than the last car he was driving with his family, maybe he was determined to make it look un-German… So why do we accept shallow answers when it comes to consumer research? (And yes, we do that more often that not)
- Don’t care about what people say. Just like jazz, research is about the silences and the notes not played. A certain facial expression, a hesitation or a word not pronounced are more insightful than what people are willing to share.
- Be invisible. Just like technology, the best research is invisible. Don’t ask, if you can simulate; don’t simulate, if you can make it happen for real.
- Be clever. You have to be real f%&ing clever to make research work! If you think you don’t understand people, let someone else do it. If you think your research partners are less than world-star brilliant, fire them.
Exploratory research is a bit like jazz and technology, but very much like cars: if you know where you want to go, it can take you there faster and show you landscapes you wouldn’t have seen otherwise. But it can also take you to the middle of nowhere, or even worse get you killed. If you’re not a good driver, you shouldn’t be given the keys.
To be continued with confirmatory research...