How research dumbs us down

It’s a good thing research companies don’t charge by the pound.

I used to search through the big fat research report to learn how to create my most persuasive message. And I'd find all the information in the world except what I needed to create my most persuasive message. I felt like I knew less after reading the report than before; plus I was mentally tuckered out.


If you’re holding a big fat research report, you’re probably wading through an expensive quantitative study, which is good for measuring, but not so good for understanding.

Like a lot of people, I didn’t grasp these limitations 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."

Here’s why.

Large (quantitative) studies usually have people respond to a questionnaire. So, your possibilities are limited to what’s on your questionnaire. And that’s limited by your imagination and the imagination of the person putting together your questionnaire. The weird thing is that the most expensive research often provides the least understanding, and the least expensive research gives you the most understanding.

To persuade, you first need to understand.

Use small sample interviews. They usually cost less than large studies and let you get deep into peoples' heads.

Focus groups allow you to test ideas and get feedback. You can also alter concepts and messages that aren’t working, right on the spot, and test them again. It often sounds like this:

"You say the idea doesn't grab your attention.
Okay, then how about if we change the headline to this?
Or what if we alter the visual to that?”

Focus groups allow you to do creative things.

Once as a brand consultant I recommended that a bank do focus group testing to improve their advertising. Their service was so good it made sense to promote it. But the problem was, it was so good…almost too good, and I thought, who’s going to believe this.

So here's the creative part.

We set up the groups to be half customers and half non-customers. We put customers on one side of the table and non-customers on the other and asked the customers to tell the non-customers why they should switch from their bank to my client’s bank.

The customers made great salespeople.

The customers told the non-customers service stories that went beyond anything they had ever seen or heard of. We got compelling stories from the customers and, at the same time, got to see which ones turned non-customers into believers.

We knew the bank’s advertising copy was way too long, but we weren’t sure where to cut it. So we handed the customers some ads and told them to read them quickly and cross off anything that didn’t interest them. I later put the ads on my office wall to see if there was any pattern. There was, and it was so consistent we were able to cut ad copy by 70% and not lose anything important.

Better research, better advertising.

This research led to short copy focused on exactly what the customers cared about, took the bank where the competition couldn't go and beat their biggest competitors. See how little copy it took to win big.

See how a few interviews saved a new product introduction.

Individual interviews are even more effective at drawing people out because you focus on one person at a time and can burrow deep down into their heads. This type of research works well with business customers because they often face similar challenges. This allows you to get dependable results with a small numbers of interviews.

We once helped a high-tech client in Boston introduce a new instrument with breakthrough capability. The instrument had a pump that was so breakthrough they called it a solvent delivery module. Pump sounded too low-tech.

I was afraid “solvent delivery module” would confuse the devil out of people. So we carved out a day to call on some customers, one at a time.

The first three customers said, “What’s a solvent delivery module?”
The fourth customer said, “Say, is that a pump?
“Yes, it’s a pump.” My client said.
“You ought to call it a pump.”

They called it a pump.

We canceled the rest of the interviews. The new product introduction was among the best performing in the company’s history.

All from just four interviews.

I like small sample research like focus groups and individual interviews. You can show selling propositions, or pictures, demonstrations or testimonials, or whatever you think will make your point. If you’re not getting positive response, find out why. Then change your message right on the spot, and try again.

Patterns will emerge, and this will give you a better understanding than you'll find in that big, expensive quantitative study.

I want to thank market researcher Matthew Clark for his counsel on this blog. Matthew offers a welcome change from poorly thought-out research and unclear reporting that bedevils marketing and creative people as they search for reality.