Stop asking questions, start listening

I attended the IJMR Research Methods Forum ‘Stop asking questions, start listening’. The venue was promising: ‘The Royal Society’. I felt honored to see Isaac Newton’s original manuscript and be at the very place where Darwin introduced his theory of evolution. But quite frankly if I transfer it to observational research as I observed it at the research forum, Darwin’s theory might not hold for observational research!
I somewhat expected to see more state of the art observational and ethnographical studies and methods. Not necessarily much about social media, but how about illustrations of how we can empower participants to provide us with insights we could not get 10-20 years ago. What happens if you give people a camera, if you ask them to record a movie of their behaviors and tag the content or ask a different crowd to interpret the observational reports of other participants or even ethnographers? As Darwin might say, things have evolved. Yet the forum placed a great deal of importance on relatively traditional, old-school techniques. My expectations were not completely met in terms of real contemporary observational research.
Still, as always there was some interesting food for thought. Here are the main take-aways:
Phyllis Macfarlane rightfully pointed out that nowadays more data are available than ever before and that clients review their spending like never before due to the economic downturn. These two ingredients could be a lethal combination for us market researchers.
‘Yes’, there is still a sexy job for the statisticians among us – in the end who is going to analyze all these data – and ‘No’ it is not because there is a lot of data on social media that it is accurate!
Phyllis illustrated a web mining experiment which led her to conclude that:

  • opinion leaders are the ones who post more regularly on the web, but they are not necessarily more critical or negative …
  • a lot of the sentiment that is expressed online was neutral, so the question remains: what we can do with it?
  • the coding needs a lot of human input and it is time consuming and expensive

I would have loved to hear more about it, but Phyllis was right when she said we need more triangulation in the research that we do!
Roy Langmaid gave a traditional but inspiring view on listening for the future in terms of co-creation. We need to work at “relational depth” with participants and therefore need the following core conditions:

  • empathy
  • an unconditional positive regard for the folks we are working with
  • be dependably real or authentic

Due to the myth of the open mind researchers are often hampered in what they should actually observe. Too often we listen to the opinions “about” the participant, not “to” the real opinions as such. We also want ‘the toplines’ right away so we can get to closure and confirmation quickly. But co-creation is not about short term problem solving, it is about “creating possibility”. No one seems to hear the creation in co-creation, actually. The magic of co-creation is not about getting a lot of people together, but about changing the normal and interrupting the existing culture. If we can achieve that, then we have possibility.
“When we want to get real observations we need to observe actual consumers, when they do the things they do at their normal time and place”, said Philly Desai. We should not extract them from their natural and normal context. According to Philly Desai there are 5 areas where ethnography is of interest:
I. Retail navigation
II. Product development
III. Life styles and culture
IV. Urban ethnography
V. Habitual action
Michelle Harrison illustrated that we can use deliberate listening when we have to deal with issues:

  • which are characterized by complexity & uncertainty
  • that tackle justice or ethics
  • which relate to difficult tradeoffs which have to be made
  • where true deliberation is needed and a decision has not been made yet

It was hard to find the figurative gorilla and black swan in what Paul Edwards presented. A couple great and appropriate quotes: “Thinking is more interesting than knowing but less interesting than looking” (Goethe); “In the long history of mankind those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed” (Darwin); “Never forget that only dead fish swim with the stream” (Muggeridge).
And the future will tell, Paul, if Twitter will last … .
According to Ed Keller’s word of mouth research 76% of it happens offline, 2/3 is positive and it is does have impact! When advertising influences word of mouth than there is 20% more chance that it includes a strong recommendation to buy.
I am still trying to figure out what opinion polls have with observation …
Adam Philips shed some good light on the ethical challenges for observational research. The bottom line is we need to treat people with respect, avoid dubious technology and not use technologies that also serve a marketing purpose. Things have changed! It would not be that easy to take and publish a photo of peeing kids nowadays as it was the case in the mass observation social research in the UK back in 1937. Several people would consider it as inappropriate to picture kids this way …
I am just wondering how far we take this? Are we also not allowed to look at people’s public Facebook page and make some kind of interpretation of it?
All in all, I got some inspiration but my feedback to MRS / IJMR would be simple. As animals and humans are evolving quickly, market research needs to adapt to remain meaningful and prevail. By focusing on that evolution and using it towards our own as well as our clients’ advantage, we can all come out ahead.

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