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I was reminded recently of a wonderful project Rightmove did with the talented Mary Coyne of Hope & Anchor and which was presented at the Market Research Summit.

The research involved spending the best part of a day in peoples’ homes, the aim to elicit the anecdotes and memories that make up the DNA of profound happiness people feel living in those homes . The debrief was delivered using just their voices, allowing us to immerse ourselves in their stories whilst filling in the pictures for ourselves. I’ve been doing this research thing for a while and I can honestly say it was a piece of genius.

In a fascinating conference agenda covering everything from ethnography and communities to neuroscience and AI, this was purely and simply a piece of traditional qualitative research done brilliantly. And it stood out like a sore thumb (although, if the comments from people afterwards were anything to go by, in a good way).

So what was it about this research that brought a room full of hard nosed stakeholders to tears when it was debriefed whilst delivering exactly what we needed as a business? For me it was the quality of those conversations. As clientside researchers we make decisions all the time about qual or quant, and whether to do depths, focus groups, ethnography or communities etc. And there’s often an implicit assumption when making those choices that all qualitative conversations are equal. But they absolutely aren’t. Digital conversations and human conversations are fundamentally different. When I briefed this project originally I was fully expecting to be recommended a community. I now know that a community, whilst wonderful for many things, would never have given us what we needed.

Mark Ritson the Marketing Week columnist talks about “marketers having a long and illustrious track record of being inanely attracted to the latest flashing knobs of technology which will change everything for marketers". Few of them ever do. And I worry that market researchers are falling into some of the same traps. We’re still debating really stupid questions like “Will big data kill research?” This isn’t a battle to the death to declare one discipline’s superiority over another. It’s a just a challenge, a challenge for client side researchers to make the right choices and it’s getting harder because there are just so many more to choose from. Technology gives us a myriad of interesting new ways to elicit insights and we’re constantly tempted by shiny new techniques which promise to do things faster, cheaper, more innovatively. But, in my view, technology or innovation is only any good if it does the thing it’s replacing better.

So before we all rush off and commission our award winning, virtual reality research project, I wanted to make a stand for reality, and simple human conversations. I love that there’s so much innovation in our industry: I’ve embraced plenty of it in the past and will continue to do so. But there’ll always be room in my heart for the craft of beautifully executed, good old fashioned, flashing-light-and-technology-free qualitative research too.

With every research job I take, my heart sinks a bit when I find out I’m going to have to look after a brand tracker. It’s not that brand trackers are in themselves bad things – there are many excellent ones out there based on solid thinking about how brands work. It’s just that businesses’ -and often clientside researchers’ - expectations of what brand trackers can do are verging on insane. I want that insanity to stop. Here are three and a bit things I’ve gleaned over the years from wrestling with trackers and being in the company of some really smart people who get brands.

Brands are like people: once they’ve been in your life for 20 years or more they’re unlikely to surprise you

If you’re an established brand in a mature market don’t expect your brand tracker to deliver exciting new insights every week/month/quarter. So don’t report on your brand that often. Brainjuicer once advocated asking people how they feel about your brand once a year. I’m sure not many marketing directors have had the courage to follow through on that one. But, back to the people analogy, think of someone you’ve known for a while. Have you changed the way you feel about them in the last week, month, year (assuming they haven’t commited some heinous sin)? They may look a little different than they did five years ago but I doubt much else has changed. The place brands hold in peoples' minds doesn't change much either so the cadence of your tracker should reflect the rate of change or dynamism in your market, and not the marketing world’s obsession with minute by minute data.

Brand trackers track brands NOT ad campaigns

Increasingly I hear researchers ask how they can tailor their tracker to measure all the different marketing channels their brand earns, owns or pays for attention in. You can’t and even asking the question suggests a fundamental lack of understanding of brands.

A brand is what results from every promise you make (marketing) and every promise you keep (your product or experience). Your tracker reveals the composite impact of all that effort but you can’t dissect it to a channel or product feature level. To attempt to calculate the impact of a social media campaign on your NPS score is tantamount to tracker abuse. If you really want to do that you need to invest in an econometric model. And even then it’s not an exact science because you can’t ignore the fact that creativity can play a pretty big role in a brand’s success

Trackers are actionable – but only if you set them up with that in mind in the first place

One of the most common complaints from my peers is that their brand tracker isn’t actionable. So they fire the agency. That’s usually unfair. The reality is most trackers aren’t set up with a specific business question in mind which makes finding “actionable insights” really rather hard. It’s a particular issue for some of the proprietary models offered by big agencies. I get why people like them: they’re intellectually robust, they offer norms and often trend data. But it’s unlikely any of them will be able to reflect the issues affecting your brand and market better than a bespoke approach could.

… which means you need to define your brand challenges and track those

The mantra for all quantitative research is, quite rightly, to work out what matters and measure it. Do the work up front and establish where you want to be as a brand. A good starting point is to identify the reasons why someone might use a brand in your category - territories or consumer needs if you like. Byron Sharp reminds us that the more useful things a brand can be associated with, the healthier it will be. And because those needs will almost certainly be at the centre of your marketing and product development strategy, track your competitive positions on those things

It’s hard to live without a tracker, they are our window on our brand’s world. So if you have one, be kind to it and respect its strengths but also its limitations. Just don’t expect it to walk your dog or empty your dishwasher. Although if you've come up with one that does the latter, let me know ....

Updated: Nov 14, 2022

Let’s face it, most people under the age of 40 probably haven’t had to make tough decisions about budgets in a recession during their career yet.

Those of us who do have a recession or two under our belts know there’s plenty of real world evidence proving the brands who continue to invest in marketing during a recession emerge stronger and grow faster when things improve.

But what about market research? The latest IPA Bellwether report suggests that, on the cusp of recession, whilst marketing budgets are holding up well overall (+11%), market research is looking like an early and significant loser (-8%).

So what should you be doing? Here’s what I think.

1. Don’t cut your budgets – adapt them

When recessions loom, businesses adjust their short term plans accordingly. So it follows that research plans should also be reviewed to reflect any pivots and challenges.

But whatever question is asked of you as a team, don’t let it be how can we do what we’re doing now but for less. Changing circumstances demands new thinking.

2. Start by protecting the big projects that will shape the business’s future

Peoples’ first instinct is often to scrap those big, often expensive, strategic projects that won’t deliver their real impact for a few years. But it’s unlikely that your business’s long term goals will change anytime soon. If you lose momentum now, your competitors who didn’t stop spending on research might get there first.

3. Find new and cost effective ways to monitor how consumers are feeling right now

This doesn’t mean investing in an expensive new tracking programme: there will be plenty of data in the public domain you can tap into for free.

  • Collaborate with your competitors: after all, you’ll all be asking the same questions. Take inspiration from the cinema industry which did just that and formed Cinema First, a joint industry research collaboration, in response to the pandemic

  • Start your own informal customer closeness programme: if you’re B2B go and spend the day with a customer once a month or so. If you’re B2C go visit them in their homes. Walk in thir shoes, listen to their stories and share them back to the office.

  • And, if you have a small amount to spend, a syndicated study like The Score from Kokoro will help you measure the mood of the nation on a weekly basis.

4. Squeeze more value out of what you already have

Most research teams are sitting on a wealth of research, little of which gets used much beyond the debrief. Synthesise what you already know before making a decision to invest in anything new. Whilst it may only be an 70-80% solution, what you have may be good enough to keep the business moving forward so you’re ready for the upturn when it comes (and it will come)

5. Be honest with yourself about the value you get from your continuous research programme - and divert some money into value creating research

Frankly unless your NPS programme is closely tracking your most important business metrics you should have dumped it years ago. But if it is a lead/lagging indicator consider cutting back on the frequency so you can reinvest in research that will support the business’s short term needs.

The same goes for brand tracking: it’s crucially important to track your brand but peoples’ feelings about brands don’t change overnight and the world won’t end if you move your tracking to once a year

6. Don’t make the fatal error of moving research in house to save money

This is probably the single worst thing you can ever do, recession or no recession.

Doing so will merely devalue what you do and risk turning you and your team into a survey sausage factory. Sure, you’ll get lots of brownie points from your CFO for “saving the company some money”. But research teams don’t exist to save money: they are a part of the business that creates value.

Trust me, every minute you spend scripting surveys or moderating online communities is time you’re not spending influencing stakeholders, shaping strategy and raising the profile of your team as a valuable investment in the business.

If you look 2-3 years from now at your skills atrophied team and all you have to show for it are some NPS reports, polls from a customer panel and a happy former CFO, you may find it hard to justify your job let alone your budget when the next recession hits

Further reading

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