What’s that you say? New market research is focused on the real. Well, yes, it has moved beyond just asking questions and is listening to the conversations between “real people”. And it’s become rejuvenated, even sexy, since merging with social media research. It’s now where the cool kids hang out. The quants are counting heads while the quals are looking for ways to analyze sentiment. It’s a new dawn. We’re going to survive after all.
Maybe. It certainly can’t hurt to listen to the sub-set of people who write about their experiences and opinions online. Perhaps we’ll eventually come up with some better ways to cobble together individual comments from disparate sources and time periods. Hope so. But this focus is on individuals and how to aggregate millions of data points. It is akin to viewing a Seurat painting one dot at a time, never stepping back to see the whole scene and where each dot fits within it.
In the meantime, back in Olde Market Research World,no one seems to be talking about life outside the stuffy conference ballrooms and windowless cubicles. It is rare to find any reference to what is going on in the world at large. There seem to be more comments about the ad world of MadMen in the sixties than the wider world in which the consumers we purport to study are making decisions.
One gets the feeling that it’s not quite polite to mention that we have barely survived a major financial meltdown and that buying patterns are not what they once were. Frugality is the new green, and it is still not clear what the new frugality will be. People talk about being scared for their future. Uncertainty is in the air. While we obsess about individual corporate brands and the endless ways to measure brand performance, people are living their lives as a piece, holistically, in a world where everything interacts with everything else. All against a backdrop of economic angst and narrowed expectations.
When it comes to looking at the bigger picture, there are great sources out there. Cheryl Russell of New Strategist Publications soldiers on with brilliant newsletters (http://conta.cc/cW6IRp). The guys at Trendwatching.com are always fresh and provocative. Even the WSJ has relevant stuff to say. (WSJ “Middle class slams brakes on spending” http://bit.ly/apuYqT). It’s not that there is a shortage of macro data in the public domain, most of it free. It’s more that we market researchers seem to be ignoring it. Or if we are not ignoring it, we are struggling to understand how to link product and brand research to the broader context. We compartmentalize. Macro over here. Micro over there. With very little focus on how we fit the parts together.
I’m not pretending to know how best to design research that takes into account the context in which people live their lives. Qualitative research gets us part of the way. As a moderator, I know that I need to consider the respondent’s background – that Sue is a single Mom who obsessively clips coupons – that Jim just lost his job, and is angry and discouraged. But how do we do this when the Jims and Sues are anonymous respondents in a survey, only known to us in terms of how they feel about our brand? Does it matter that we ignore not just the context of their individual lives, but also the lives of the crowd that surrounds them? Especially when that crowd is sharing some wrenching common experiences – economically, socially, politically, culturally.
How do we conduct research that pays attention to context? I’m not sure. But it seems to be something we should be talking about. Context does matter, now more than ever.