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Research Outlaws

Imagine a world where it's illegal to ask consumers direct questions - where the bulk of market research as we know it is no longer an option. What on earth would researchers do? What other information sources might clients turn to?


By Tom Ewing

Imagine a world where it’s illegal to ask consumers direct questions – where the bulk of market research as we know it is no longer an option. What on earth would researchers do? What other information sources might clients turn to? Would there even be a “research industry” anymore?

This fanciful thought experiment is the brainchild of BrainJuicer’s John Kearon, and one of the first jobs I was handed when I joined BrainJuicer last year was turning it into a workable, entertaining, on-stage reality. The result is Research Outlaws, a panel with a twist at this month’s Market Research Society conference in London. It involves four insight innovators, one brave client, an increasingly nervous chair, and forty minutes of cutting-edge research innovation at a breakneck pace.

But, you might be thinking, nobody is going to ban direct research! Why should we care about such an absurd premise? While it’s hard to envisage scenarios leading to the abolition of research – surveys may sometimes be boring, but not yet fatally so – the conceit touches on some very real issues the industry is facing.

On the one hand there’s the notion that you simply don’t need to ask people so much stuff any more. Market research is the child of an information shortage, but we now live in an information glut: we’re one of many sources competing to fill prospective clients’ knowledge gaps. From social media monitoring to large-scale data analytics, emergent technologies compete with us as knowledge and insight providers without a survey in sight.

On the other hand there’s the idea that even if you do ask people things, their answers may be worthless. Human beings are poor witnesses to their own behaviour, which poses a problem for surveys seeking to establish said behaviour. And the more we find out about how our environments shape our choices, how socially influenced we are, and how many pet irrationalities we carry around, the less useful a simple answer to a simple question seems.

This technological and intellectual pincer movement is squeezing research. But for anyone keyed into the discussions around research at the moment – and if you’re reading Greenbook, that includes you – none of this is new. The arguments on each side are well-rehearsed and fully aired. We could do a panel explaining all this, but however passionate and witty we were it would still end up as yet more hype talk. What we decided to do with Research Outlaws was create a format which would force participants to roll their sleeves up, make stuff happen and hopefully create some fun in the process.

So the panel we’ve come up with works like this: four researchers, each representing a different ‘post-respondent’ discipline, deal with briefs from a real client. The briefs are simple, but still head-scratching, questions about human behaviour – why do British consumers do this, but German consumers do that? Why do people keep doing X when the facts say Y? In the panel the researchers get six minutes each to present their results – so there’s no time for theory or sales talk, just a concentration on how the method got to the insight, and what those insights were.

What are the methods? For this iteration of Research Outlaws – if the panel works, we’d like to export it as a showcase for new thinking – we’ve invited four companies to take part. Philter Phactory will be using intelligent social media monitoring devices; Spring Research will be using a behavioural model of consumer decision making; Siamack Salari, creator of the EthOS app, will be doing some mobile ethnography; and top consumer semiotician Greg Rowland will be using semiotics to provide his answers. It’s a mix of new technology and more established disciplines with four terrific speakers and should be a conference highlight. But more than that, it’s meant to use a bit of tongue-in-cheek futurism as an insight into the great practical work being done at the leading edge of research right now. As William Gibson famously, said, “The future is already here. It just isn’t evenly distributed yet.” That’s as true of research as anything.

If you’re at the MRS conference, Research Outlaws will be at 2PM on the 20th March. If you can’t make it, Tom will be writing up the session

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4 responses to “Research Outlaws

  1. Interesting piece Tom, repeating some of the more topical phrases such as “poor witnesses to our own behaviour” (repetition is a proven method of PR success), promoting a “New Agenda” whilst referring to “science”. How often has Science been wrong, whilst held up as torch of human progress? 1960s – Harold Wilson – White Heat? I would take issue with your “technicological and intellectual pincer movement” – implying that social scientific insights since the 1930s, nay 1960s is worthless. Really? What problems has Behavioural Economics solved yet? Stating that we’re not as rational as some like to think isn’t actually new – cognitive biases are well documented. Setting up research, as you do, in your opening paragraph like some punch and judy show isn’t particularly endearing – “what on earth would researchers do” suggests that we are a bunch of lost souls searching for a direct question. Sorry if this sounds waspish, and no doubt you intend a tongue in cheek approach… but I do push back at what can appear to be polecisim whilst what we should be aiming for is a balanced, empirically driven approach. Just saying.

  2. A valuable take as ever, Edward! (Though I don’t talk about “science” anywhere in the piece, I think) I honestly feel most differences are more in style than substance – polemicism is exactly what we’re trying to avoid with the panel, and empiricism is at its heart. It’s an opportunity to look at four fringe approaches to research on a roughly level playing field, and to concentrate on what they achieve, not the theory or hype behind them. It’s also designed to entertain, of course – no apologies for that!

    As for the wider point about over-stressing the “pincer movement”, I do sympathise. I took the stylistic decision to present as brief a summary of the “big data” and “behavioural science” positions as possible, so the very valid point that we’ve known about the latter stuff for years was left out. The question of WHY there’s more attention paid to cognitive biases right now is a really interesting one – part of it is simply fashion, part of it is cultural fall-out from the economic crisis, part of it (I think!) is that researchers aren’t just taking it as an inevitable part of the landscape and are looking at how they might work with or alleviate these biases.

    Certainly when I did my basic research training – back in the 90s – I was told that participants lie, can’t explain themselves, etc but there was also a tacit acceptance that you just have to live with this stuff and traditional methods were still our best bet for getting at real behaviour. That acceptance is what’s being questioned at the moment, which doesn’t need any specifically new information as a trigger, I think.

  3. First time I have read a piece by Tom.

    The question is how to filter noise? Has anyone set up a series of simple behavior observation experiments that can be linked customer behavior linked to a crowd source environment on the web? Large data set and more reliablity of test. A QR application may be the gateway. It’s not what they say they will do it’s what they do and this approach may give a more reliable prediction of future behavior.

    Just sayin’.

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