Marketing Research in a Non-Linear World

Filed Under: Best Practices, Market Research


Bob Relihan

At C+R, we have been wrestling with the shape of marketing research in the future. The proliferation of mobile devices and the concomitant decline of desktop computing, the growth of households with only cell phones, the ready access consumers have to information about products, and even what seems to be the decreasing attention spans of individuals all suggest that research as we have known it will not be the same in the future.

These trends give added significance to three articles that came across my desk this week, well really across my screen, well actually they appeared in three different apps on my iPad. Even that shift in metaphor from the linear and spatial came across to the temporal appeared underscores the character of the new world we face.

The first of these articles is the most visionary and thought provoking. David Gelernter envisions the future of the web as no longer a space to be searched but as a stream flowing in time to be tuned and dialed yielding up for us just the information we want. Everything is continually present and continually relevant. Our current efforts to adapt the research process to the mobile environment has still hewed to the linear logic of a questionnaire — question, response, question, response. We have attempted to make them shorter and more engaging; we have allowed consumers to answer at a time and in a place that is most relevant to our inquiry. But we are following the linear logic of an interview. For Gelernter the relevant metaphor is the diary, not the interview, continually present, continually revelatory. In the future, we may no longer need or want to ask questions, but we will want to “fine tune” our attention to the continual flow of revelations this “new” web makes available.

It seems as if it is impossible to read and not encounter articles about the in-authenticity of marketing research. So, Douglas Van Praet’s “I’m Not Your Consumer: How Research Misses The Human Behind The Demographic” came as no shock. The idea that asking “consumers” direct questions about their behavior produces little more than socially acceptable rationalizations is a reasonable, if a bit worn, position. This is why so much of consumer interviewing relies on indirection and projective techniques. We know that consumers do not reveal their true selves easily. But, if Gelernter captures the future of the web correctly, we will not be receiving our information as the result of asking; we will receive it as the result of listening.

Finally, it is a hope of mine that that this new world will help me with a problem that has been a continual struggle throughout my career. Christine Hoff Sommers draws our attention to a new study that explains why girls get better grades and take advanced courses in greater proportion than boys even though both have reasonably equal performance on standardized tests. Teachers count behavior in their grading. Given what my grade school career was like, that comes as no surprise. But the article caused me to think about how I worry or struggle with projects that involve interviewing men. Will I lose control? Will I hear anything? Can I have them create collages like a group of women might? Most of the time I am pleasantly surprised by the men’s productivity, but I am always on edge. If the new world of marketing research means listening to stream of information from men, I am all in favor of it.

I am exceptionally optimistic about the future of marketing research, if we understand it in the ways suggested by these articles. The nuts and bolts of making it happen is the challenge.

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