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Gathering Consumer Feedback Has Morphed over the Years … or Has It?

Market research has come a long way in the past 60 years as the methods used to collect information have evolved. One thing that hasn’t changed though is the importance of observation and conversation in research, and the nuanced information that such approaches can provide.

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By Donna Taglione

Market research has come a long way in the past 60 years as the methods used to collect information have evolved. One thing that hasn’t changed though is the importance of observation and conversation in research, and the nuanced information that such approaches can provide.

Once upon a time, (way back during the 1950’s and 60’s) women wearing hats and white gloves went to neighborhoods all over the country knocking on doors to find out how the lady of the house used a certain product, how she might want use it and what she liked and disliked about certain brands. Under the guidance of ‘Doc’ Smelser, P&G’s first head of market research, and tapping into a familiar business model of the time – the door-to-door salesman (think Fuller Brush and Hoover vacuums) – these interviewers were trained to ask questions conversationally.

These professionals were perhaps the first qualitative market researchers as they were literally conducting in-home interviews. They carried no clip boards or writing materials. Only upon leaving the house did they record, from memory, the key points of each exchange. These first product tests used the technology of the time – observation and conversation – to get consumer feedback.

Fast forward to 2014 … considering the explosion of technology over the past 50+ years what is one of the most requested research techniques? In-home interviews. You know what they say – what goes around comes around!  Observation and conversation are still a vital part of the qualitative research tool box today for a lot of really good reasons. Chief among them is the ability to watch the consumer interact with a product and talk with her (or him) as the interaction takes place.  Ethnographers have always knows that respondents can’t tell us about things they don’t notice or do so unconsciously they’re not even aware they’re doing it. Observation is a powerful tool. There’s no failed memory, no “I think” this or “I’m pretty sure” that.

The ability to reach out and touch consumers in-the-moment provides marketers, packagers, R&D and consumer insight generators the ability to see the delights or experience the frustrations with a product as they are experienced. Research has always been conducted with the intent of making products better. Over time, the importance of observation and conversation has ebbed and flowed. In the mid-1960’s, as telephone interviewing capabilities surged, companies found they could conduct surveys across a wider target much more efficiently than going door-to-door. What they lacked in candid responses to a few questions they made up for with statistically valid data – tremendous amounts of data. But marketers wanted and needed more. More detail, more depth, more involvement and interaction.

Trying to understand the reasons behind the numbers, focus groups came out of suburban basements in the early 1980’s and facilities were built in nearly every major market across the country. Exploring the motivation behind a purchase, or understanding why an advertisement was successful (or wasn’t) was easier to accomplish with groups of like-minded or demographically similar people than it was going street by street knocking on doors.

Accelerate time even more to the late 1990’s and early 2000’s and recall when access to the Internet expanded the scope of marketing research even further. Respondents were no longer required to answer questions when the interviewer knocked or dialed; they could answer at a time that was convenient for them. Yet the more we change, the more we stay the same. Technology has helped us improve our ability to process information with speed and efficiency. But there simply is no replacing the detailed information and nuance that can be learned through observation and conversation. Keep in mind, though, these aren’t your grandmother’s in-homes! Today, we can enter the home of a consumer to watch them interact with a product and, with the placement of a small lipstick camera, we can also watch them interact with the product over time. We can drive around town with consumers and we can even follow them on vacation.

It is in these one-on-one observational situations that we truly pick up on distinctions that aren’t available online, by phone or via a completed mail or web survey. Sometimes we can’t even pick up on the same level of detail in a focus group. That’s why the 2014 researcher’s qualitative tool box needs to be extensive. Most importantly it should definitely include in-home interviews.

That doesn’t mean we have unlimited freedom to observe how consumers interact with a product in their home. We have found that a maximum of four researchers is an acceptable number of “observers” before the end user feels like she’s being watched a little too closely. Casual observation suddenly feels like surveillance! After all, how “normal” would you act with seven pairs of eyes watching your every move?

Besides with access to streaming video, not all observers even have to be in the house. Advances in technology allow researchers to see the in-home details that they would otherwise miss if they were not onsite. In addition, texting probes to onsite moderators actually allow clients to interact with the consumers while maintaining a sense of normalcy.
Naomi Henderson, RIVA founder and author of Secrets of a Master Moderator, explains it this way: “Quantitative research asks the questions, qualitative research questions the answers.” It is true that hearing, seeing, watching, and interacting with a consumer in their own environment trumps any biases that might exist utilizing an observational approach.
That’s one of the major reasons why observation and conversation, the only way to gather respondent feedback in the infancy of marketing research, are still a vital part of the consumer feedback loop today. Lucky for us we no longer have to go door-to-door to get them.

Donna Taglione is a vice president at Morpace Inc. with more than 20 years of experience in qualitative research on both the client and supplier sides. She can be reached at dtaglione@morpace.com

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One Response to “Gathering Consumer Feedback Has Morphed over the Years … or Has It?”

  1. Lisa Rogers says:

    July 30th, 2014 at 12:32 pm

    So right — there is no substitute for observing customers in their homes or offices. I’ve done hundreds of hours of that, and loved how much I learned. But it’s expensive and time-consuming. How do we use technology to make it more efficient?

    Cameras only capture what they’re pointed at. Keystrokes only log what happens on a device. What methods have others tried?

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