How research became a four-letter word

Misguided research burns some people so bad they never want anything to do with any research ever again.    

I first saw this when I ran an advertising agency and something rare happened. A client hired us without our having to make a competitive presentation.

It sounded great. Then we had our first meeting.

He needed research, we told him and he got angry. We tried for two weeks to sell him on research and managed to move him from angry to furious. At one point he said we were trying to sell him "research shit."

Then, a lucky accident

Since we got his business without a presentation, we thought this guy doesn’t know us, so we ought to make a capabilities presentation. For the research part of our presentation we got lucky and forgot to use the research word. We just showed how we get face to face with our clients’ customers, try ideas on them, find the most persuasive concept and present the results in a brief, clear report. Then we help our clients beat the pants off their competition. We still forgot to use the research word.

He slammed his fist on the table and said:

“That’s what I need; stop trying to sell me that research shit.”

Then he told us about the ill-conceived research studies, reports that made no sense and feeling it was all an expensive waste of time. Somebody sold him on whacky research years ago and he was still pissed. (Sorry, I'm talking like my client.)

I mentioned the following couple of paragraphs in an earlier post. So please pardon a little repetition because it shows how the wrong kind of research gets people in trouble.

Bad research can look like this

You want to understand what's in peoples' heads to come up with your most persuasive message. So you go through your big — which usually means expensive, and it's usually called quantitative — research report. This kind of research is good if you want to measure what you understand, but not if you're trying to understand in the first place. And to create persuasive messages you must understand.

Like a lot of people, I didn’t grasp this until a smart researcher summed it up in two simple sentences:

"Joe, quantitative studies can tell you that 60% of people like red and only 30% like blue. But if your job is to get more people to like blue you're out of luck."

Large (quantitative and usually expensive) studies typically have people respond to a questionnaire. So your possibilities are limited to the imagination of the person who creates your questionnaire.

This may sound crazy

But the most expensive research often gives the least understanding, and the least expensive research gives you the most understanding. One example: just a couple of focus groups helped a regional yogurt find a message that beat their giant competitors. By the way, as it often happens, the winning message wasn't what they thought going into the test. Check out the creative approach that beat Dannon and Yoplait and the other big brands.

$100,000 worth of confusion

One of our client’s new marketing director wanted a giant research study to understand customer attitudes. It would cost $100,000. His people tried to tell him they already had a lot of useful research; couldn’t he look at that first. He said no and moved ahead, anyway. When they got the research report they couldn’t understand the thing, so they hired us to interpret it. Two days later our research director walked into my office to show me what the marketing director gave him.

And I said, “This report really is confusing."
And he said, “That’s not the report; that’s the letter of clarification.”

If you have all the money in the world

Start with qualitative research, like focus groups or one-on-one interviews, in order to understand; then follow up with a quantitative study to confirm and measure. But that’s a lot of bucks and the best marketing people I know say if you can only afford one, make it qualitative. It’s a competitive world, so if you want to win, understand the prospect better than your competition does. Just make sure you have the right research tool.

Failure to understand is the thing you can’t afford.