“We slipped from our obligation to know what consumers are thinking... into believing they are like us; from there we slide further into believing we can think for them and understand their actions.” [William McComb, then President of McNeil Consumer Healthcare, quoted in Zaltman, 2003, p.131]
Among the more maddening experiences I have as a social marketer is when a project moves into the research phase. This research is commonly understood to involve learning more about the people we serve in order to create or improve the products we offer, the services we deliver or the behaviors we want to encourage them to adopt. Yet, among too many government agencies and nonprofit organizations, this part of the process often leads to bringing in ”the research team.” This research team usually consists of well-educated, serious people whose duty and purpose is to search for the facts. They are often well-schooled in methodology, statistical analysis and the usual suspects of behavior change theories. And they, like their organizational sponsors, are convinced that there should be a solid wall between the “clean" work of research and the “dirty” work of planning programs and interventions. Indeed, in over 20 years of working in this field, I rarely have come across a researcher who has ever immersed themselves in the nuances of program planning or agencies that allowed program planners to participate in 'the research meetings' - so strongly do they believe in the separation of the two! So to make a long story short, researchers go fishing for what they know how to catch (KAB - knowledge, attitudes, behavior and facts), while what the program planners need (yes, I know I am assuming a lot here) is insight into how and why people are thinking and acting the way they do and how we can leverage that knowledge into more effective programs.
The National Social Marketing Centre has recognized the centrality of audience insight in how it describes social marketing. However, much of what they refer to as insight are variations on the surface themes of what specific behavior can we promote, what are the barriers to the target behavior, what messages capture their attention, how do we want our offer to be seen, and how do they spend their days? Now if you don't know the answers to these questions, you certainly don't know the people you want to serve. But whether these are the most useful questions and lead to insight - well…ask yourself: would I feel close and intimate with someone if they only knew these things about me? The NSMC gets closer to the meaning I have when I use the term 'insight' when they add "what moves and motivates them?" But how you get to insight is more than simply asking people that question.
In addition to the KAB-insight paradox, another part of the equation is that there are many agency sponsors, and program planners, who unconsciously or not avoid the hard work of thinking deeply about the people they serve. These are the people who review the interview guides created by "the research team" that are usually variations on the KAB assessment theme, and pronounce them “good to go.” One of my struggles has been how to articulate to both of these groups of people not only how wrong their perspective is, and how ineffectual it is, but also how to begin to solve the problem.
The problem we need to address with meaningful research in social marketing is this: we need to have deep insights from our customers in order to apply disciplined imagination and creativity in collaboratively working with them to address their needs, problems and hopes.
I have been finding inspiration into this problem from two books by Gerald Zaltman (social marketing aficionados may recognize him as the co-author of the seminal article on social marketing with Phil Kotler - pdf here). In How Customers Think he identifies six marketing fallacies that underlie the assumptions many marketers make about their customers and clients.
- Customers think in a deliberate, rational and linear way
- They can readily explain their thinking and behavior
- What goes on in people's minds, the environment and culture in which they live, and how they behave can be studied independently of one another
- People's memories accurately represent their experiences
- Consumers think in words
- People can be “injected” with messages and will interpret and respond to these messages as marketers intend (Zaltman, 2003, p. 7-14)
He then goes on to explain the new paradigm for thinking about human communication, thought, emotion and memory based on more recent empirical research (read, for example, DeMartino, Kumaran, Seymour & Dolan, 2006). The key points he makes are (from Zaltman, 2003, pp. 33-43):
- Human thought arises from images, not words. Implication: verbal language, or what people tell us in focus groups and interviews, is not the same as thoughts and experiences.
- Most communication is nonverbal. Implication: there is a great gap between the way consumers experience and think about their world and the methods most marketers use to collect this information.
- Emotions play an important role in most decision-making. Implication: we need to assess the emotional value people place on products, services and behaviors as well as the rational ones.
- Up to 95% of thoughts, emotions and learning occur in the unconscious mind. Implication: we need to use research methods that allow people to tap into these processes.
- Groups of people share common features of the way they construct their world, or what or also called mental models. Implication: we need to understand what these consensus maps might be, as Zaltman notes that they may be “possibly the single most important set of insights that a manager can have about consumers (p. 42).”
- Memory is not a neural photograph, but a creative product of our experiences, beliefs and plans. Implication: we need to tap into the stories, archetypes and core metaphors people use to create memories and coherent meanings about our brands, the organizations we represent and the behaviors we want them to change or adopt.
To replace this outdated knowledge we have of how people think, the research and planning teams both need to focus on closing the “say - mean gap.” Or focus more on learning from the priority group's perspective why and how they think and do what they do, rather than focusing on just what they say in response to our questions and trying to validate our own preconceived ideas and theories (See McComb above).
This approach is not without risk. Opening oneself up to deeper understandings of the people we serve means entertaining the idea that there are things we do not know and need to learn. Deeper learnings and understandings may also lead us to experience new and unfamiliar thoughts. Perhaps we will need to plan our programs differently? What would that mean to our self-esteem and professional identity? Our sense of security?
Going deep also drives us to uncover how alike many people are with respect to their thoughts and behaviors, and leads us away from focusing on substantively inconsequential differences when we develop segmentation and positioning schemes (what are the similarities among MySpace or Facebook users?). And finally, it also means we have to take the time, work harder, sometimes suspend our disbelief and doubt, and even, as Zaltman admits, develop an attitude of serious play.
So when I talk about insights now, I am focusing more on discovering the underlying similarities that people share - the stories, metaphors and archetypes for example. What is described in Marketing Metaphoria (Zaltman & Zaltman, 2008) is the metaphor elicitation technique and the 7 deep metaphors that emerged from over 12,000 interviews of customers across market sectors and countries. The metaphors are balance, transformation, journey, container, connection, resource and control. And rather than go into them in depth here, you can go to the book's website for an explanation of them. But what would be even more relevant for people involved in social change projects is to look at the report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that used research into these metaphors to develop a new way to talk about the social determinants of health (a report that I have been enthusiastically recommending over the past few months).
The metaphor elicitation technique is but one approach to uncovering these deeper insights to guide our work. In 10 Key Customer Insights, Robert Schieffer also talks about a number of projective interviewing techniques that might be used as well as another approach we used in several projects known as the laddering interviewing methodology. The goal of laddering is to first identify the associations that people have with the attributes, or physical features and characteristics, of our offering; then move on to understanding their perceptions of the functional consequences or benefits of these attributes; and finally explore the more abstract customer values such as being well-respected, security, fun and enjoyment, self-fulfillment and a sense of belonging. The idea is that by understanding how our offerings connect to our customers' values, we can create offerings and design behaviors through which these values can be experienced by the customer as they use the product or service or engage in the new behavior.
So to move forward, besides tackling the books I have mentioned here, try some of these techniques and let me know how they work for you - or the response you get when you suggest them ;)
- Limit group interviews to no more that 3 participants at once - now they'll have time to tell you something in depth
- Start the research before you meet the participants; ask them to bring pictures of situations in which they feel they are at risk for engaging in risky behaviors and talk through them with you - keep asking "Why?"
- Interview the extreme users or practitioners of your product, service or behavior rather than the 'normative middle' - what makes them different, and similar?
- Go out with people and have them give you a guided tour of their life
- Have them draw a picture of what their life would be like if they consistently engaged in a healthier or more socially responsible behavior (hint: be sure to ask about where, when, barriers and rewards - both self-generated and from others)
- Ask for their cellphone numbers ahead of the session and permission to ping them (via SMS) several times a day to understand what they are doing, where they are and get ideas for how and where the behavior or product you are offering would fit into their life, or not. Now discuss those findings in the interview or group and together look for insights for solutions.
Do beginning social marketing and change agents need to first learn how to do focus groups with KAB questions before they learn to elicit metaphors, use laddering or ask 5 Whys?
Do people need to learn to drive a stick shift before switching to an automatic transmission?
Use a phonograph before an iPod?
Study phrenology before tackling neurology?
You get the idea.
De Martino, B., Kumaran, D., Seymour, B., & Dolan, R.J. (2006). Frames, biases, and rational decision-making in the human brain. Science, 313 (5787): 684-687.
Schieffer, R. (2005). Ten key customer insights: unlocking the mind of the market. Mason, OH: South-Western Cengage Learning.
Zaltman, G. (2003). How customers think: essential insights into the mind of the market. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
Zaltman, G. & Zaltman, L. (2008). Marketing metaphoria: what deep metaphors reveal about the mind of consumers. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.
Image from The Threshold at Aerophant