Researchers Must Expand Their Horizons

On a recent episode of Mad Men, plucky girl copywriter Peggy Olsen presents creative director Don Draper with a sketch of a magazine ad for an airline client. Don is not so sure the focus on stewardesses in short skirts is the right direction. When Peggy reminds him, “Sex sells!” Don retorts, “Says who?” Since no one in the room has an answer, Don coolly takes a drag on his Lucky Strike and, after a bit of philosophizing about the true meaning of advertising, concludes that the focus of the ad should be on the traveler’s family. Who needs market research when you have Don Draper?

Times have changed. In today’s fragmented, multi-channel world of advertising, reliable market research is more critical than ever. Unfortunately, the same people that are best trained to observe patterns and tell a data-based story are all too often relegated to the back room — or worse — being completely left behind due to a seeming unwillingness to move beyond older methodologies. If they are to maintain their relevance in the customer insights game, market researchers must start embracing new and emerging data sources.

Consider ethnographic research, which has been experiencing a wave of popularity over the past few years because of the theoretical purity of the data. It sounds great. Why ask people how they use different products or react to new flavors or scents when we can observe the actual usage instead? (People are notoriously inaccurate when asked to describe their own behavior and are frequently either unable or unwilling to share their true feelings.)

The problem with ethnographic data, however, comes from trying to figure out how much of the subjects’ behavior has changed in some way due to the presence of an observer or the subjects’ knowledge that a camera is recording their actions.

The good news for my fellow market researchers is that the “pure data” we are forever chasing actually does exists in the digital arena. Let’s think about search for a minute.  In his book, The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture, John Battelle refers to search data as being the most powerful database formed by mankind — the “database of intentions.” If we can agree that people are searching for the things they want to find, then having the ability to examine bodies of search data provides us with very powerful insight not only about exactly the product and service characteristics that customers find compelling, but also the consumer vernacular for a client’s category.

It turns out that searchers in more mature Internet markets (such as the U.S.) tend to use longer search strings than searchers from less developed markets. How lucky we researchers are that more than 80 percent of the people online are willing to share with us a description of exactly what they’re hoping to find.

We are doubly fortunate here. Anthropologists tell us that one of the hallmarks of community is shared language. Understanding the language of search helps us tell our clients how to connect with their audience through using the consumers’ own vernacular. And, maybe best of all, there’s no “observer effect” to worry about. When people are searching online, it’s just them and their computer. No one is watching or filming.

Another rich source of consumer data that researchers need to leverage more is the blogosphere. Want to know what people think about your product or service? Spend some time reading blogs. Here people are airing their thoughts, voicing their opinions and disseminating advice free from the shackles of corporate oversight and fully protected by the First Amendment. (Corporate legal departments must be having heart failure.)