Getting Inside Consumers' Heads

It’s not neurosurgery, researchers are looking at better ways to get inside consumers' heads

By David Kay

Change is inevitable in market research. Unlike some disciplines, which can ignore procedural weaknesses until they become glaring, market researchers face the limitations of our trade everyday.

We are aware that every study is a potential compromise. We almost never conduct a census of a population universe. We conduct sample surveys among a small proportion of the population and we try to ensure that the results are representative. And as researchers, we are often asked “to get inside the consumers’ heads.” We’re not neurosurgeons, but we try.

Before you panic, be assured that with a proper sample and valid questionnaire, the 300-sample-size study can perfectly mirror the views and behaviour of the population. But we are painfully aware of the phrase, “accurate to within 4%, their work is accurate 20 times out of 20 regardless of what the statisticians say). But these question marks push us to always look for better ways to ask a question, interpret an answer, under-stand reality.

Marketing Magazine

The search for improvement usually involves data collection improvements, new analytical methods, and technology. But today technology changes are so pervasive that they drive all other change.

Technological Change

Market research is embracing in Internet, as is everyone else. The Net enables researchers to reach larger and more diverse samples as well as more reluctant samples at lower cost than other methods. Globalization is accelerating its use. With the Net, it is nearly as easy to do research in 10 countries as in 10 provinces.

In addition, the Internet permits instant downloading of stimuli for respondents to evaluate. Furthermore, conducting research through the Net generally permits a much faster turn around. The current weakness is the reliability or unreliability of an Internet sample. ( See "It's Not Perfect," May 22/00, p.18). But this problem is being overcome. Where the sample is known and can be controlled, for example in employee satisfaction surveys or business to business customer surveys, the Net is becoming the method of choice.

In addition to using the Internet as a data collection method, hybrid research will become more common. Internet research combined with focus groups, telephone studies or mall studies, which have an Internet research component are beginning to happen now.

Technological change begets more technological change. Fifteen years ago, the business community generally rejected using video conferencing to replace face to face meetings. Today, at least three video conferencing systems are competing and gaining acceptance. Dial into a focus group from your office anywhere in the world or from your hotel room or your home. The technology is here. Marketers are now predisposed to use it.

Handheld computers are being used increasingly by interviewers and respondents. And touch screen kiosks-after several false starts-are available for on-premise self-completion interviewing.

With the Internet and technological changes readily available, the next major trend will be to instant and constant feedback rather than occasional snapshots of the market. Data mining has barely begun

Methodological Change

In the never ending quest to "get inside the consumers' head" an endless series of approaches have been tried, usually involving different stimuli or tasks. Examples include personification, musical imagery, ideation, association, analogue, visioning, excursions, and in-situ visits. Of the hundreds or thousands of variations, some were clever and use-ful, others were gimmicky. Included in the out-of-fashion column are several statistical techniques that were in vogue five to 10 years ago, but which have not proved to be very fruitful.

The trend today appears to be away from gimmick to practical usefulness. Creativity isn't being thwarted, but demonstrated results are more in demand.

Discrete focus group moderators are being used for example, trained teen-age moderators to conduct groups among teens, farmer moderators conducting groups in agriculture. Anthropological methods of observation and patience are being used. In-situ research has come into its own.

The new role of researchers

Perhaps the most important trend is the expanded role of market researchers from being technicians to being business consultants who use research as one tool. Advertising and PR executives, brand managers and management consultants have entered the field to bring a broader perspective on using data to make decisions. The convergence of skills seen elsewhere is happening in the market research field at an increasing pace.

The one trend that will always continue is the search to reduce the consequences of compromise that is inherent in market research.

*This article was published on April 16 2001 in Marketing Magazine.