The future of online research: Engaging and activating stakeholders

Market research is in a state of limbo
Do you ever ask yourself the basic questions: ‘What is research good for? What is the higher purpose?’ Asking myself these questions regularly, they always remind me of the time of my PhD studies at PennState University. When I reported about the advanced statistics and maths courses I followed to my mentor Gary Lilien, I mentioned I had a hard time keeping up and understood almost 80% of it. He smiled and replied ‘as long as it stimulates your thinking, I am satisfied’. The same holds for the purpose of market research.
Research needs to influence management’s decision making, but even more basically just stimulate their thinking and inspire them. But, if we are completely honest, a lot of the research that is commissioned by clients does not have the necessary impact. We overly focus on data, analysis or technicalities, reliability, representativity, etc. Sure these are important, but often lead to numbers that are exactly wrong rather than approximately right (to quote J. Tukey). Research has commoditized – clients search for ‘more and cheaper’, not true transformation or added value.
Market researchers also often do not have the right company entry or connections to have true impact. In short, market research is in a state of ‘limbo’. If we do not act and change the way we run our profession, we will be held up and not much progress can be made. While market research is being commoditized for clients it is time to reset and create value. Value that sets us apart from other marketing services for professionals and that is engaging for our core ingredients, the consumers. This could be done by bringing the consumer into the home of management:the boardroom. To create such ‘closeness to consumer’ we need to work on three things: creative intelligence generation, research as conversation starter, and management responsiveness.
Creative intelligence generation
Intelligence should be generated by means of a multitude of methods. For far too long we have been overusing surveys to solve marketing information needs, to such an extent that survey resources have been depleted. Who on earth is going to keep filling out long and boring surveys (do check this recent HBR-blog: “Are Your Surveys Worth Your Customers’ Time?“)? We should not just focus on customer surveys, but rely on a host of complementary mechanisms: primary–secondary, active–passive, asking–observing, online–offline. Thanks to the ubiquity of technology and altered consumer behaviour, our current toolbox is very varied, going from surveys over group discussions to research communities, ethnography and social media nethnography …
While people can and do generate more information than ever before, we need to focus on what is relevant, for participants, clients as well as researchers. We can make people generate information for us by introducing more fun elements and creativity. In his book Brain Rules (2008), Dr Medina posits that we often ignore how the brain works. If we would apply some of his 12 rules to how researchers can generate information, we could get more productive. As an example, there are five rules that are particularly relevant for market research: (1) ‘exercise boosts brain power’ (rule #1); (2) ‘we do not pay attention to boring things’ (rule #4); (3) ‘stimulate more of the senses’ (rule #9); (4) ‘vision trumps all other senses’ (rule #10); and ‘we are powerful and natural explorers’ (rule #12). Considering all of these together we need to get out of the false comfort zone. We should rely more on giving consumers tasks to complete (by a certain time at a given location), question them about topics that carry their interest, visualise questions (via photo, audio and video), ask consumers to explore their environment and interpret findings and observations, leverage society and networks to solve problems, etc.
The future is in ‘gamified’, task-based and experiential research methods. In other words, what we ‘do’ to people is equally important as what we ‘ask’them! Consider the following. If we want to learn about why people do (not) adopt a product, behaviour or brand we mostly ask them to (dis)agree on a series of Likert-scaled statements. While informative, we could deprive adopters from using a product (i.e. ask them not to use it for while) and activate non-adopters (i.e. by giving them the opportunity to use the product for a while). Asking consumers to report about their feelings, share these experiences, pictures, movies, photos with peers would generate a lot richer insights straight from the natural experience.
Research as conversation starter
Market research studies are not only about formal presentations, knowledge management and communication programmes. The informal ‘hall talk’ is an equally powerful way to have managers use and share intelligence.
The most powerful is when research is a conversation starter and tells a lively story about customers! A good story starts from the underlying management problem or friction, and creates a context and a theme. We as researchers should have a plan to get out of the second-choice situation marketers face. The ultimate goal is to bring the consumer into the ‘boardroom’ to make sure that the next conversation at the water cooler among marketers is about our research – not last night’s TV show.
Creating a friction in terms of contrasting management knowledge with actual market situations is powerful, as is gamification with managers. In this context, we have good experience with letting executives participate in a consumer quiz to learn about consumer findings. By answering questions about consumers they receive social status (e.g. a badge), achieve different game levels and unlock extra information when progressing – at least something worth talking about.
Management responsiveness
Informed planning is nothing without action. The findings that generate most impact and success are those that managers have experienced and explored themselves. By applying the techniques described for generating and disseminating information, research will actually be much more used. The usage of research is more than about the trust between researchers and managers but as much about findings, which are Simple Unexpected Credible Concrete Emotional Stories Social (Heath & Heath 2007). Only research with these characteristics will be a success. Simple means we do not overload, but focus on the core findings presented in a bright way. Ideally research findings generate a sudden insight, or ‘Aha!’ experience. Sure, methods are the hygiene credibility factor: no one would believe flawed methods. When findings are concrete they become real, relevant and authentic, which often leads to an emotional engagement from management through empathy. Similarly, storytelling the findings makes the whole illustrative and gives research a social dimension. As such it becomes interdisciplinary and multisensory – also in line with how brains work.
A state of limbo
Market research is in a state of limbo. It is time to bring the consumer into the boardroom by means of creative intelligence generation methods,making sure research is a conversation starter to stimulate management responsiveness. We need ‘enacting’ research that creates ENgagement and ACTivation among clients as well as participants, through gamification, stories and experiences.
Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2007) Made to Stick. Random House.
Medina, J. (2008) Brain Rules. Pear Press.
This article was first published in the International Journal of Market Research Vol. 53 Issue 4.DOI: 10.2501/IJMR-53-4-000-000.

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