"Research is not about where you get things from, but where you bring them"

This week, the MRS organized their festivals of ideas, the annual congress 2012. Together with Simon McDonald, I was invited to present our paper on the ‘rules of engagement’ so I headed off to London. Our piece existed out of a large netnography study on Youtube, Facebook & Twitter where we investigated across brands and sector if we could detect any rules or laws on what is activating consumers to talk on social media about brands. In total we detected 17 rules that can help you to set up a conversation management strategy. Check out the slidedeck below:

Understanding the irrational consumer

But of course there was also the content of the other speakers. For me there were two central themes that formed a red thread thorough the conference. A lot of speakers came with solutions in order to grasp the irrational, more emotional consumer. We saw again a lot of techniques who embraced neuroscientific approach to really get into customers minds.  Since I have a background in neuropsychology, I was happy to observe the neuromania has decreased in the industry: most speakers agreed that neurotechniques are best applied in co-occurrence with other methodologies. But as always, there is already a new kid on the block: behavioral economics, a topic that was touched upon in almost all sessions. Behavioural economics challenges the assumption that we are rational and informed consumers. The way in which we think is not always rational. As I recall from my cognitive psychology courses, our decision making is determined by two processes: one reflective and rational route which is involved when we are really ‘thinking’. Using this smart route involves a lot from our brain: it requires attention, we rely on stored knowledge and we make a sort of ‘conscious’ choice. Because our life is full of decisions and we would be paralyzed if we had to actively ‘think’ about every step we take, our brain has also developed an automatic route which makes very quick effortless decisions. Based on past behavior and the (emotional) evaluation of past actions, our brain has developed routines and heuristics. Behavioral economics is trying to detect the patterns of our automated system. It needs little explanation to comprehend that understanding this automated system has huge potential to influence consumer behavior and hence the popularity of behavioral economics; So how can behavioural economics be applied in market research?

Cleaning kitchens

Well, as was pointed out for example in the workshop organized by Ray poynter, there is definitely an opportunity in quantitative surveys where we can experimentally test how people react on different choices by changing the way in which we ask questions. The goal of those types of experiment is not to know the actual answer but to see if one can mimic and predict how the automated system will react.
I liked also the more qualitative approach from Stephen Phillips form Spring Research where they observed how to make cleaning  more fun and engaging. They asked people to clean a kitchen under different circumstances (e.g. time pressure, while playing music, by giving a reward). By looking how people are reacting in different contexts they experimentally determined what context was most effective. The challenge for both approaches in my opinion is that you have to know upfront what brain heuristic you want to test in order to design your research properly. For example in the case of cleaning kitchens you need to know upfront that time pressure, music, rewards etc. can be important; It see few possibilities to find new insights on how we function as consumers. The second large route towards behavioral economics is to stimulate consumers to not use their rational system in research but to answer more in an automated matter. Gamification is often seen here as the holy grail. I must say that the neuropsychologist inside me is reacting critical to these kind of approach. I can see that some games stimulate people to think less but I believe that a very careful design of the right game is required to really activate our automated system and so far for me this has been insufficiently proven. My conclusion on the whole behavioral economics paradigm is that is definitely important but most likely we are definitely not there yet.

Outside the comfort zone

When it comes to using games I must say that I preferred the approach of John Puleston from GMI declaring that games empower consumers to be more creative. And this brings me to the second important theme of the conference which I can best summarize as impactful research. Creating an impact by directly asking our research participants to help companies with a certain problem instead of trying to get the same answer indirectly via a 25 minute questionnaire (John Puleston). And of course by being a change agent at the client! As Magnus lindkvist explained during his marvelous speech:

“Research is not about where you get things from, but where you bring them.”

He believed that we should call ourselves CIMO, chief imaginary officers creating micro futures for our clients. I heard also more often than before people that referred to the importance of workshops to bring consumer immersion;  It was a bit surprised to learn that bringing change for client was for both Google as Met office doing the research themselves. I strongly belief that research agencies should do more than organize the research but taking the words from again Magnus Lindkvist into account, I can understand the value. Lindkvist argued that we need to make our clients feel uncomfortable because this is the motor to change.

Bring more positive disruption!

Doing the research yourself can exactly be the mean you need to take people out of their comfort zone! But our toolbox to bring positive disruption should be bigger! Behavioral economics can help us to better understand the consumer’s mind but the real challenges lays in changing our client minds and actions!

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