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The Human Side of Market Research

[Big Ideas Series] Market researchers need to to supplement emerging technical skills with a wider appreciation of the whole process of information handling for successful product innovation.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of our Big Ideas series, a column highlighting the innovative thinking and thought leadership at IIeX events around the world. Stan Knoops will be speaking at IIeX Europe (February 19-20 in Amsterdam). If you liked this article, you’ll LOVE IIeX EU. Click here to learn more.

When I saw the increase in attention of new ‘shiny’ tools in market research in the last couple of years, I was very enthusiastic. I assumed it would make my life as market researcher a lot easier. However, I learned that this was not the case. While we have so many more tools available, we also have to spend more time, not less time, delving into exactly what the output of these tools is trying to tell us.

In order to cope with this increase in tools and information, I believe we need a new set of market research habits. In the past, it may have been acceptable for market researchers to rely purely on the technical methodological expertise. But in today’s multi-source, imperfect information world, it is important for market researchers to supplement these technical skills with a wider appreciation of the whole process of information handling for successful product innovation.

There is a considerable body of philosophical evidence on what constitutes sound, methodological reasoning. But very little of this finds its way into the day-to-day practice of busy market research practitioners. In my opinion, in MR events and papers too much weight is given to new research technologies and too little of how the results should be interpreted.

I want to emphasize the human-side of the profession. The side where we need to rely on ‘experiment’, ‘scan’ , ‘gut’ and  ‘a bias for action’. This is equally important to make sense of the market and consumers. Unfortunately, these skills are not automatically acquired via new tools, not even via a good education. It is important to learn from practitioners in the field of innovation, marketing and consumer insights, to learn these skills and be successful in business and product launches.

I believe these real life practical experience provide food for thought for any market research analyst form agency or client side who is trying to make sense of consumer information for innovation.

I have summarized 5 key skill areas from practical experience that market researchers should master to effectively deal with consumer information that is not perfect.

Skill 1: Working With Conflicting Information

When we see conflicting data we tend to ask questions about method and sample etc., to try to “prove” that one of the sources of data is incorrect or misleading so that we can then dismiss it. We should look at how we can use the conflict created by the data to explore opportunities for insight.

Skill 2 : Reading Between the Lines

We tend to over-rely on self-report and treat what consumers say in a fairly literal way. We should not be afraid to use our deduction skills to read beyond what is apparent. We should consider other information that tells us something about how consumers act or feel and work out if that is more telling than what they say.

Skill 3: Finding Patterns in New and Old Places

Using data is all about finding patterns, but we tend to only look for the patterns that solve our current problem.  We do a study and find our answers and move on to the next study. By being playful with the data, and return to old data, we can spot otherwise hidden patterns. We should get into the habit of returning to our “used” data and being playful with it. We should look at fresh data in as many ways as we can. When we are free from interrogating it in specific ways for specific purposes we allow ourselves to find new patterns that lead to new insights about questions we didn’t even know we could ask.

Skill 4 : Embracing Outliers

We identify our outliers and find reasons why they can be deleted from our analysis. We should embrace our outliers and spend time on focusing our attention on what makes them different. Fantastic insights often come from understanding what makes individuals different than understanding groups consensus and predictable patterns.

Skill 5: Trusting Your Gut

We ensure that we are always “objective” when it comes to our findings. We should identify the times when our personal opinions, knowledge of category and consumers, and creative analytic skills trump “objectivity.” Unproven, unscientific “hunches” have led to breakthrough insights for centuries.

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Stan Knoops

Stan Knoops

Global Head of Insight, International Flavors & Fragrances