Mention doing research for a social marketing project and the reactions are usually of three kinds:
- The 'eye-rollers' who wonder (out loud and in the halls) how much time and budget the activity will drain away from 'the important work.'
- The 'spinning wheels' who immediately launch into dissertations about the strengths and weaknesses of various methodologies and experimental designs that could be employed - and the 1,000+ questions that could be asked!
- The 'glassy stares' who immediately recount their experience with a basic statistics class and swear to have forgotten what a correlation means.
It may seem amusing at first, but 90% of reactions in ALL meetings I have ever been in where the 'R option' is brought up fall into these three categories. It is the primary reason most public health and social change projects fail to reach their lofty objectives: most research is either avoided or designed to confirm the known - and baffle the rest of us. Why are there so few 'bright eyes' (that other 10%) who light up at the opportunity for discovery?
Jacob Nielsen, who is one of the gurus in the usability testing business, was recently writing about Fast, Cheap and Good (pick any two) research. He makes an exceptional point that I have adopted as my own:
The quality criterion for market research is that it changes the world. By this I mean not the literal, but the practical implications the research findings have for the work and the way the team views it (and there is nothing so telling in this respect as when the 'eye-rollers' get briefed on the results, their eyes light up and you see the ideas start to form).
World-changing research sets a direction for the program, often one that nobody expected at the beginning. It brings actionable ideas for how to develop and implement important aspects of the project. And it provides not just new insights into our audiences, but brings a depth to these insights that drives a strong strategy (what I refer to as centipedes - one with many legs).
Here's a simple (and cheap) example. We were asked to design a project to help reduce the incidence of statutory rape. A full day briefing by experts from the health department, epidemiologists, lawyers, police, school administrators and others all went down the same track: tell these perpetrators to STOP IT or ELSE.
Well, as a marketer the enforcement approach isn't my first option (that's for the cheaters). So with no research budget, we went to one of the places with a higher reported incidence of statutory rapes (a seaside town popular with high school and college students on weekends) and asked around with men what was going on. The response was world changing: The way some of them get dressed up and get served [liquor] in the bars, who thinks about them being underage?
Now if you want to be a cynic - fine. Or you can develop a program that wound up featured in national press coverage and generated plenty of buzz.
No, the campaign itself didn't end statutory rape or change the world. But it did present a way for people to think and talk about a problem that was not often raised in public. And it started with a research-based insight that was world changing for the people responsible for the campaign.