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David Krajicek
Marketing Insights
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Key Takeaways

  • In attempting to speed up the delivery of thoughtful insight, we need to be careful that we don’t fall into a second technology trap, such as simply using new devices to conduct the same old research tasks more quickly and cheaply.

  • To activate our insights, we need to see and understand consumers in action: Learn how they transition from desire to experimentation to decision.

  • Marketers and researchers need to give themselves access to the best resources possible for defining all of the relevant “Ws”: what, where, when, and why (as well as how).

The next generation of qualitative research: ‘Gee whiz’ meets ‘so what’

Today, marketers have a wealth of information available to them about customers and their behaviors: cellphone locations, transactional records, “cookie” trails, etc. These and other forms of passive data can tell marketers what happened, and possibly where and when, but the “why” and “how” often remain elusive, and those are essential ingredients for developing a robust understanding of the marketing environment. Without a window to customer motivation or method, we really cannot turn data into action.

This is the potential technology trap that comes from an over-reliance on Big Data: We become enamored with the cool technology and the information it can provide without a deeper appreciation for the context and motivation that underlie market behaviors. Simply put, we begin to value behavioral information for its own sake—the “gee whiz” instead of the “so what.”

Qualitative techniques have always helped provide the color and context that bring to life observed (or self-reported) behaviors. In the new world of passive data, qualitative research is needed more than ever. Fortunately, digital extensions of qualitative research techniques have made them just as relevant today as they have historically been. Increasingly, we see the need (and the opportunity) to go beyond moderated discussions, online or offline. Artificial settings can produce staged behavior, and if we rely on participants to recall and describe their actions, we remove ourselves by two or three steps from the act itself. To activate our insights, we need to see and understand consumers in action: Learn how they transition from desire to experimentation to decision.

Fortunately, a number of smart new techniques are rising to meet this challenge. In fact, some are not new at all, but to marketers, they are important “in the moment” innovations. User experience (UX) research, for example, has expanded from the academy to the C-suite—and not a minute too soon. UX grounds consumer investigations in extreme practicality: Are those smartphone buttons too small for adult fingers? Is that glucose meter easy for aging eyes to read? Nothing could be more basic to customer satisfaction, or easier to overlook in conventional survey research. In discount travel or insurance, or a host of other industries, companies are essentially selling the same service, so how they deliver it becomes a differentiator, a key to success. The difference between winning and losing can come down to having the simplest, most inviting, and most intuitive customer interface, be it a website, an app or a remote. And unless you can observe someone using these technologies firsthand, you may never really know what they love or hate, what makes them loyal users, or drives them away in less than a minute.

These make-or-break contextual insights are inherently qualitative, and they require a creativity and resourcefulness that take us beyond the focus group facility.

UX can become particularly valuable in bringing segmentations or personas to life. Companies have gone to great lengths to define their audiences: where they shop, what they buy, and what they are willing to pay. Given that information, we could build a store selling the right merchandise in the right location at the right price, and still fail completely. To achieve success, we need to understand personal styles: How do these consumers navigate the Internet, or a discount store, or even their own tablets or computers? For this, we need something more than pools of passive data or even self-reported anecdotes—nothing substitutes for seeing them in action.

In a recent GfK study with the Council for Research Excellence, we observed dozens of people doing the kinds of things that we all know consumers do: texting during TV programs, visiting program websites while watching streaming services, etc. But until you see how they actually are multitasking, it is hard to recognize the real opportunities. In some cases, the barrier to adoption for video on demand or interactive TV may simply be a difficult-to-locate button on the remote control that thousands of potential subscribers are using. That is real-world insight you can act on.

Of course, digital technologies are also giving us new ways to capture consumers in the business of living. Marketers, rightfully so, want to get close to the consumer—not through a report generated weeks or even days later, but in the moment of action. There are no simple solutions to the demand that researchers provide greater depth in less time.

In attempting to speed up the delivery of thoughtful insight, we need to be careful that we don’t fall into a second technology trap, such as simply using new devices, like smartphones and tablets, to conduct the same old research tasks more quickly and cheaply. To be clear, mobile interfaces are fast becoming important ways to measure and understand consumer behavior. However, to simultaneously access greater insight and value, we need to let consumers tell us how they want to communicate—a UX approach to research methodology, in some ways. A millennial definitely does not want to answer a browser-based survey on an iPhone, but ask millennials to take pictures or movies of their activities, and suddenly you are speaking their language.

Mobile ethnography is emerging as a bridge between in-depth observational studies on the one hand and quick-hit mobile interactions on the other. We can empower consumers to share details of their lives with apps, movie programs, and more—asking for just a bit of information here and there instead of a day-long diary. By stitching these together, we can achieve some of the color that is lacking in a lot of our quantitative reports.

We must remember, though, that raw video, cellphone pictures and three-word text messages are not insights. This is where expertise has to trump the cool factor. As with traditional qual, there is the temptation to focus on the fascinating, quirky outlier—the guy who uses his tablet to not only shop for groceries but start his car and turn the heat down in his living room. We need researchers to digest, assess and thoughtfully integrate this information into something more than intriguing one-offs. Qual can illustrate, but it should not be relied upon to prioritize.

In the end, we are trying to understand and predict the behavior of real people, and who better to organize this effort than other real people? Marketers and researchers need to give themselves access to the best resources possible for defining all of the relevant “Ws”: what, where, when, and why (as well as how). Then, with a combination of vision and creativity, they point a way to decision making that is wise—the most important “W” of all.


This article was originally published in the May/June 2015 issue of Marketing Insights. ​

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Author Bio:

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David Krajicek
David Krajicek is CEO of GfK Consumer Experiences North America.
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