1. A matter of perspective

    In one of Douglas Adams’ Hitch-Hikers’ Guide books there’s a machine called the Total Perspective Vortex, a form of punishment which shreds its victim’s mind by exposing it to the actual scale of the universe and showing them how infinitesimally tiny and insignificant they are. The outrageously egotistical protagonist, Zaphod Beeblebrox, is flung into the machine and emerges smiling, the Vortex having apparently confirmed that yes, he was in fact enormously important.

    Working in quantitative research generally turns you into a Total Perspective Vortex - you’re exposed not so much to how insignificant everyone is, but to how ordinary they are: rare indeed is the genuine outlier, the individual who can’t be clustered or segmented somehow. And you’re no different, buster! To some extent of course, this is a trick of the light - segments are caricatures, and the individual who is completely predictable is even rarer.

    But something of this acknowledgement of perspective has gone into the traditional ‘research bargain’. We solicit opinions from people on the promise that someone high up in some company somewhere might use those opinions to improve their lives. A bit. Maybe. It’s all very cagey: we don’t say who might listen and we certainly don’t say that they will listen - the sense of distance acknowledges that you might find your answers in a distinct minority.

    In fact it works a bit like democracy: the act of voting doesn’t give you the right to have what you voted for enacted. You might be on the losing side: thanks for playing, better luck next time.

    "Better luck next time" isn’t a phrase that shows up much in this list of "10 Rules for Today’s Consumers" - a ‘new consumer manifesto’. Consumers want things fast, how they want, where they want; they expect to be listened to, responded to, partnered with as a matter of course. At once! Right now!

    As the parent of a 2 year old boy I feel quite familiar with these “new consumers”. No Total Perspective Vortex for them - no ‘research bargain’ where they might get what they want, but no guarantees. They can demand the impossible and still think it reasonable.

    If these new cosnumers do exist (and I do wonder if this isn’t just an enlarged, louder segment of Zaphods), having them as your customers will be an exhausting mix of servility, tactful diplomacy and gentle manipulation. Let’s not forget that “The customer is always right” became a mantra in an age when “The customer is mostly quiet”. The most urgent marketing question in a real-time world won’t be how to delight your customers, but how to get them to rediscover and accept the inevitable compromises between their desires and what you can deliver. (The music business seems already to have failed here.)

    Luckily, as a researcher that’s not my direct problem. The issue for research is simpler - we used to sell ourselves to participants as bringing them closer to companies. Now we’re intermediaries, and the danger is we’ll be seen as making companies more distant. Part of our job as researchers is precisely to put things into perspective: that’s what our clients want, but is it in the interests of the people whose opinions we seek?

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