That’s why it’s called ‘research’

A wee rant.  I came across this conversation about online communities on Research Live.  There is a discussion of the pros and cons of research-based online communities, branded online communities, and right at the end a commenter who says that all this community talk is ridiculous and simply listening to internet buzz (via networks like) Facebook is the way forward.

Listen, my children. Many many years ago, I was a wee trainee research manager for a company that did a very boring thing.  We made the fragrances that go into washing powders.    We did not think this was at all dull.  We lived and breathed functional fragrance (quite literally, marketing was right next to the factory).  We researched all sorts of things. We did sensory research, perfume trends research, international laundry research*, brand positioning research.

The one thing we couldn’t do is listen in to a general conversation because for the most part the ‘moment’ we were researching was transient and private.

So it is with many products and brands.  For every Facebook and iPod and Easyjet and Carling Black Label, there is a product which is humble or private or low-key or taboo or just not terribly interesting.  It may be everything to its creators, but it doesn’t generate talk.   This does not stop the producers of these things from wanting to find out what people think.

A research community, like a survey or a piece of qualitative research, is a way of lining up your users and asking them to talk about something they may scarcely think about, day to day**.  When it comes down to it, your customers may have vivid experiences and strong opinions which would never see the light of day outside of the direct conversation between researcher and user, or brand and user.

Don’t get me wrong, online metrics are important and of course you should collect them; but in many cases they will be absent, deeply uninformative or even misleading.   Also: (deep breath) not everybody is online; not everybody important to your category is online.    They’re certainly not all on Facebook.    And I’m flailing in frustration now, but really, systematic research is one of the best methods of finding out what people think of your (slightly boring, not-dominating-Twitter) thing.

*Anyone who thinks that it would be impossible to talk about washing powder for very long is sorely, sorely mistaken.

**For example, blank video tape, back in the day.  Try mining that.

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Can market researchers have an opinion?

Robert Bain of Research Magazine has a blog post today about the way that business people pick on market research as a way of underlining their modern business credentials.  He quotes a piece by Marc Babej, a marketer writing in Forbes magazine who fixes the passing blog reader with a flinty stare and declares:  ‘You burned big bucks to collect scads of data. Too bad much of it is meaningless.’

Babej’s article is less a research hatchet job and more about ‘smart’ research investment: after all, he has a proprietary technique up his sleeve.

It got me thinking about how terribly mouselike market researchers are about critiquing practices in business, marketing and advertising.  Quite understandable, I suppose, when your very existence is down to the buying decisions of those particular people, but I long for a time when research luminaries might wave their hands and say (for example) that modern marketing is dead in the water…

…*crickets chirp*

OK, me first.

Unpopular marketing opinions:

  1. Most segmentations are rubbish
  2. Customers would rather their product worked, rather than entering into a Brand Conversation
  3. Understanding people entirely via the Internet is unwise
  4. Data mining is for obsessive-compulsive companies which fear being tainted by physical contact
  5. Many organisations are structurally incapable of acting on the insights that their research provides

That wasn’t so bad, although I guess I’ll never work in this town again.

More seriously: should market researchers have an opinion?  I’d like to.  I think it’s necessary, I think it’s absolutely unavoidable; but it strikes me that it can be difficult and unwelcome.

Evidence and belief

This morning, news came in from the inquest into the death of a 14-year old girl, Natalie Morton, who died shortly after receiving a vaccination against HPV (human papilloma virus).  In short: the poor girl had a malignant tumour in her chest which was undoubtedly the cause of death.

This hasn’t stopped the anti-vaccination squads from speculating about the safety of the vaccine.  The Daily Mail, long-time opponent of most childhood vaccinations (except the ones against really horribly scary illnesses) has already been running a story depicting HPV vaccination as ‘a mass experiment.’   The story has now been altered to reflect the outcome of the inquest, yet the criticism of HPV vaccine remains unchanged.

What is particularly interesting is the comments to the article, which (presumably) span both versions.  There are many commenters fretting about Big Pharma and unknown risks; some of the more recent comments still seem to view her vaccination as the catalyst for her sudden death, because of the suspicious timing.

“I have never heard of anyone who appears outwardly healthy dying within two hours because of a tumour. Never.”

As the comments continue, there are new arguments for and against, from doctors and nurses, and from those with long-term suspicions of vaccination.   In addition to the printed comments, there is a larger unseen audience giving comments the thmbs-up or thumbs down; the unseen audience appears to be more pro-vaccine than anti-.

Another anxious commenter:

“A consent form has recently appeared from my daughters school for this vaccination. I have not consented as she is only 12 and I do not feel that this drug has been tested for long enough. We do not know if this covers her for the next two months or the next twenty years. Too many questions need answering before I would consent to her having it.”

There are quite a few comments of this type, and they present really difficult challenges for a medic to explain.  HPV vaccine appears to be very safe, enough for someone like me (pro vaccine, pro science) to go right ahead.  If you are worried and you’re somewhat suspicious of so-called scientific evidence, you are going to need immense amounts of reassurance, and even then, a large pile of long-term studies may not be enough to change your mind.

I do understand people’s fears, and indeed the power of coincidence in making us look for direct links between events – but I expected more from the editors and headline writers.   There is nothing to be gained from another anti-vaccination campaign.  I’d like to hope that it no longer sold newspapers.