By Tom Ewing
In an ever more international industry, great research events need to balance the local and the global. They have to be a showcase for awesome local work and an opportunity for networking and catching up with friends and rivals, but at the same time they need to reflect a business that is changing rapidly across the world. Some of the most enjoyable events I’ve been to achieve this balance – a strong flavour of a specific research market, combined with content that tries to move the worldwide research conversation forward.
The AMSRS (Australian Market & Social Research Society) annual conference is one of these events. It handles the balance of local and global in a unique way, inviting a set of international keynote speakers to showcase their latest work and introduce themes, while running parallel sessions and panels showing off work that speaks to Australia’s unique cultural mix and distinct research issues.
Here’s where I have to declare a sizeable interest – I was at this year’s AMSRS in Melbourne as one of those international keynotes, and I am enormously grateful to the AMSRS for their kindness in inviting me to come and give a talk. The theme I chose was “Reasons To Be Cheerful” – an optimistic keynote celebrating our industry’s capacity to change and adapt. Too many conference speakers nowadays harangue the research business, preaching that it needs to change – which is condescending and tiresome for the thousands of researchers who already have changed the ways they look at things.
If you’re flying to the other side of the world, I reckoned, you need to put on as good a performance as you can once you get there. It felt like the other keynote speakers agreed. Fiona Blades of MESH talked about her agency’s pioneering work in tracking brand experiences via mobile in the 00s, and how that’s led to her current work bringing research know-how to the work of mining social data for insight. Leigh Caldwell of The Irrational Agency introduced the audience to a goals-based model of the unconscious mind and was entertaining and bullish about research’s prospects of measuring it directly. Betty Adamou of Research Through Gaming wowed the conference with the lavish research games she built to get below the surface of young people’s attitudes to privacy and sharing. Caroline Hayter of Acacia Avenue filled us in on how qual research is adapting to behavioural economics, training us to spot the linguistic “tells” of heuristics in everyday speech. And finally Joel Rubinson of Rubinson Partners gave a bracing update on the world of digital media and advertising in a personalised and programmatic era.
What did these six speeches have in common? Context. From the paradata created invisibly by a research game, through the predictive power of context to serve you ads, to the goals you unconsciously pursue, uncovering the hidden context of behaviour quickly emerged as a genuine theme. From a personal perspective, this was extremely refreshing. Recent interest by researchers in behavioural economics is occasionally dismissed as a fad, and while “big data” has passed the fad stage, it’s often seen as too vast a topic to get to grips with. But both these subjects are facets of a “contextual turn” in research, away from direct questioning and towards handling large existing data sets and looking at the environment decisions happen in. The AMSRS conference felt like it happened in a world where this contextual turn wasn’t something to be debated or fought over, but something that formed the bedrock of the event.
That didn’t just come across in the keynotes – the theme came through in the local papers too. With three separate, paper-packed tracks there was a lot to take in. My personal highlights included a paper by Betfair and The Lab on user experience of the Betfair smartphone app. UX is a booming field at the moment which rarely gets enough credit in research events – Betfair’s method involved real-time recordings of app use, capturing location and background audio as well as on-screen activity. This gave a really full picture of behavioural context. Where the presentation really shone for me was in its candour about the snags of using new technology in research. All too often tech innovation as presented as a simple, “plug-and-play” process at conferences. In reality, anyone who has ‘enjoyed’ the unique combination of research deadlines, third-party technologies and real-time research participants will know that smooth sailing is very rare. The Lab offered excellent tips on creating more resilient innovation: practise tasks, technological stress-testing and constant expectations management.
Another favourite was Derek Jones of D&M Research, exploring whether and how a context of abundance changes people’s enjoyment of everyday pleasures. Does someone with music downloads at their fingertips enjoy it as much as their equivalent 40 years ago saving up for a vinyl LP? Do digital pictures feel as exciting as getting film developed? Intuitively the answer for many older people is no, and D&M expected to find as much when they did a cross-generational study of enjoyment and perceived scarcity. But in fact the modern, convenient, digital world of abundance is generally more satisfying and enjoyable than previous eras of scarcity – the nostalgic aura created by our own happy memories makes us predict newer things will be less enjoyable than they are.
Other well-received papers I didn’t see included Penny Burke of QPMR talking about using “conflict groups” and other discomfort tactics in qual. If you bring people together who disagree and force them to communicate, the resulting friction can be an invaluable and revealing source of insight. Paul Vittles of consultancy firm instinct and reason talked about his life-saving mission to use an understanding of behavioural context to transform suicide prevention – an idea he’s also presented at TedXSydney. Other presentations had a distinctively Australian feel – a country with high population growth and migration rates, whose culture increasingly bridges European roots and Asian proximity, is better placed than most to address the topic of the ‘global citizen’, which Hall & Partners presented research on.
Not every presentation was gold – a couple of them suffered from an excess of “buzzword bingo”, with abstract calls for disruption matched with windy appeals to authenticity… but that’s true of every conference. All in all the AMSRS 2014 event was a roaring success – a shot of optimism and energy for the industry, as shown by the very busy Twitter feed that managed to hit the Top 3 trending Twitter topics in Australia on both days. It was a really friendly event – being greeted after your presentation with “FAN-bloody-TASTIC, mate!” makes a welcome change from the usual London “I, er, liked your talk.” It had great food. And half its speakers were women – which shouldn’t be a rarity, but is. If you get the chance to attend, you should. And IIEX, which is bringing its unique conference approach to Sydney this December, should realise it faces perhaps its toughest local competition yet.