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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11 Responses

  1. I vote this best post of the year. The century. Possibly ever.

    Every “researcher” needs to read it.

  2. Wow. Have to agree with Katie…fantastic post!

    It also seems to provide validation for really good, thoughtful qualitative and ethnographic research, which does a whole lot more listening than “asking.”

    Rant away, Alison!

    • I think the power of listening and probing is being underplayed – spontaneous responses are great, but they’re not always possible or worthwhile.

  3. Absolutely. A lot of the B2B research I do, doesn’t seem at all appropriate for buzz monitoring/ social media data mining. They don’t talk about procurement tools or total print management or even satisfaction with their supplier. And we usually want to test new ideas that need questioning skills…

    A few years ago, I did a load of research among consumers about their water supply. Those groups where you start off asking them what they think and they all look blank because they just take it for granted. Got the discussion started though and I couldn’t shut them up.

    • Smiling at the water supply example – yep, I’ve done many of those, and they are difficult to get going.

      Satisfaction is a great example of why it’s important to go and measure something with a purposive sample as opposed to simply relying on ‘found’ feedback…it’s frequently not at all obvious how happy people are with a product or service. You ask, you stand a rather higher chance of finding out.

      I suppose the counter to this view is that if you have comment and you have sales (behaviour) then the part in the middle isn’t necessary any more.

  4. Couldn’t agree with this more! Excellent post.

    Two additional (related) comments:

    I believe that when new approaches begin/are created, “technique ideologues” pave the way. They’ll suggest that “X is all that’s needed.” Over time, as more and more researchers adopt the value of the approach, we include some of those techniques with more traditional approaches. Shop-alongs aren’t really “pure ethnography;” we borrowed from anthropology and hybridized it.

    Which leads to my second thought: we hybridize everything because we need to ask questions. I’ve been doing usability testing for nearly 15 years. Never once in all that time have I done what I know is a pure usability study; in every case, at some point, I’ve needed to probe for clarification and guidance.

    I’m intrigued by social networks and what I refer to as discourse analysis. But like you all, I can’t imagine it being the end-all, be-all.

    • Interesting comment. I think we’re at a point of change, where the internet stops being intriguing and starts to be mundane, yet industry/research/marketing is still on a wave of discovery, turning everything possible over to the internet.

      Usability research is a great example of the power of undestanding what goes on when someone interacts with a site – talking throught the response gives you an immediate, rapid insight that would not be obvious from looking at the analytics.

  5. Thanks Alison! I think that sometimes our problem is definitional. People use the term “community” so broadly, and it doesn’t just mean Facebook, or “brand monitoring”. It is actually possible to create private research communities that are the equivalent of a “focus group on steroids”: instead of 10 people in a room for an hour, you get hundreds in a virtual room, all the time. Clients love it, and the consumers (or customers, in B2B) are truly interested in having a voice. My company has done this for the last ten years and has created 350 communities. It is certainly not “all that’s needed”, as Caryn says — but for many of our clients, the continuous connection to consumers — and the chance to observe their conversations with each other — is breakthrough.

    • Thanks for commenting. Yes, I think the online research community is a great tool – especially when it’s delivered in such a way that everyone participates in a conversation and gains genuine value from being there.

      I suppose my worry is that the emphasis on data-mining makes it appear that an online community can be automatised; my experience so far has been that the best communities are an enjoyable, high quality experience that has to be created and actively nurtured by those running the community.

  6. My feeling is that research should rarely be the first resort, because of the time and cost. I’d suggest an approach something like
    1) Do we already know the answer (too often companies buy research when somebody else in their organisation has already researched it, but the sharing has not worked)
    2) Can we buy the answer from other people’s research, typically a syndicated research
    3) Can we find the anwswer by just ‘Listening’, including Twitter, blogs etc
    4) Can we ask our community and rely on the answer (I think every company should have a community, my pub has the community who actually visit, easyJet’s communtiy is an online formal communtiy)
    5) If we can’t do any of the above, how should we research it?

    I think listening to the buzz is really important because was not an option until recently, and I believe it sits earlier in list that full research. If your brand and your question can be answered by listening, it should be. If it can’t, it can’t.

    Even for the really talked about brands, many of the questions they have will not be solved by listening, but equally many will.

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