Let’s make one thing clear: from an agency where ‘inquisitive’ stands as a core value, we embrace efforts to drive the research industry forward. What nags me is people putting the boot into an industry often seen as being stuck in its ways. Recent challenges have come from the ‘implicit’ research lobby: those favouring behavioural economics, neuroscientists and big data. But we shouldn’t forget that as well as bringing something new to the party, these challengers have an agenda, and traditional research often stands in their way.
Of course, the main problem isn’t that research doesn’t work, but that a lot of it is adequate at best and misleading at worst. It is often a result of inertia (from clients and agencies) or a squeeze on price and time leading to corner-cutting. But when it is carefully designed against commercial objectives and analysed with flair and creativity, research can help to create exceptional new products and services. To achieve this, we must look beyond its use in a primarily evaluative context to focus on research as a source of inspiration and a force for good in the creative process.
At MMR, we focus on helping FMCG manufacturers to connect with consumers early in the development cycle, working with them to design products that don’t just tick the obligatory boxes but connect emotionally and functionally with a compelling brand promise. These are aims that shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, but often seem that way when searching for NPD that balances short-term impact with long-term, loyalty-driven sales.
We must get down from our ivory towers, embrace relevant technologies and design research that targets commercial outcomes. To this end, there are three big challenges or opportunities that we need to face up to.
1. How do we ask the question, or should we even ask it at all?
The System 1 and System 2 debate rages over how conscious consumers are of their decisions, and a plethora of implicit solutions have hit the market, in particular new questioning techniques designed to access the subconscious. These include timed response – which we have found to be of minimal value – and, at the more serious end, academically derived tests such as affective priming, initially designed to access hidden biases, such as racism, rather than arguably more accessible constructs, such as brand equity.
One of the challenges regularly facing MMR is understanding how a product or packaging experience connects with consumer expectations of a brand, with the aim of using ‘sensory branding’ to optimise the product-pack promise. This isn’t easy. It is harder to access the emotional delivery of products than it is to explore the impact of more emotive constructs, such as advertising (where we feel that many of the true implicit approaches add most value).
We trialled some implicit techniques to see if they deliver any advantage over our existing approaches. By and large, we were disappointed. We found the implicit questioning complicated the research process and the findings were inconsistent. Our conclusion, in this context, is that well-designed indirect questioning is more effective, largely because the constructs we’re accessing are ‘closer to the surface’, rather than being deeply rooted in the subconscious (‘can’t say’), or something that people didn’t want to communicate (‘won’t say’).
Other implicit approaches have a role to play, however. We’re currently exploring EEG scans to understand the key emotional triggers of a sensory journey. We have explored facial coding and found that in product/concept applications it added little over well-designed traditional research. This limits its commercial viability, at least until automated facial coding improves.
2. When do we ask the question?
For me, this is the more exciting area. With the global explosion of smartphones, we have an unprecedented opportunity to connect with consumers as things actually happen. This allows us to skip past recall to actual behaviour and replace long surveys with ‘bite-sized chunks’. The advantages should be obvious, yet take-up is frustratingly slow, in part because we’re conditioned to expect anything technological to be quicker and cheaper – doing mobile research isn’t, but it definitely can be better.
Smartphones are a fantastic survey tool: they not only avoid interviewer bias but give consumers the opportunity to capture their lives via video, photo and audio. The touchscreen is perfect for collecting data, the phone and SMS functions can be used to ‘interrupt’, and many people are almost surgically attached to their phone, making them ideal for capturing information at any point in a person’s day. Mobile represents a huge opportunity to do things better, bring consumers to life and blur quantitative and qualitative.
3. Quicker, cheaper and better
Ask most agency researchers what their biggest challenge is and they’ll say ‘speed’. Ask their client-side equivalents and you will typically get the same response.
So, is it possible to have quicker, cheaper and better? Well, that depends on how you define ‘better’. Purely from a researcher’s perspective, probably not; it invariably involves compromise. But if you’re a client with a condensed launch plan then your definition of ‘better’ shifts appreciably and leans much more towards speed. As an industry we need to react to this, finding a balance that allows the provision of relevant insight in drastically condensed timeframes – or else someone else will.
There are a number of solutions emerging, led by ZappiStore (including our own ImpacktLite product), and recently joined by MMR Express. We certainly don’t believe that ‘rapid’ has to mean ‘lower quality’. If you pick the right areas – typically ones where the question is clear and the answer requires minimal interpretation – then it is possible to design a quality solution.
Even so, we have taken a slightly different slant on the self-serve model, building-in contact between the client and MMR researchers both at the design and delivery stage, making Express feel less like an ‘on your own’ option and more like a rapid and highly focused agency-led project.
So where does this take us?
We are an inquisitive bunch at MMR, so we’re always keen to trial the latest thing. We think that if the industry is prepared to poke itself and embrace new thinking, then the future of research is safe. But we also have to remember that great research is delivered by great people – free to think, to experiment and to be creative.
We need our teams to embrace change and not be dazzled by it until it is fully proven. Traditional research, in conjunction with some clever thinking, is still a force for good, and it really can work.