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4906582_sEvery winter I get on a non-fiction reading kick. With the new(ish) year underway, now feels like a great time to think a bit about our industry and best practices, to catch up on methodologies and alternative approaches we should be thinking about, and to explore what other thought leaders are publishing.

Creativity and inspiration may not necessarily spark from dense textbook surveys of the market research landscape, but they’re a good place to start. There are two books I would recommend for anyone interested in what we do and how we do it:

  • Ray Poynter’s The Handbook of Online and Social Media Research is a helpful introduction to online research, how it’s evolved over the past ten years, and how researchers reach out into the world in different ways to consult with consumers and business constituents in various categories.  This book is a great place to start learning about marketing research and some of the newer and interesting ways in which consumer insights are being culled (social media, communities, etc.)
  • Naresh Malhotra’s Marketing Research: An Applied Orientation, now in it’s sixth edition, is an excellent textbook for in-depth understanding of how market research can provide businesses with strategic value – exploring how insights from market research studies can be applied toward bigger picture business questions, hypotheses, and problems. This text is comprehensive, providing an overview of how many diverse market research methodologies contribute to feed into the channel of consumer feedback.

In addition to these resources, the field of psychology continues to contribute meaningful “food-for-thought” to market researchers. For a fifth (!) year in a row, Dan Ariely’s name and works have come up in our conversations around rational and emotional drivers for consumer behavior. Start with the famous Predictably Irrational, if you haven’t already, and if you find it engaging, follow his thinking through the more recent The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, on the shelves in many bookstores now.

I confess, it’s true: as a statistician it can be easy to position a storyline a certain way.

But numbers themselves don’t lie, people do. What’s even worse is when certain numbers are removed wholesale from data sets. You really don’t see this happen in market reseach studies. If so, the data is usually incorrectly defined when collected, and the collection is usually redone. But it sure does happen with the U.S. government. Especially, it seems, with really important numbers they share with the general population. Bellweather benchmarks numbers of how the country is doing.

A great example is the official unemployment rate. Big news nowadays given the sluggish economy; big news in a presedential election year. Up until 1994 reporting was, give or take, a number representing the percentage of those not in school of legal and unretired work age who were unemployed. Then, for whatever reasons, the method for calculating this number was changed, overnight, by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. They removed what was termed “discouraged workers.”

Take the U.S. unemployment number (chart, right). The red line (U.3) is what the goverment says is going on, the official number that is reported., i.e., the monthly headline number we all read. The gray line (U.6) includes “short-term discouraged workers,” those seeking full-time employment, but only employed part-time, i.e., the ‘under-employed’ that was once only Christmas help and jobs for schoolkids. This number is not included in unemployment statistics, nor is it reported. A big difference. The blue line (SGS) includes “long-term discouraged workers” defined as “those who have looked for work in the past 12 months, but are not currently looking because of real or perceived poor employment prospects,” i.e., those who’ve tried everthing they know, and don’t know what to do. Or, in other words, lots of my freinds who have been out of work for a while. This number is not included in unemployment statistics, nor is it reported. A huge difference that is baffling.

A great place to dig and find the numbers that may better reflect what’s really going is “Shadow Government Statistics.” Sure, it may have a bit of an anti-government conspiratorial tone, but offers food for thought…

When I moved to the great state of North Carolina, I learned an important lesson: Never talk about religion, politics, or college basketball in polite company. College hoops is taken seriously in these parts.

This is rivalry week in the Triangle, with Duke and UNC meet for the first of two (or three) times this season on Wednesday night. One the eve of what will certainly be an epic matchup, one of the nation’s leading political polling firms, Public Policy Polling, have released their annual UNC/Duke Poll.

Here are a few of the highlights:

  • UNC is North Carolina’s most popular school, with 32% of respondents saying it’s their favorite college. Duke (19%) and NC State (18%) are in a tight battle for second place, with ECU claiming 8%, Wake Forest 6% and 17% saying “none of these” schools are their favorite.
  • UNC also leads when voters are asked who they’ll be rooting for in Wednesday’s Duke-UNC men’s basketball matchup, 41-31.
  • There’s a healthy amount of respect between the fanbases. 49% of UNC fans say they “respect” Duke while just 16% “hate Duke.” And 53% of Duke fans “respect” UNC with only 16% “hating” the Tar Heels.
Regardless of who wins on Wednesday night, this is the greatest rivalry in sports, IMHO. The proximity (8 miles from campus to campus),  success (UNC and Duke have 10 national championships between them), parity (the cumulative point total for the last 75 meetings is Duke 5,858- UNC 5,857) and sheer hatred are unrivaled in any sport, college or pro.


The world is always a bit off kilter. Nothing is exact. But my current profession as a market research guy has, in my opinion, developed a mantra that requires that the reseach I conduct for a client be “rock solid,” i.e. grounded in either well-founded objective fact (when dealing with quantitative data) or succinct insights (when delving into the qualitative realm). Regardless of the nature of the project or methodology employed, my point of view is expected to rest well within defined lines. I must be precise.

This current market research lens may actually cloud my findings. Rather than stuffing marketplace phenomena into a presentational bullet or pithy one-liner for my client, I often find myself wanting to “go wide” and start speaking on the non-alignment of the phenomena I’m investigating, for that’s where I believe interesting findings float.

A great example of this is the Italian fashion practice of sprezzatura. Sprezzatura is the belief that to look correct, things should always look slightly wrong. It is the act of studied effortlessness. A description of naturalness, by design. And when I think of either the natural or manufactured world in which people live and make consumer decisions, it answers a lot. My goal now is to further integrate this concept into the design and execution of the work I do, rather than drawing arbitrary lines in crafting market research. It’s the right direction to take.

A good starting point has been re-examining the basic tenets and overall premise of how I approach market research. Up until now, market research has, more and more, emphasized the science of its practice. Born of the social sciences, it continually seeks legitimization as a ‘true’ science. Unfortunately, in my experience, to use a well-worn phrase, it’s “too fuzzy” for such rigor. Rather, I believe breakthrough research is more likely to occur if we allow the foundation of the practice to flow from the humanities, and not social science: writing, illustration, design, voice and performance.

So far I’ve found this premise to be powerful in the work I do. It’s decidedly different, and refreshing. Let’s face it, market research as we’ve known it for the past fifty plus years can be stale and uninspiring, regardless of how lofty our ideals. I think research should take a shot at being beautiful instead.

The U.S. Census Bureau Center for Economic Studies has long supported (for the past ~5 years) an online system for pulling area-based employment and residence data using a visual map-based selection tool called OnTheMap.  This software is fairly intuitive and fun to use, but can also be quite useful in exploring a specific market or region to understand where workers live and work, and how that has changed over time.

OnTheMap is useful for more than work location, however.  It’s a multi-layered mapping tool, with companion data on demographics, earnings, industry characteristics.  We’ve also used it to identify exact metropolitan statistical areas and radius ranges, to find transportation routes, greenspace, and tribal and military lands, and to simply better understand a physical marketplace.

For years, organizations like the Census Bureau relied heavily on point-in-time estimates, tables of statistics and physical and static maps for data exploration like this. As new systems come online, are developed further, and improved over successive versions, our ability to access information from our desktops is not only facilitated but empowered.

Beautiful series of infographics by Peter Orntoft about how the Danish people feel about a number of pressing social issues. Though shortfalls of time, budget, and creativity force us to revert to PowerPoint Smart Art, it’s inspiring to see work that challenges what an infographic can be.

Jeff Ely, economics professor at Northwestern University and contributor to the Cheap Talk blog, recently wrote a great article about titles, or names.  His examples focus on bank names, and how they engender trust, and the names of legal documents, which could perhaps be simply skimmed to get a sense of utility or relevance. But the article is an interesting reminder and idea spark, for researchers and marketers.

There are varying degrees of scope and sophistication in our wildly different projects and initiatives. Our work is passed to our clients, to internal teams, to executive management, to various partners and outside parties. The names of studies, reports, presentations, tools used in the process, task force teams, strategic plans, products in development, etc. do matter.

Names should be clear and communicative – presenting the topic but also the considering the audience. Names should not be overly technical or detailed. Names should be intuitive, parsimonious, and should be readable (and intelligible) “out loud.” But names should also hold up over time, regardless of how related issues change or evolve. Future researchers should be able to refer back to your work, referencing a name that still communicates something to them. It’s somewhat a lofty challenge, if you think about the implication of the choice of title. The goal is to strike a balance between communication and brevity – if the name simply “fits” in these terms, it will likely carry and communicate as desire.

A recent article from Wired discusses the hidden sales potential in marketing innovative products to laggards. (A fragment of the consumer segmentation scheme borrowed from the Diffusion of Innovations theory, laggards refer to traditionalists who are generally wary of innovation and tend to wait till a product has become accepted and established before purchasing.) Writer Clive Thompson forwards a theory belonging to marketing professor Jacob Goldenberg, who posits that disregarding laggards in marketing efforts for new gadgets and toys could prove to be serious negligence.

Goldenberg believes that laggards tend to ‘leapfrog’ over generations of technology. In essence, let’s say that while laggards may have shied away from buying an iPod, they would be first in line to buy the iTouch.  Given the group’s fairly broad base, it would be foolish not to target their buying power.  Goldenberg’s study led him to conclude that if a mere 10% of the group leapfrogs to a particular new gadget, their purchases could drive sale profits up by 89% – which may prove the “difference between succeeding and not succeeding,” as he puts it.

The argument is logically viable, so let’s assume his findings are accurate.  How does one toggle between messages speaking to savvy adopters and resistant laggards? Purchase motivations for the two groups, while not necessarily mutually exclusive, are disparate enough to warrant unique marketing strategies: adopters want a revolution; laggards, a tried-and-true evolution.  Capturing both types of consumers will require a firm understanding of how aspects of your products can be framed in such a way as to meet one group’s needs, without alienating the other.

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A recent article from Wired discusses the hidden sales potential in marketing innovative products to laggards. (A fragment of the consumer segmentation scheme borrowed from the Diffusion of Innovation theory, laggards refer to traditionalists who are generally wary of innovation and tend to wait till a product has become accepted and established before purchasing.) Writer Clive Thompson forwards a theory belonging to marketing professor Jacob Goldenberg, who posits that disregarding laggards[k1] in marketing efforts for new gadgets and toys could prove to be serious negligence.

Goldenberg believes that laggards[k2] tend to ‘leapfrog’ over generations of technology. In essence, let’s say that while laggards may have shied away from buying an iPod, they would be first in line to buy the iTouch.  Gven the group’s fairly broad base, it would be foolish not to target their buying power.  Goldenberg’s study led him to conclude that if a mere 10% of the group leapfrogs to a particular new gadget, their purchases could drive sale profits up by 89% – which may prove the “difference between succeeding and not succeeding,” as he puts it.

The argument is logically viable, so let’s assume his findings are accurate.  How does one toggle between messages speaking to savvy adopters and resistant laggards? Purchase motivations for the two groups, while not necessarily mutually exclusive, are disparate enough to warrant unique marketing strategies: adopters want a revolution; laggards, a tried-and-true evolution.  Capturing both types of consumers will require a firm understanding of how aspects of your products can be framed in such a way as to meet one group’s needs, without alienating the other.


[k1]Not sure if everyone will automatically know who/what a “laggard” is. I know the definition of the word but it potentially reads like jargon here. I think it’s worth defining who they are to give your post clarity.

[k2]Maybe call them “non-adopters”?