Thursday, June 05, 2008

My innovation beef with market research

Why don't I like asking consumers questions? Because I've been exposed to almost forty years of the best and brightest market researchers at companies from Procter & Gamble to Pizza Hut who ask questions. In all that time, the answer to every question only reconfirmed things we already knew - basically reinventing the wheel, which, if I was to focus on advertising is why so much advertising bores or desensitizes us. I found that no one could ask a question they didn't already know the answer to. When new generations of managers asked questions at these companies it was so they could learn everything again for the first time. In companies like Leo Burnett Advertising in Chicago, I've actually seen senior client service executives collect, secret and destroy the work of predecessors to protect their current position from better answers found before their time. I found that when you ask questions, you don't get the voice of the consumer, you get the voice of the inquirer through the question being asked - a form of bias that has led companies from General Mills to General Motors astray, or at least slowed or reduced their innovation return on investment. The root of all this doom and gloom? The fact that none of this question-asking ever stimulated respondent's minds - be they client or consumer - so that they could respond in surprising ways beyond their current frames of reference to hasten the pace of successful innovation and generate a consistent stream of important new disruptive technology and manufacturing patents and consumer new product concepts. So where's the beef? That is, where is the answer found? In processes that proactively stimulate consumer and client minds rather than those methodologies that reactively collect and measure data. In processes that create new knowledge, rather than in those that pre-ordain and then sell syndicated or predefined trends (i.e. Cocooning - let's write a book as a self proclaimed guru then go sell the answer to everyone so they can pull the trigger at a target at point blank range and go nowhere) data such as the existence of new subcultures of our population such as Thrivals or Basics or Adventurers - all those psychobabble social and behavioral target audience definitions that have put the brakes and blinders on so many brands by limiting their appeal through their contrived application (i.e.: Type A Strivers shilling for Cadillac). Or all those touchy-feeley product design firms who observe the here and now creating new Swiffers that do nothing more than replace old mops and refrigerators. Making the old look new. That's not innovation.


Byron said...

I agree that market research is often misused and misinterpreted, and I think it's true that one of the worst abuses of research is to replace innovation.

The point about research often just confirming what we know is well taken--to some degree success in business requires having the intuition to know the obvious, things, BUT also the skepticism to want to confirm it. The hardest part: having the wisdom to know what's worth researching, when it's worth it to re-examine old assumptions.

Here's an example of how market research can be used effectively: bridges the gap betwen relying on intuition (fast but unproven) and investing in market research (expensive and still open to interpretation).

It's basically like a big online polling company, but I think that online research services like ask500people can help the intuition by giving you a very quick way to check your hunches.

I've used ask500people so far to test reactions to marketing materials and to find out for example what time and day of the week people prefer to do certain activities. For those examples the site was extremely useful in confirming our instincts before we committed to something new.

The advantage of this kind of quick survey capability is that rather than replacing innovation, it helps to encourage it. Conventional market research tends to be used to inform future ideas and decisions, and that's where it can stifle innovation and ideas before they're tried. That's because you just can't afford to research every single idea.

But if I can get a quick and dirty reaction to an idea, it helps me confirm it. And I can do this for 10, 20, even 1000 ideas. Once again, this is a situation where the speed of doing things on the web changes the value of a conventional marketing tool. In fact it's enabled me to get real-world feedback from randomly selected people around the world, in many situations where I would have just asked a few clients or colleagues for feedback.

Lysa McDowell said...


I think the worst abuse of the Internet is the very bad writing found on the sites I drudge through looking for creative triggers. The language used to describe proprietary concepts, coupled with the creative writing of the proprietors describing them can kill any life the words had to begin with.

Quantifying intuition via marketing research, is even more difficult than putting intuitive insights into words. Checking hunches or instincts about peoples' habits—putting spit on a pitch—should not be confused with innovation itself and the eyeball-to-eyeball transmission of intuition's creative countenance.