The validity of opinions and the reality of behaviour

Will mainstream market research need to rethink its business models and focus over the coming years?  The Asia Research client survey provides some superficially predictable comments on the needs of clients in a changing business environment, but hidden below the surface of the spontaneous feedback are some challenges to clients themselves as well as their business partners.

The responses of Singaporean and Malaysian clients about their future research needs are prosaic, but bear some quick commentary.  Unsurprisingly, the digital landscape weighs heavily on their predictions, along with online panels and social  media.  More provocatively, several companies state that they are considering moving more of their research projects in-house, making use of access to online panels and rejecting the added value which international research agencies bring to their business.

This is borne out by comments on the talents and skills required of agencies, in which business, analysis and communication skills dominate.  Mainstream agencies are challenged to improve their ability to add value to data through analysis of data, understanding of client businesses and the clear and convincing communication of business insights that have value.  This is something I experience constantly, although I would add that I have met very few clients who are prepared to invest the time and resources to properly mine the data they already have within their business, and often prefer to commission more research instead.  The answer to many of the challenges clients face is to spend more time on thinking and less time on the process of research studies, and I would love to hear from anyone who agrees with me!

The most provocative comment in the survey, which I whole-heartedly endorse, is that ‘there will soon be no need to ask questions, and everything will be based on observation and secondary data’.  Recent advances in neuroscience and psychology paint a clear picture of human behaviour that the mainstream of market research continues to ignore.

Humans are very poor witnesses to their own behaviour.  Most of our decision-making is unconscious and not subject to conscious thought, and any attempt to discover the drivers of such behaviour through question and answer is at the very least misguided and prone to misunderstanding and confabulation.  There are three areas that the majority of market research undervalues: the role of emotions in decision-making, the importance of understanding habits (unconscious behaviours), and the role of context in shaping consumer behaviour.  I

These are serious issues, as they question the validity of much of the research that continues to take place.  Here are five suggestions for making research more valid and useful.

There is a need for greater use of non-verbal stimuli (and especially images and video), rather than asking verbal questions (which require conscious processing rather than unconscious response).  Pictures are accessed more quickly, easily and completely by everyone, have greater symbolic value, and are far richer in associations and content.  They have typically been used in motivational and qualitative research, and there are opportunities to use richer stimuli in all research to provide more meaning and context to our dialogues with customers.

Observational research has grown in importance, but still makes up a small part of the research business.  All that we know about human behaviour suggests that observation should be a much bigger part of the research pie: from the emotional signals of facial and body language in interviews and group discussions, to the importance of seeing real-life behaviours in real-life contexts.  The technology available for biometric measurement is still far short of the natural ability we all have as humans to ‘read’ emotions from non-verbal signals: faces, body movements, spontaneity of reactions and pauses and breaks.

Context is the key to understanding behaviours: everything comes from the person in the situation.  Observation needs to take place in the relevant environment, and good research understands the cultural setting (national, ethnic, peer group, tribe) and the sphere of influence that surrounds any customer and their decision making.

When we do need to ask questions, we need to indicate the right frame of reference for the consumer, and to provide relevant cues to prime expectations and the most appropriate memories and associations.  For example, providing a context (social setting, event, time, competitive context) when asking for an dontevaluation of a brand or product will give more relevant and insightful responses.

With a profusion of data sources including online chatter, social media and more structured transactional databases, there are great opportunities to mine data for golden nuggets of insight, requiring a greater emphasis on the use of advanced analytics.  This is especially true in the task of synthesising behavioural data together with more ad hoc research, and one of the great challenges for businesses (which few if any have cracked) is to be able to integrate research and CRM functions to provide a seamless view of customers and prospects and how to maximise profitable business.  This not only requires powerful analytics, which already exist, but a different mindset and way of thinking.  Researchers (both client and agency side) need much greater ability to synthesise information, a skill which requires a much more creative (and less process oriented) view of market research.

Above all, human behaviour is complex and multi-faceted and no single research tool can hope to understand the full picture of how and why we do what we do.  I often struggle to sell the straightforward and sensible view of combining qualitative and quantitative tools to understanding behaviour, much less more richly layered approaches that more complex and strategic business problems often require.  The straight jacket of process leads us all to take short cuts (and we know how much the mind likes efficiency), but research can offer much richer insight with just a little more creative thinking time. Research doesn’t always need to be rocket science, but it does need curious and open minds.

I agree that research suppliers need to constantly improve their business, analysis and communication skills and employ the latest resources, such as online access to customers and information, to support client decision-making.  However, ultimately business intelligence should be based on a sound understanding of human behaviour, and the context in which it takes place.  Users and suppliers of research alike should understand human behaviour and use that understanding to guide better research, which makes use of non-verbal stimuli, observation, contextual understanding, analytics and layering of different perspectives and tools.

After all, would you rather trust an opinion poll, or what you see and measure in the real world?

By Neil Gains, Tapestry Works (