Coming clean

Sean challenges me (and a few others) to come clean about our shameful past. Specifically our shameful past in playing along with half-hearted/half-baked customer research.

Let’s face it, this particular process has become the method by which we cheat our clients into believing that there is unique value in our approach and engaging them in a “process”. But are they really engaged? Do we really utilize what we learn?…

I should qualify this by pointing a finger at not only ourselves and the industry but also at our clients. They yearn to be cheated in this way. Hell, they often demand it. Project owners want their organization to be “engaged” but in a “safe” and “controlled” way (read: un-empowered).

Yeah, been there, done that, acquired tea towel etc. I gave up doing market research because I became so dissatisfied with it’s deadening effect. Researchers have an investment in presenting themselves as the expert psychologist. “We listen to what you customers say and expertly divine from this what they really mean, and then we tell you.” Translation: we get in the way.

And with the best will in the world, a research report gives a company only a rationalised, stripped down version of what a real live engagment provides. And quite a few times, I’d realise clients didn’t even want that dessicated version of the truth. As Sean suggests, very often the voluminous research leads the agency/client to do… just what they wanted to do anyway.

My most painful experience of this was when I tested an ad campaign that totally bombed in research. The agency fiddled with the logo colour and carried on regardless. At a sales conference, they trumpted how thoroughly it had been researched (but not how terribly it had researched).

I think you could do a lot worse than cancelling at least half your research budget and spending more time in the online forums reading the unedited versions of the conversations about your product.

For myself, I gave up the research business and now ply my trade as a facilitator. That role no doubt has its own share of delusions, but it does at least theoretically understand the notion of getting out of people’s way!

2 thoughts on “Coming clean

  1. Carman Pirie

    I’m not a fan of most research for a variety of reasons. We even have this somewhat legendary story that always comes up at my agency about a client who insisted on focus grouping a logo only to kill it because it was red. The evidence that the red logo was wrong? One participant said, “A red logo would never work”. To make matters worse, they were all drinking Coke during the focus group.

    That said, we’ve been working lately at blending Art of Hosting tools (Open Space, Circle, World Cafe) into customer / client / agency interaction in hopes of gaining further insight to inform our planning. So far, it is proving to be quite interesting.

    Operating under no illusions of statistical validity, we’re simply looking to engage clients and customers in a co-creative conversation to see where it leads. The process, when loosely held, has helped deliver insights resulting in some rather successful campaigns. Moreover, the impact it has on the client is remarkable. By getting out of the sanitized focus group environment and deciding, instead, to simply talk with customers, clients seem to come away with a level of genuine empathy that a focus group just doesn’t deliver.


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