Don’t Blame Focus Groups for Corporate Management Shortcomings

In a recent guest post for Greenbook, two qualitative researchers explain why they’re fed up with the all-too-common notion that the focus group is dead. Susan Abbott of Abbott Research + Consulting and Chris Shields Kann of CSK Marketing Inc., write at length about how it’s not the focus group’s fault, but the corporate management behind all the bad marketing decisions. They point to a 2009 article in the Social Media Insider that references several examples of “high profile reversals resulting from not listening” to customers, including the Tropicana packaging change, the Motrin ad that offended mommy bloggers and the 2009 Facebook redesign.

“Pity the poor focus group, a multi-function tool being blamed for the mistakes of its users,” they argue. “It’s like blaming the chairs at a dinner party for the quality of the food.

The author of this particular article lambasted marketing research for not doing its job, but it’s not so simple, say Abbott and Kann. “Pity the poor focus group, a multi-function tool being blamed for the mistakes of its users,” they argue. “It’s like blaming the chairs at a dinner party for the quality of the food. When you look closely at most of the articles so critical of the focus group, the writer is usually trying to make quite a different point — they are usually trying to expose management cowardice or poor leadership that relies too much on research and those who won’t take a position of their own.”

They go on to argue that, “research does not set strategic direction — managers do that. Your outside researcher, who spent many hours poring over the fieldwork, can give you an informed, independent and often very valuable viewpoint. But they should not make your management decisions.”

Well said.

Respondents as Researchers – A New Role for Consumers

One of the themes emerging from today’s ARF Conference is the use of “normal people” as researchers. Social media appears to be driving a new look at the role that consumers can play. Previously, consumers were “respondents.”  As recently as October, 2010, we talked about the evolving perception of respondents as interactive participants in Are They Respondents or Participants?.  Now that research participation is being taken to a whole new level, consumers are being asked to predict, observe and analyze the behavior of their fellow consumers. Essentially, consumers are becoming researchers.

Online research tools such as prediction markets rely on consumers to predict winners and losers among new products and even elections. Essentially, prediction markets rely on individual consumers to “bet” on winners and losers. The ones who “bet” correctly win prizes; others don’t. There are several different executions of this technique but all draw upon the wisdom of crowds theory that many people make better choices than a few.

A very interesting application of consumers as researchers is “Mass Ethnography.”  John Kearon of BrainJuicer described this as asking 40 consumers to attend an event with the intent of reporting back on the behavior and motivations they observed. These temporary researchers receive a short document up front that serves as training and are then turned loose to observe and report back. According to Mr. Kearon, consumers provided insights never before understood in the category.  Apparently, the volume of observations and the closeness of the consumer/researcher to the behavior more than made up for the lack of training in ethnography.

This “Mass Ethnography” seems extremely interesting for online qualitative research. Why couldn’t a moderator use a bulletin board focus group to manage a group of consumer/researchers?  The bulletin board would be a great platform for managing the project, distributing assignments and collecting observations and insights.  It’s yet another application for the bulletin board focus group that holds tremendous promise.

Respondents as researchers? Why not.

2011 ARF Conference Delivers Quotable Speakers

The ARF Conference kicked off this morning in NYC. The conference is celebrating its 75th anniversary. Once the program advanced past the first hour of the obligatory ARF history, it has been interesting and provocative in a “big picture” sort of way.

I was especially interested in several quotes from the morning sessions.  Here are quotes as best I could record them along with a few comments from the cheap seats.

“The researcher’s role is to provide provocation and inspiration that drive the transformation and actions that generate growth” – Stan Stanaunathan, VP Marketing Research & Insights, The Coca-Cola Company. How many researchers consider themselves provacateurs or drivers of any transformation? Not many, in my experience.

“In 2020, companies that define themselves as ‘fieldwork’ will no longer exist.” – Joan Lewis, Global Consumer and Market Knowledge Officer, The Procter & Gamble Company. Hmmmm….I wonder what the MRA has to say about this?

“If you don’t like change, you’ll like irrelevance a helluva lot less.” Joe Tripodi, EVP and Chief Marketing & Commercial Officer, The Coca Cola Company. Researchers are notiously slow to change.  End-user companies like Coca-Cola are pushing research companies to find new business models that embrace new technologies and new realities. Those that embrace these challenges have a chance to thrive. Others run the risk of following the dinosaurs.

“In our qualitative side and ethnographic side of our business, we are developing people who can understand our customers more deeply and provide value to clients.” – Eric Salama, Chairman and CEO, Kantar. There is a definite theme that the true value will be placed on people who can understand various types of data and relate the story of the customer back to the decision-maker.  Analytics are fine, but the true value will be transformational insights, however they are attained.

“Researchers need to be able to tell stories to motivate organizational change.” – Joan Lewis, Global Consumer and Market Knowledge Officer, The Procter & Gamble Company. Ms. Lewis went on to pan researchers as focused on methodology and findings that bore people and have little impact on decisions. Subtlety, throughout presentations, the value of qualitative continues to come through as presenter after presenter stresses the need for stories, understanding, understanding motivations, etc. 


Simon Cowell: “I Can’t Bear Research”

No doubt about it, Simon Cowell has been successful. “American Idol,” “Pop Idol” and “The X Factor” have been phenomenal. Yet, quotes the madman of Idol as saying, “I can’t bear research. Research just kills creativity because people lie in research or they say things they think the person wants to hear, or they overthink it.”

Unfortunately, Simon misplaced the blame for poor research.  He blames the consumer for poor research.  This is simply wrong.  The fault for research that kills creativity and/or suppresses divergent thinking lies squarely at the feet of the researcher. 

As researchers, we have the responsibility to delve into the minds of the consumer and help them to overcome their desire to lie or say things they think the person wants to hear. A good researcher recognizes these deathtraps and is constantly on guard to prevent such behavior.

Too often, researchers themselves fall prey to groupthink or to designing research to verify pre-conceived notions or to pure risk reduction. Allowing these forces to dominate our research process leads to jaded research users who recognize the research limitation, even if they don’t recognize the cause. There are too many Simon Cowells in the world who disparage research because of the researchers, not because of the promise of the research art itself.

What do you think? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

The Best of Qualitative Research in 2010

Wrapping up 2010, we went back and took a look at the most read blog posts of 2010. Need a little reading? Want to be sure you are caught up on 2010 before you plunge headlong into 2011? Well, here you go. Drum-roll please.

10. Phone Call Declared Dead.  Online Research Comes Calling

9. 10 Tips for Moderating QualBoards

8. A Better Way to Combine Quantitative and Qualitative Research

7. Going Green with Online Qualitative Research

6. Easy Steps to Conducting Your First Online Qualitative Project

5. 3 Tips for Keeping Clients Engaged in a Bulletin Board

4. Are They Respondents or Participants?

3. Are Focus Group Facilities Dead?

2. Taco Bell Qual:  Fast, Cheap and Internal

1.  Advertising Creative Testing Using Mind Clouds

Are They Respondents or Participants?

What do we call those wonderful people who share their life story, their dreams and their failures with us? For most of my career, I have referred to them generically as “respondents.”  In fact, “respondents” has been a pretty universal term for these kind folks.

But over the past couple of years, I have begun to question that terminology. It seems to be a holdover from quantitative research where a researcher poses a question and the subject dutifully “responds” accordingly. This imagery seems somehow appropriate for quantitative survey research but strangely inappropriate for qualitative research.

In qualitative research, we engage in dialogue rather than a structured question-response format. In this limited sense, I suppose, “respondent” has always been a bit of a misnomer.

In today’s world of online qualitative research and the exploding array of methods available to us, the subjects are becoming more and more active. Nowadays, we typically ask them to have a dialogue with us over some period of time using a bulletin board focus group, webcam focus group or in doing mobile qualitative research. More than ever, we are even less likely to ask these research subjects to simply respond; we are much more likely to ask them to participate fully in research, which reveals much more about them than simple responses to a survey.

Finally, acknowledging our research subjects as “participants” is much more gratifying and respectful of them than referring to them as merely “respondents.” Pavlov’s dog was a respondent in the purest sense. These people who sometimes bare their souls should be considered something better. As for me, I’ll call them “participants.”  What about you? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

AMA Research Conference: Challenging Researchers to Be BOLD

Day 1:  Direct from the AMA Marketing Research Conference

Market researchers and research agencies are being challenged to step out of their “research” roles and step up to being a catalyst for transformation in their organizations.

Words used this morning to describe the best “researcher” have been:

  • Bold researcher
  • Game changer
  • Creating business impact
  • Provoking transformation
  • Focus on business outcomes, not research outcomes

End users are tired of researchers who are good at supplying data but don’t impact the business. Gayle Lloyd of Batesville Casket Company says  69% of executives want a researcher who is a business partner. In that same survey, 29% said they had one.  Researchers and agencies are “head down” in data and not “heads up” addressing transformational business issues. She notes that the corporate researcher should be an “oracle” within the company as a source of knowledge and insights, not just a databank.

It seems to me that this transition is difficult and will require a different personality type. For most researchers, the functional research process is easy and comfortable. It is the rare researcher who can accept Gayle Lloyd’s challenge to be a “Bold Researcher” and become a true asset to the decision-making for strategic initiatives in an organization. As an industry we will need to change how we hire, motivate and compensate the research team.

Is There a Difference in Quality of F2F vs Online Qualitative Research?

Is face-to-face any better than online qualitative research when it comes to quality? That’s what one of my LinkedIn groups was mulling over last week.

is a very complex question because there are many, many online qualitative research methods
and many, many combinations of research objectives.
And this doesn’t even begin to address the definition of “quality.”
Since there is no easy answer I’ll just toss in my 2 cents on a couple
of items:

There is no doubt that the “data” from viewing people as they talk is
largely missing from most online qualitative research methods. Viewing participants in person can
reveal powerful insights, and the experience is insightful and memorable for the client
viewer as well. This deficit is being overcome by online research software but, frankly,
it is still a downside to online. So, when a direct comparison is made
using this criteria, online qualitative research often comes up short.

On the other hand, online offers many opportunities that F2F
does not. I love the opportunity to do longitudinal qualitative that
several online methods facilitate (e.g., bulletin board focus group). Longitudinal studies are very
difficult and very expensive F2F. Online provides greater
opportunity to go into the lives of a participant for a 360 degree view
of their interaction with a product or service. Online also gives us
tools that allow people to be totally open with anonymity. There are
other advantages, but you get the idea.

So, at the end of the day, the question to me is not which is higher quality, but which methodology best fits my needs?

Brainstorming with Word Clouds

Last week, I received my 2010 prediction issue of Research Business Review.  There were 12 pages of predictions from all corners of the research industry.  It was overwhelming. I wondered what would happen if I created a word cloud of the entire predictions issue to easily assess the common themes?  I scanned the entire issue and loaded the text into Wordle to create a typical word frequency word cloud (below).

2010 Predictions.png

Then I began to consider the business implications of this compilation.  My mind instinctively began to combine words in an attempt to decipher meaning from this jumble of words.  Suddenly new concepts began to form around those word combinations.  I quickly realized that I was brainstorming trends and opportunities for 2010 from this jumbled mass of relevant words.  The word cloud and the resulting word combinations became an unexpected tool that stimulated brainstorming.  
Look at this word cloud and allow combinations of words to form.  What are their implications?  How do those combinations lead you to insights?  Here are some combinations that pop at me:
  • New Media Companies
  • Media Insights Communities
  • New Social Consumers
  • Consumer Insights Communities
  • Marketing Less Media
  • Continue Technology Promises
  • Understand Traditional Listening
  • See New Consumers
The beauty of using word clouds in this way is that the word cloud prioritizes the concepts (at least the words) that the experts are using but presents them in such a way that the brain has to work to make some sense of it.  That is the process that leads to brainstorming.
As a qual researcher, my mind is spinning on two levels.  First, how can I tactically use Word Clouds in my qualitative research brainstorming?  Second, how can I use Word Cloud Brainstorming in my business planning to tap the wisdom of the crowds of experts to better plan and strategize?

You Can’t be Brilliant Alone: Effective Collaboration

Last week, I attended the AMA Research Conference in Palm Springs.  One of the better presentations I witnessed was by Chris Frank, VP of Global Insights for AmEx.  He presented on “Tricks and Techniques” to be a brilliant researcher.  These techniques are built on two trends he sees as pervasive in research.

  1. Research Control becoming Research Collaboration
  2. Education about research becoming Evangelism about research implications

Here are Chris Frank’s 7 “Tips and Tricks” to be “Brilliant!”

  1. Be explicitly clear on the essential business question.
  2. Develop hypotheses, test them in the research and report on them.
  3. Practice Smoke Jumping.  Be willing to change the research design at any point to accomodate new findings or explore new questions so that the final report includes complete understanding of the findings and issues.
  4. Reveal surprises.  Ask the question, “What surprised you the most?”
  5. Don’t sweat the small stuff.  Miniscule changes are just that miniscule.  Focus on the important findings that are important enough to change decisions. 
  6. Plan and be sprecific in your research meetings.
  7. Make the bottom line the top line.  Put conclusions up front.  Leave the detail for those who want to dig through it.  Display the data to drive the point home.  Be compelling.

These points are changing the way research is designed, managed, reported and used throughout American Express. 

If we all focused on our research in this way, we would be more valuable to the decision-makers in our firm or our client’s firms.  This process makes complete sense and focuses everyone on the game-changing research results.


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