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Six Lessons From The MRS IMPACT 2014 Conference

Tom Ewing gives his take on the MRS Impact 2014 event and lists his key takeaways.

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Editor’s Note: Tom Ewing is one of my favorite bloggers; his erudite and no BS persona always ensures a provocative and entertaining read.  Since I couldn’t attend this week’s MRS conference myself, there was no one better to be our “eyes & ears” at the conference and ensure that we got the best possible take on the event. It sounds like it was a great conference that really delivered on the title of “Impact”. You can find more coverage here.

For the record, GreenBook and MRS have a very friendly relationship and are looking for even more ways to collaborate in the future. While I appreciate Tom’s comparison of MRS and IIeX at the end of his post, increasingly we’re looking at working with trade associations to help them leverage the types of things we uncover at IIeX and incorporate them into their own unique value proposition for their events.    No one event or even media platform can be all things to all people, and although we’re pleased folks find value in what we are doing here and that it is influencing others, our goal is to help the industry as a whole grow and prosper, including our trade organization partners.

 

By Tom Ewing

In an ever-more crowded conference schedule, it’s more important than ever to stand out. Over the years, the MRS’ annual conference has found various ways of doing that. In the less globalized industry of the 1990s, simply being the UK’s biggest research event was difference enough, and the conference got a reputation for being a little bit staid, with most of the real action taking place in the hotel bar.

That all changed in the mid-00s, when new organizing blood, and pressure from a body calling itself the Research Liberation Front, pushed the conference towards a more radical agenda. It became known for big multi-disciplinary ideas, highly creative session formats, and an eclectic choice of keynote speakers. Robotics would sit side by side with semiotics, book clubs fought for audience with pecha kucha, and you’d finish off with a keynote from the likes of comedian Armando Iannucci or socialist icon Tony Benn.

The only question – and it was a legitimate question – was “what does all this have to do with research?” For every attendee who let the MRS spark their imagination, another felt a lack of practical applications. So these days, under CEO Jane Frost, the MRS takes a third way – the slogan is now “evidence matters”, and the mind-expanding keynotes and far-out workshops are now balanced with an emphasis on really solid case studies.

So at the 2014 conference this week – called Impact 2014 – we had Cadbury’s talking about the ROI of Facebook content marketing, Waitrose extolling customer closeness sessions, eBay singing the praises of its segmentation, Greenpeace using psychology to make its Facebook page more inviting, and several smaller UK businesses – like an independent whiskey distillery – showing how research had paid off for them. As a set of examples of the real value of research, it’s hard to beat.

But, weirdly, the old question still lingers – case study heavy sessions are obviously about research, but they aren’t always relevant to the day-to-day work we do. You’re looking for the insight that will move you from celebration to transformation – something to inspire change in the way you do research.

So with that in mind, here were the best tips and ideas I personally took away from the conference.

  1. ALWAYS BE TESTING: A/B testing was a constant presence at Impact 2014 – the idea that, like the UK cycling team discussed by keynote speaker Tim Harford, constant marginal improvements can deliver decisive gains. As he was quick to point out, that’s far from the only way to innovate, but the idea cropped up all through Impact 2014. You saw it with Cadbury’s, who used real-time Facebook audience engagement as a substitute for pre-testing: launch a whole lot of content and then back anything that starts to do well. You saw it in the work showcased by The Behavioral Architects on Priming – small, background sensory differences can have a very large impact on how an experience is perceived and enjoyed. If you’re not getting creative about marginal improvement, you’re leaving opportunity behind.
  2. STRUCTURAL BOLDNESS: Tim Harford contrasted his talk of marginal improvement with the story of genetics pioneer Dr. Mario Capecchi, who overcome astonishing hardship in his childhood to make brilliant scientific discoveries. It was a classic tale of visionary boldness set against incremental progress, and the audience were soon on the side of the bold individual. But, as Harford pointed out, the binary is the problem – we love those stories because they seem to justify a system where we make bold individuals shoulder an enormous financial and personal risk. If we created structures which invested more in bold experiments, they’d seem less exciting, but we’d probably get more done.
  3. BEWARE STORIES: Two of the conference’s other keynote speakers also had plenty to say about stories. In an entertaining talk about just how much higher math there is in The Simpsons, Simon Singh suggested that simplification by itself isn’t always an ideal goal. You can fit all sorts of complexity in there as long it’s in service to the story (and in the Simpsons’ case, the gags). But novelist Will Self took a more skeptical view of stories. Narrative is dangerous, he pointed out – it’s a device for cutting down options, and making outcomes seem inevitable. That’s what makes it so valuable for presenters, but a false friend to consumers – and perhaps to researchers, who can be seduced by the stories they’re trying to tell. Self’s points were reminiscent of Daniel Kahneman’s pessimistic assessments of story in Thinking, Fast And Slow – ironically, since Self criticized behavioral economics for its emphasis on our difficulty in making “informed choices”. Do marketers want people to make decisions against their will, he asked? To which the researcher might say, it’s not about how we or Will Self would like people to decide things – it’s about how they do decide them. But Self’s wider point is very true – marketers tend to bandy the word story around with no real understanding of its implications. If you’re offering choices and a customer doesn’t like one, you can always offer them another. But if you’re telling a story and someone doesn’t like it, you’re finished.
  4. TRUST YOUR STAKEHOLDERS: One way of improving decisions, according to Kahneman, is to get a more neutral opinion on them. I was reminded of that during a fascinating panel about the rise of activism in 00s culture, spurred partly by the speed of ideas on social media but also by more powerful NGOs. It’s long been said that the most talented minds go into business, not politics. But now, said Robert Blood of Sigwatch, the most talented brains also go into NGOs not politics. Companies are often well behind the modern NGO in terms of media reach and understanding, and Sigwatch helps them keep track of issues before they hit the media (and become boardroom issues). What’s interesting is that a direct effect on share price or sales is incredibly rare, but businesses change behavior anyway because of the psychological leverage activists have and their influence on public opinion – few people, no matter how hard-nosed they are, want to be seen as the bad guy. The problem, said the panel, is that companies then look to NGOs for advice – which isn’t an NGO’s job. An NGO’s purpose is often to criticize corporate behavior, not to hand out pats on the head. An NGO is not a stakeholder. So instead of looking at things through the NGO lens – which means either defiance or capitulation – companies should make sure they have good communications channels to their actual stakeholders: owners, employees, suppliers and customers. That’s where good decision advice will come from. Which, of course, is where research comes in.
  5. GO “NODE TO PEER”: Sometimes stakeholders aren’t easy to find. In a case study that was nominated for the Best Presentation award, by Southwark Council (a London local governmental body) and ESRO Research, we learned how to use “node-to-peer” research to look for them. Like London as a whole, the borough of Southwark is home to a huge range of cultures and immigrant communities, and some in particular are poorly known to the council and government services. By recruiting “cultural brokers” from community workers to Imams as ‘nodes’, ESRO was able to supplement its ethnography and workshops with more quantitative data, ending up with more than 900 very hard-to-reach respondents.
    The ESRO method enjoyed some of the most positive Tweeting of the conference, and excited attendees well beyond its social research origins. With similarities to techniques used in developing market research and youth research, it was an excellent study in how to turn the theory of ‘influentials’ into something more material than just a field in a database. In the future, the data collection end of custom research is likely to become more reliant on difficult to identify populations as a value add – “node-to-peer” is one way to do this.
  6. WIDEN OUR INPUTS: But perhaps node-to-peer is something the industry could be doing more of itself? One of the most interesting panels of the conference addressed diversity, and whether the research industry could be doing more to increase the range of people working in it. An audience member’s comment that the UK industry is “horribly white and middle class” caught most Twitter attention, but this was a slight misrepresentation of a panel that was more about pointing out good examples and suggesting solutions than it was about castigating anybody. Sam Phillips of Omnicom, Ettie Etela of Nielsen and entrepreneur Belinda Parmar praised brands like M&S for better representation in advertising, discussed the importance of role models, and suggested apprenticeships as a way of breaking research’s dependency on university graduates. Like most good panels it was over too soon, but this was an important panel on a vital subject. Diversity as a research asset goes beyond political opinion: the more work I do in behavioral science, the more I know how very contingent our interpretation of data is on our subjective assumptions, and how difficult it is to step beyond those. Diversity helps solve that problem: the more our industry looks like the people it studies, the better our work will be.

So those were my take-aways. A quick look over them should tell you that the MRS remains a conference with distinct and individual strengths. It’s not afraid to be intellectual, and it’s not afraid to challenge or to entertain. It also has a strong tradition of panels that deal with political issues and with the material lives of ordinary people – a legacy of the UK’s important social research sector. And it has a good grasp of psychology too – this was the first conference I’ve been to where a session on behavioral economics could assume everyone already knew what System 1 and 2 were!

But it’s also lacking in some areas – particularly in the kind of things Greenbook covers. The MRS has never been great on mobile research, but having come fresh from IIEX in Amsterdam it was startling how little discussion there was of technology in general, and the new entrants to the industry that it’s creating. Individual companies and developments can be overhyped – there’s only so many times a game can change – but industry shifts are real. Even though most presentations were very strong, there was a rather cosy feel to Impact 2014, a sense that one can ignore the winds of change by settling down with a well made case study and a thoughtful cup of tea. If the MRS could combine what it already does so well – its solid examples, its intellectual curiosity, and its grounding in consumer reality – with some tech adrenalin, it might well be unmissable.

Thanks to Joseph Clift from WARC for his notes which let me write up the ESRO presentation.

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One Response to “Six Lessons From The MRS IMPACT 2014 Conference”

  1. Tom says:

    March 21st, 2014 at 10:57 am

    Thanks for the clarification note Lenny! The comparison was not meant to be boosting IIEX – it was fresh in my mind as an example of a tech-centric conference. I think that IIEX (and almost every other event) can learn a lot from the MRS approach in terms of its faith in ideas and its grounding in real consumer lives. As you say, every event is different with a different agenda – and it would be dull if they were all the same. But we can still try and imagine the ‘perfect’ research event :)

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