for the love of people: cut your clinical research efforts

go back to being human, for the sake of your people and brand strategy.

“A group of ten people sit in a brightly lit room. The fluorescent lights above feel more appropriate for an interrogation space. […] Cameras are recording the session through the mirrored glass that separates them from hidden observers. […] The participants in this focus group laugh and talk nervously, sometimes avoiding eye contact as the session begins. This environment practically demands that their inauthentic personas be on display and their more intimate ‘real selves’ be kept concealed from the superficial scenario they are in.” – Douglas Van Praet in Unconscious branding

in case you work in marketing, the image described above will sound familiar. the uneasy scene comes from a typical focus group flow, where participants are dropped in a surveillance-inspired environment and expected to act out their deepest dreams and desires. simultaneously, researchers get the opportunity to flex their observation skills, acting as if they are watching protozoa replicate under the microscope. everyone in the room is miked up, camera-ready, and prepared to play their specific role in a planned command-and-control space.

what should also be said about this scenario is that it might be one of the most deceiving and incomplete ways of trying to get into customers’ brains (and hearts). in 2019, it shouldn’t be news that a hefty number of market research tools aren’t the most efficient nor elegant on the block. they are missing the point of the question they are trying to get answered.

the solution: it’s time to go back to being more human, including in our research pursuits. 

research means understanding. in the past decades, whenever there was a need for crowd wisdom, aka market insight, experts would pick and choose methods from the traditional market research toolbox. you’d see people posted in supermarkets with huge question lists. you’d get long phone calls asking about this or that brand. you would be invited to an over-breakfast focus group discussions (hey, they serve coffee and croissants – or donuts, depending where in the world you are).

lately, due to the digital boom, other observational, big-data-focused research methods have been added to the regular practice roster. new tools such as heat maps, click maps, or A/B tests seem to be put on a pedestal and worshipped as THE solutions for marketers to get what they want from the market.

what would be wrong with that approach? it keeps us away from truly seeing and understanding the same people we want to win over with our brand.

what these research methods have taught us is to seek big, in-your-face, “irreproachable” data. but in return, we are giving up valuable nuance and meaning. we are literally losing our human touch and understanding because we are too busy chasing big numbers.

why this is happening makes a lot of sense.

people are pursuing these kinds of clinical market research approaches because:

  • it’s easy. pulling out a data set, especially if you are an online business, saves you the time and energy that you would otherwise need to invest in more qualitative research. transactional data is easier to collect.
  • it’s impressive. when someone tells you that 1,000 people like a song or that 1,000,000 people like a song, you will most likely be more intrigued by the bigger, more substantial number (and maybe, you’d get curious and want to listen to the latter song). big numbers have this power over us.
  • it’s comfortable. we have the bandwagon effect to thank here, also known as the everyone-is-doing-it mentality. “because everyone is doing it, we should do it too. this way of carrying out market research has been around for a while, so it’s more accessible and acceptable.”
  • it’s literally clean. there are no unpredictable interactions, no messy emotional involvement, just sheets, psychological detachment, and safety. there is an overwhelming trend going on in the world around people fearing and wanting to avoid complicated, painful interactions. they describe being affected by who they meet and thus, prefer not getting into “messy situations”, aka feeling the feels.
  • it’s scary not to go with the crowd. you don’t want that FOMO to bite back in revenue and profit margins at the end of the year. and most definitely, you don’t want to fight off arguments like “but the other company is doing it, and they hit their targets, so why aren’t we doing the same?”.

the important question here is: just because it’s easy, safe, and popular, does that mean that it’s right? probably not. think of it like smoking in the 50s: while it was presented as an amazing opportunity that you, your family and your dog should try, it was just as bad for you as it is now, sans the encouraging habit-forming hype.

what are the biggest problems with the clinical, purely observational way of doing market research?

  • it’s putting people in an uncomfortable, uneasy position – thoughts like “what are the consequences of me saying my real opinion?” spring forward more naturally in such environments – especially in our digital age that is so obsessed with framing and unmasking.
  • data-spoiling peer influence – the constellation of the group (researchers included) will steer the direction of the group, thus influencing the data outcome.
  • the environment lacks understanding – this empathic awareness of the other person is essential in building trust and contributing to what is known as psychological safety in individuals.
  • this approach limits the potential emotional exploration, that would lead to important marketing and branding insights – even breakthroughs.
  • this contrived environment encourages observers to retrieve evidence that supports their initial pre-set conclusions – a phenomenon known as confirmation bias.
  • what matters most in such research attempts is what people say; but what matters at least in equal manner is the context – how people say things (body language, intonation, pauses, micro-expressions, etc.), the reason behind what they are saying and, also, what they are not saying. All this information largely gets ignored in this kind of research process.
  • it leaves little room for small data, for innovative, creative approaches that you can bring to your branding efforts and make your brand truly remarkable and fresh.

by basing our actions only on dashboards and graphs, we are limiting the bigger picture that can be acquired from truly being with people. we are also killing off the magic that is needed for successful branding ventures (subtlety, depth, empathic understanding). a clinical outlook on your people will not only prevent you from gathering actionable intelligence, but it will distance you from the very people you want to bring into the tribe.

so, how should you approach your next market research? first of all, start by changing your mindset. we recommend you introduce three main principles to your way of working:

  • bet on human-centricity: understand that at the other end of the conversation, there is a human being – not just a marketing persona or a target audience generalization.
  • think win-win: instead of employing a mindset that is based on what you want to get out of the interaction, see how both parties can have something to gain.
  • have your heart in the right place: be driven by curiosity and empathy.

secondly, there is plenty of fish to catch in the kind-to-humans market research pool. here are some methods that you can easily explore:

  • social listening: intently and attentively listening to your customers with the purpose of finding out what they really want and need. whether you are directly asking them for feedback, or you practice non-intrusive active listening to conversations around your brand or product, the act itself allows you to expand your insight pool in a more authentic way. social listening puts your people in the driver seat, allowing them to connect on a deeper level with your brand. the bond won’t happen from a one-sided consumer point of view, but will engage people to be more of who they really are and share more truthful input, through reflection and opinion sharing. biggest benefit: your people feel that they are treated as adults, by being listened to and acknowledged.
  • immersive research: capturing your people’s emotions, behaviors, and experiences directly within the context. witnessing first-hand your customers’ experiences gives you a more personal insight into their journey and what makes them tick. by becoming an active participant (sometimes incognito) in the brand interaction process, you can more easily (and humanly) unveil your people’s truest wishes and expectations. biggest benefit: it helps you translate your market research data into actual human speech.
  • influencer research: getting help from influencers of a particular niche in order to unravel insights about that specific community. by talking directly to people who know your niche audience intimately, you can get a digestible amount of relevant information for your brand. you can also dive deeper into understanding the “why” behind certain behaviors, since these influencers act as “translators”, bridging the gap between your world with theirs. biggest benefit: you already get pre-analyzed quality insight from people who are already connected with your target audience.
  • inclusive brain scans: following the neuromarketing brain scan approach, with the add-on that you discuss the results with your customer. in a traditional setting, you could easily sneak your fresh-off-the-fMRI insights into your marketing efforts to drive more sales. but why not take the chance to transform a one-sided interaction into a growth opportunity for both parties? by explaining a person’s brain reactions and patterns to them, you are educating them about their brain and their reactions. biggest benefit: you’re actively taking the opportunity to do some good and promote self-awareness on a deeper level, which should make you feel all smooshy on the inside.

now that you’ve got a taste of the more human market research methods available out there, next time you want to gain more insight from your audience, we’d advise you to ditch treating it like a bunch of lab rats. showing people that you care about them does a better job at winning their hearts over.

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