Every few months one of the business sites publishes a piece having a go at market research. Usually these articles are a heady mix of dramatic predictions, weirdly dated assumptions about what researchers do, and – let’s be honest – a few sharp truths.
This one, in Forbes, is no exception. The gist is that “Big Research” is going to get kerb-stomped by “Big Data”, so the piece combines its downer on research with a bouncy optimism about the infinite powers of big data. I’m not going to go through it point-by-point, and anyhow plenty of other commentators have outlined where big data and research fit with each other. But this line stood out.
“What possible similarity is there between a person in 1972 and today in terms of how they respond to an ad?”
1972 – too remote to matter?
What indeed? Let’s start with biology, psychology, emotions, how they make decisions, the fundamental needs they might be trying to fulfil… but no – in a world transformed by technology none of those things matter.
I can see what the writer was going for. Some things change slowly, but appreciably, over the course of 40 years, and if you’re measuring “brand image” the norms of 1972 may not be as relevant. But other things change very rapidly indeed, and still others don’t change at all. The question really is – which ones should market research worry most about?
Imagine a pyramid of change, with the slowest-moving factors acting on behaviour at the bottom, and the fastest ones at the top.
At the bottom you might have our evolutionary and psychological heritage – basic factors like how our brains work, how we take decisions, the universal emotions we all feel. There is plenty of disagreement on how these fundamental factors work, but changing them is probably out of scope for even the most powerful brands.
On the next layer up you’ll find social and cultural norms – which move slowly but do change. Brands can play a part in shifting these norms but it’s still a big ask. Demographics are generally the lens through which researchers understand these, which explains the current obsession with “millennials”.
Moving up, you find what we might call the “metrics layer”. This is where things like stated preference, brand image, brand ‘personality’ and so on might sit. This is assumed to change over time, and be within a brand’s remit to alter via marketing, communications, and so on.
And finally, right at the sharp end, you get the immediate contextual factors on behaviour itself – things like the way choices are framed, the environment, immediate social information, and the visceral state of the person deciding. These things – as behavioural economics tells us – can have an immense influence on behaviour.
Which layers should research care about? In general, it’s bothered most with the metrics layer. After all, metrics, like the Net Promoter Score, are often created by research – as proxies for some real attitude or behavioural baseline. As such, they are very easy to create norms around.
What’s happened recently – and Big Data, neuroscience and behavioural economics have all played a role – is that there’s been a shift in interest toward using the very bottom layer (how our brains and minds work) to understand the very top (how to influence decisions in the moment). It’s far more common now for researchers to look at real, not claimed, behaviour, and to study the levers which move implicit, rather than explicit, decision making.
Obviously – since our Behavioural Model is designed to do exactly this – we think this is a good trend! There is still plenty of room for metrics (as long as they are rooted in how people make decisions, not how we’d like to believe they do) but the closer you get to the moment of decision the more likely research is to turn into something applied and truly useful.
It also helps bridge the divide between “Big Data” and “Big Research”. Big Data is a record of outcomes – something research used to provide. In the future, research’s job will be more as a laboratory for working to change those outcomes.
For more on the changing face of research, tune into our free webinar on Tuesday 10th when Tom Ewing will present his double-award-winning “Research In A World Without Questions” paper.