Eavesdropping for Fun and Profit

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From Bob Mason, EVP, Managing Director of Brand Strategy

We’ve all been there, tucked quietly behind the mirror, munching M&Ms and other sundry bad snacks.  Usually after a few hours into the research, clients and agency folks in attendance get a little fidgety. Maybe we even make a joke or two about a respondent (a bad tie or a bad hair-piece are always ripe material). But, there we sit, waiting for “the answers.” And, by golly, do we get answers! But we need to be asking, “Are the questions on the mark?” Are we getting honest-to-goodness, legitimate research findings or pat answers to pat questions? Essentially, are research respondents protecting themselves from not wanting to look easily influenced or ill-informed?

I’ve often half-joked that if I were to count up all the qualitative research respondents that I’ve encountered (both as a moderator and behind the magical mirror), they would easily (and frighteningly) add up to well in the thousands. And, I’m hard-pressed to think of any who were “influenced by advertising.” Of course, what I’m referring to is their ability to recognize and/or willingness to admit that they are influenced by advertising.

Think about it. In the consumer marketing world, where the norm is for more group discussions, I, as a research respondent, am sitting amongst a group of strangers (and odds are, the moderator did a lousy job getting respondents warmed up and acclimated with each other…usually because the client is anxious to “dive in and get to the meat of the research”). Plus, I’ve been warned about the “colleagues behind the mirror” (who, I’m guessing, are probably making fun of my bad tie or hair-piece, based upon the muffled laughter I can hear behind the mirror). Am I really going to be in the right frame of mind to open up and share true feelings, even if I could put my finger on those feelings?

In the professional medical and healthcare world, which represents a significant chunk of Palio’s business, we have an even more complex dynamic at play. Even though most qualitative research is conducted via one-on-one interviews with doctors (IDIs, in research parlance), we’re up against the “men and women of science” phenomena. Like Mr. Spock, participants feel at odds with any ventures into the emotional and nonscientific. Influenced by advertising? Why that would be an admission of not being data-driven (a mortal sin akin to pushing someone off a bridge). I might as well just say “I’m malleable.”

In the hands of truly skilled moderators (and clients who will give them the latitude to take detours from the discussion guide), some of these factors can be overcome. But not all of them.

For many years and for the right research endeavors, I’ve advocated employing more contemporary research approaches by conducting in-home (or in-office, in the case of doctors) ethnographies. At their best, these are often conducted by trained cultural anthropologists (often trained in things like Jungian psychology and semiotics). The list of brands that have benefitted from this type of research is endless, as it puts the dialogue on the research respondents’ turf, helping to ease their guard and facilitating a true, insightful dialogue between them and the researcher, whether the research is exploratory or evaluative. And now, with the advancements that have been made in the area of neuro-marketing research (The Advertised Mind and Buy-Ology are 2 great books published in recent years on the subject), we’re able to get at an even better understanding of what appeals to consumers.

It’s the social media space that, I’m convinced, is going to be the next great bastion of powerful research. Net net, I believe it can bust the world of research wide open and help get truer insights that get at real, addressable consumer needs. Being able to watch and participate in true friend-to-friend and peer-to-peer conversations will prove priceless in getting at the heart of the matter, whatever that matter might be. Because these dialogues and discussions are on consumers’ proverbial “home-turf” (ie, blogs and social media sites and the like), if we ask the right questions in the right, respectful way, the payoff could be immense. Even if we’re just eavesdropping on what’s being said, there’s a lot to be learned and gained.

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