I liked this post from the Research Rockstar blog, making the point that there will be a lot of people in an organisation doing “research-like” activities that they won’t neccessarily characterise as research: scavenging for insight on google, running quick polls and surveymonkey surveys, etc.
As Research Rockstar says, it’s best to embrace this kind of thing - though as with all knowledge management activities this is far easier said than done! In the comments, Simon of Curiously Persistent suggests that the real problem is consumer reaction when exposed to half-arsed research activity - this is certainly another reason to try and bring unauthorised activity ‘into the fold’.
I’ve been thinking about DIY research a bit recently, and one thing I’m surprised no big agency has done is move into the space in a “freemium” style: offering a free DIY research tool via their web presence and using it for lead generation. This would have a bunch of benefits:
A direct revenue stream by selling eg. advanced analysis, access to sample
Raising standards by building educational information into the tool
Building relationships with potential clients (always the hardest part of the biz!)
Access to some interesting data!
Working with this function would also be a good learning tool for junior research executives, and the whole thing could sit within the marketing and sales umbrella (certainly you could argue that it would be more cost-effective than the conference circuit, where clients are an increasing rarity - but that’s a whole other, and far more controversial post!)
I’ve read a few posts recently talking about newish blogging platform Posterus, which compare it to Tumblr (on which Blackbeard Blog is hosted). What’s really struck me about the discussion of posterus and tumblr I’ve so far seen is how much it centres on the features of each site. This parallels the discussions I’ve seen in the past about MySpace v Facebook, Twitter v Facebook, LiveJournal v Blogging. All generally about the features and capabilities of each site.
Why’s that a problem? you might ask. Aren’t features important? Of course they are. But these aren’t just tools, they’re social tools, which means that any discussion should also be talking just as much about the cultures which evolve within a site. After all, when you use the tool you’re going to end up interacting with other people using it, and the norms of behaviour that have grown up around it. Of course these are influenced by the features, but features only set wide boundaries on culture, they don’t determine the exact form it takes.
In the case of tumblr, for instance, a rundown of what it can do doesn’t capture the way in which its most popular users approach the service: tumblr is young, visual, immediate, enthusiastic, indie, hip, into aggregation. The fact that some of the most popular blogs on it are “fuckyeah[x]” sites matters as much as its dashboard interface. Of course you don’t have to engage with that side of it (lord knows I don’t) but some of the people you socialise with will be. Posterus looks at first glance older, more sober, perhaps more thoughtful.
Culture can have a massive impact on the development and destiny of a service. I’ve linked before to danah boyd’s analysis of how class-based cultural factors influenced the take-up of Facebook in opposition to MySpace. From a personal perspective, when I started posting to LiveJournal (in 2005), the site already had a reputation for being full of teenage emo kids and slash-fic writers, and a lot of my most regular online communicants simply never felt comfortable there. The same thing’s happened with Twitter, though here it’s often assumptions about what a 140 character culture must be like that hold uptake back.
It can be hard to get a handle on the most vital cultures that use a particular social tool, and it’s tempting to ignore the issue because after all, they may not have any direct impact on how an individual uses it. But I’d argue they are always important to understand, they shape the environment and the kind of people who become attracted to a tool. You can’t get the full story just from looking at the specs.
2. Hint darkly at the vast forces of change that will inevitably wipe them out unless they TAKE ACTION NOW.
3. Suggest strongly that the action they need to take is LISTENING TO YOU.
It’s marketing as evangelism, in the worst way - repent or ye shall be damned! - and rests on scaring your clients, not relating to them. This strikes me as crude, patronising, and probably counter-productive (assuming the people whose business you want aren’t idiots).
Of course it’s enormously unfair to single the Marketing Donut post out, since its shrill tone is entirely typical of parts of the digital marketing sector (and nothing new - it’s the “Mr Jones Effect" in action). You don’t just see it on blog posts: half the slideshare presentations I see seem to include an obligatory blizzard of stats on how today’s consumers might as well be Venusians for all the hope YOU LOT have of understanding them. Or how your business will be exterminated Dalek-style unless it transforms utterly in the face of the NEW REALITY of people talking to each other on the internet.
Is there a grain of truth in this stuff? For sure. Is trying to scare clients into hiring you the right way to communicate it? I’d like to think not.
The changing definition and cultural meaning of “popularity” is becoming a niggling little bee in my bonnet, so it was interesting to read this article (linked above) flipping the issue over and asking how and why things become unpopular.
The data under scrutiny are baby name choices, and the paper contends that unpopularity generally mirrors popularity. If a name becomes popular quickly, it will fall from fashion equally rapidly.
Does this apply to other cultural forms, though? (Memes, bands, brands, etc.) After all, choosing baby names is a cultural activity unlike most others. It’s a form of personal display - you’re demonstrating your own values, imagination, heritage, taste, whim, whatever. It’s something you know you yourself will be judged on. But it’s also a bet on the future. You’re giving another human being something that’ll stick with them for the rest of their lives (in most cases), and so naming a baby is an act of imagination: how will this name affect them? You’re trying to empathise with someone who only just exists - which inevitably involves a lot of projection.
But that question leads to another question - what is everyone else called? Baby naming is at once the most personal and the most social of acts. It’s a private family choice which is inevitably public (nobody has ever kept their baby’s name a secret) and as a public act happens not only within an existing social network (anyone who cares about the birth) but a projected future one (the names your baby’s future classmates and playmates will have).
A pretty complicated decision, compared to liking a band or posting a meme!
But is it? The idea of an individual decision taking place within a current and future networked context is a familiar one: in essence it’s how markets work. I make an investment based on my personal sentiment about the investment, in the context of the current network (its current price), and the future network (where I anticipate the market is going).
With this in mind, the rapid spikes of popularity and unpopularity in some baby names look very much like the inflation and bursting of market bubbles. And the driver of unpopularity is the sudden increase in perceived risk (social risk, in this case). Would it be true to say that the more people’s ‘network perception’ plays a role in decision making, the more likely rapid popularity spikes are?
Emiel van Wegen left a long comment on my "Advance of New MR" post the other day which the flaky comments system failed to post. Luckily he reprises it here and turns it into a post of his own: a vigorous defence of the ability of online communities to square the circle of cost, speed and quality.
The boot is now on the other foot as I can’t comment on Emiel’s post! What I will say is that in pointing out that community solutions are a reversal of currently received wisdom I was actually thinking more of our attitudes to PARTICIPANTS, not what clients want. Clients will always say they want things faster, better, and cheaper - in reality different research buyers don’t respond to each of the three equally, and on those ever-shifting sands is our profitability as a business built.
But participants, they’re a different matter - the tendency for years and years has been to assume that the way to combat falling participation rates is to get the whole nasty opinion-seeking business over with quickly and to keep it as simple as possible. The current wave of research using social tools turns that on its head by placing the participants at the centre of the work and potentially demanding a lot more of them in terms of time and thought. This is a big shift and - in my view - not one that’s been discussed enough because the biz has been so focussed on more linear questions of panel and online data quality.
“One reason I think there were so many yes votes was because a psychologist got hold of it, and sent an email which quickly got copied to virtually every psychologist in the country, suggesting that we all vote yes as a way of protesting against such a ludicrously loaded question (psychologists care about questionnaire design),” Dr Hutton said.
Public polls - like the Daily Mail “gipsies” one discussed in this link - are only very tangentially related to the research industry. They may use a very crude research-type tool but their intention is completely different: interactive editorial, or rabble-rousing, depending on how you look at it. If waves of bored Twitterers make it harder to run this kind of pandering material, that’s a good thing in my book.
But as more research and research-like activity happens in public - crowdsourcing, “listening” to public conversations, open branded communities - the opportunities for gaming that research rapidly grow. At the moment it’s mostly the dumbest polls that attract saboteurs, but it’s hardly inconceivable that a brand’s crowdsourcing efforts or community could be trolled like this. What’s more, enthusiasm can skew a result as easily as disdain. The lesson? Know your respondents, if at all possible.
Ray Poynter at The Future Place blog, in cheerleading mode:
However, unlike online data collection, online communities are a true category destroyer. Communities compete for quantitative research budgets, but deliver qualitative research benefits. Communities transform the researcher from the ‘hidden observer’ to an active participant, co-creating value with both the brand and the customers.
I’m an enthusiast for this kind of thing too, but I think there’s a hidden gamble behind Ray’s arguments. Not even the gamble that the data from online communities can ultimately be held to the same kinds of rigour as “Old MR” could be (The Future Place has argued before that existing standards are more broken than we think.)
But the gamble that by asking for more of respondents time, we increase their engagement and the quality of the insights we get. Make no mistake, for its participants a community is a lot more demanding than a survey. We hope it’s also far more fun and involving and compelling, but this is still a risk.
The cry in online research for the last five years or so has been “simpler! quicker! easier!”. Most online communities are none of these. In a nutshell, we have to move from believing we’ve overestimated people to believing we’ve underestimated them.This represents - as Ray mentions - a very big conceptual shift in the way the industry has approached “respondents”. It’s also something of a leap of faith.
If you’ve a) been following the Iranian elections on twitter or via other social media and b) want the chance to point and laugh at my own hurried DIY survey skillz, then run don’t walk to the link above.
"Most marketing organizations do not have a pervasive belief system that research adds value. Some “believe”, but many are non-believers. As non-believers, they will not expect valuable strategic recommendations to come from researchers so even brilliant insights will go unnoticed. The decision-maker must believe or less grounded insights coming from consultants will have more impact on the company than their own research and insights teams even if they offer brilliant insights. Research must fix its branding problem."
Joel Rubinson of the ARF talking about research’s image problem. I agree with all this, but I wonder if research also doesn’t have a bit of a self image problem as an industry.
Ever since I’ve been in the biz I’ve seen colleagues saying, well, we need to be like consultants; or, we need to structure ourselves like ad agencies; or, we have to be more like marketers. At an appraisal a couple of years back my manager said, “Tom, you’re not a researcher, you’re a planner.” I’d never even heard of planners before so this came as something of a surprise.
As it happens, I think I’d have been quite a good planner, but I’m not one. I’m a researcher, and if I have abilities which look a bit like planning, or consultancy, or marketing then it’s because I’m a good researcher, not because the category of “researcher” is somehow a bit crap and I’m able to transcend it.
Another industry news story this week involved Julian Bond, who’d been at Research International for 27 years, leaving that company and taking a job at Incite. I cut my teeth at RI, and worked with Julian Bond on a couple of thinkpiece style presentations, and I wish him all the very best because he is exactly what I’m talking about. He can do things - very clever things - that look a bit like the things planners or consultants do but all of it is grounded in the research work he’s put together, because he is a researcher and proud of it.
Bond - like many of the other agency “big beasts” I’ve worked and conferenced with - came up in the industry in an era when research still had a bit of technocratic swagger and mystique. The days of the black box technique and blinding the client with science are dying unmourned, but bringing the swagger and pride back wouldn’t be a terrible idea. One of the best research blog posts I’ve read this week is Dave Bevan at Freshminds tracking the attempts to discover whether the Iranian election was a fix - quietly making the point that an ability to understand statistics and interpret data intelligently and calmly is incredibly valuable.
This ability is something you get with good researchers. So is the ability to frame questions and conversations to create insight. The ability to appreciate the "harmonics" in a conversation and spot the unasked question. And a host of other skills which, as a business, we ought to be proud of. The “rebranding” market research needs to undertake is simply the job of identifying what we’re great at and demonstrating that it’s worth paying for.
This seems to have caused an enormous amount of excitement so I feel confident that the exclusive consumer findings I am about to present will set the blogosphere alight in similar fashion:
GASP! Most people who form bands never end up recording anything!
HORROR! The median number of visits to gyms made by people who put “Join a gym” on a new years’ resolutions list is one!
SWOON! 10% of professional footballers earn 90% of the total wage bill!
Was there really anyone who didn’t think Twitter was subject to the same kind of participation inequalities as the rest of social media? Or the rest of the web? Or the rest of real life? Apparently so, given the fuss this has caused.
I reckon it’s because people in marketing circles often have a somewhat weird view of social media. They spend so much time thinking about how this brand or that one can use it that they see social media only through a frame of usefulness.
But usefulness isn’t the point of social media.
Social media is fun. It’s enjoyable for its own sake, like hanging around in the park or the pub is. It enhances other leisure activities (by making it easier for people to come together, talk and do stuff) but it’s also a leisure activity in its own right - sometimes creative, sometimes competitive, sometimes just….social. The clue is in the name!
Let’s think about what considering social media tool as a leisure activity - a hobby - does to our perspective on it. What would it have in common with other ones? In fact, let’s go further, and think about each tool as a hobby - in the same way that the enormous grab-bag of “sport” includes everything from cricket to kick-boxing. Here are some parallels I find useful.
Most people who try a hobby don’t keep it up. The barriers to trying leisure activities are usually low, but only a minority stick with an activity - usually they drop it because they don’t find it particularly satisfying or don’t feel they are good at it. Same goes for social media tools: high churn rates are far more likely than not.
Most people have more than one hobby, and go through several in a lifetime. Social media discussion tends to focus on competition - can Twitter kill Facebook? Can Wave kill Twitter? Who killed Bambi MySpace? In some ways this is helpful, in other ways it’s like assumng baseball and basketball can’t co-exist, just because they’re both sports. Consumers are likely to pick up on, and drop, different social media services at different times according to how much fun they’re getting out of them. They may also have several on the go at once.
The hobby supports participation at a variety of levels. In the UK, the Football Association isn’t just structured to administer the professional league and cup competitions - it exists to support the sport at every level from pub amateurs to £100k-a-week superstars. The superstars and the pub team get a similar kind of pleasure from the game on one level, but have a completely different experience of it on another. Social media is the same - the satisfaction of creating and publishing content holds steady no matter how large your audience actually is.
The individual’s enjoyment of the hobby is largely independent of the hobby’s overall health. If I enjoy playing chess, and know other people who enjoy it too, then whether the sport is thriving or declining, and how big it is, isn’t of much direct interest to me. Similar things apply to social media - the patterns of participation you get looking at a ‘big picture’ view (as in the Harvard article) actually have very little impact at the micro level.
It’s actually quite hard to understand the appeal of a hobby unless you’re involved in it. This one - and its social media parallel - speaks for itself I hope. I would dearly love not to have to argue about Twitter or blogs or anything else with people who’ve got no actual experience of using them.
Hobbies do you good. I said the point of social media isn’t to be useful - but of course it is useful. Its usefulness is a side benefit, like keeping fit or intellectually agile or making friends might be side benefits of other types of hobby.
Because social media makes group organisation so easy, and network effects so dramatic, we tend to focus on that element of it, and so it’s easy for articles like the Harvard one to shock the community when they should have been predictable. But it’s just as fruitful to spend time thinking about the social media experience at the individual level, and hobbies provide a useful frame in which to do that.
Fun anecdote from the Freshminds research blog about Sony and boomboxes. As people point out in the comments, the way the anecdote’s told doesn’t actually suggest people lie about their own preferences: it merely says that in this case they’re poor second-guessers of other people’s.
In fact the story makes you want lots more detail: were these mainstream consumers being asked about other mainstream consumers, or were they early adopters trying to think their way towards what “the masses” would go for? If the latter, it’s a fool’s errand: most early adopters have little sympathy for and no empathy with the people who come upon things after them.
The idea that asking people about the behaviour of others(not themselves) is the road to insight is a hot one right now. Here’s Brainjuicer’s Orlando Wood making the case for “We Research” at the MRS Conference - the most stimulating 5 minutes I spent at conference this year. Wood’s “Swedish drivers” example - 90% of Swedes say they they are better drivers than average - illustrates where this kind of work might be really useful: at illuminating bad choices, undesirable behaviour, and simple incompetence. The Sony anecdote - in the way Freshminds are phrasing it, at least - points towards some possible risks.
I tried to post this as a comment on this Verbatim post but I messed up somehow! Here you go:
"Not a huge surprise that Twitter usage has that kind of distribution (since most other things online do!). But anyone using it as a stick to beat the tool with is somewhat misguided: anyone’s contacts on Twitter, after all, make up a tiny fraction of the "Twitterverse", so what happens at an aggregate level is pretty much irrelevant to the user experience. What’s important is how participatory your own follows and followers are.
(This is different to a community experience, where the default mode is usually publishing to the whole community, so participation inequality is a much more “tangible” effect.)
Actually, the 90/10 thing probably ENHANCES the Twitter experience. If you use it much, you’re almost certainly in the 10% producing 90% of the content, which means in effect that the Twitter universe is 10 times SMALLER than you imagined it was! ;)
Writing this it’s just struck me that something Twitter does really well is give the impression of a vast and bustling world of users out there (via trending topics, etc.) which conceals the fact that the world you actually experience is relatively tiny, and you’re uncannily important in it. It’s a reverse Total Perspective Vortex, if you live!