When big data came on the scene a few years ago there was a lot of hand wringing in the market research industry about what the future was going to look like if all online consumer data was going to be available for marketers to analyze and exploit. In-person qualitative research, with its old-school approach and methodology, seemed to be a good candidate for extinction in an age of pixels and clicks. Why would marketers want to talk to consumers if they could see their every purchase and eavesdrop on their online conversations? Wouldn’t consumers reveal their likes, dislikes and motivations for all to see and marketers to exploit?
Now, in mid-2016, we have a pretty good sense of how things are shaking out. While it’s true that we share quite a lot about ourselves online, it’s not always the type of information that marketers can use. While Amazon, Google, and Spotify do indeed know a lot about our purchase behaviors, browsing habits and music preferences they don’t know why we bought something, looked something up or chose a certain song to listen to. All the information Amazon, Google and Spotify work with was created after we’ve searched for or clicked on something. They have a limited view, however, as to why we went to their sites in the first place. Without the ‘why’ marketers are left guessing as to how to incite future purchases or gauge interest in future products.
The ‘why’ was supposed to come from the social listening side of the equation. Facebook, Twitter, et al were going to tell us what motivated people to do what they do. While they do uncover interesting insights there’s something coloring many of those findings - social acceptance and vanity. A significant predictor of whether an online conversation approving of or disproving of a product or service is often-times the content of the first comment in the string. Subsequent respondents then echo the initial sentiment to gain social acceptance.
Additionally, the comments and images we post online for all to see are not necessarily reflective of our real selves. If they were, a large proportion of us would be walking around staring into mirrors, making duck lips and tilting our heads just so. Our ‘better’ online selves are happier, enjoy life more and have more ‘friends’ than our offline selves. The problem for marketers is that in 2016 it’s still the offline self that spends money on products and services. Amazon can set their algorithms in motion once we’ve clicked on something or made a purchase but until we do they’re clueless as to what to say to us.
While everyone was distracted by their glowing screens something interesting has been happening in market research - old school qualitative research has been making a comeback. After a lull in qualitative research which occurred while consumer insights teams absorbed the new tools they had at their disposal and figured out what they could and could not do, we’re experiencing a resurgence of interest in ethnographies, focus groups, shop-alongs and IDI’s. In a nod to the new online world, some of it is happening online but a lot of it is reverting to face-to-face methodologies.
We recently conducted a series of focus groups among individuals without health insurance. Not having health insurance is not something people brag about on Facebook. In fact, one might get the impression from online posts that Americans are perpetually smiling, spend most of their time on vacation and are ‘living the dream’. Listening to group members describe their struggles with health insurance access, fear of financial catastrophe and concerns about their and their family’s health, one realizes that this type of conversation can only be had in-person. Several group participants hugged the moderator on the way out and thanked him for allowing them to share their feelings on the topic. The moderator had done little more than listen attentively and probe for more information but an intimacy was achieved in those groups that felt intensely human.
Of course, not all focus groups revolve around such weighty topics but a good moderator can help people uncover the inner motivations for their preferences. An online post can tell us “Mustangs are cool!” but it doesn’t usually reveal that “I want a Mustang but work in a law firm where most people drive Audi’s and BMW’s so I’m kind of embarrassed by wanting one.” Further probing might lead an ad agency to have an ah-ha! moment that could lead to an ad campaign that drives buyers to showrooms. Knowing that someone clicked on a picture of a Mustang is interesting but will only get you so far in developing resonant marketing messages. As long as marketers are selling products and services to human beings there will be a need to understand them on an emotional level and thus a need for qualitative research moderated by humans.