Last year marked the third Prosper Riley-Smith Effectiveness Award, dedicated to an inspirational thinker and visionary within the qualitative and broader research industry. The contest’s growth — both in terms of the quality and the number of entries — has continued to exceed the judges’ expectations.

This year’s winner was Doctor Bob Cook of Firefish (maybe the AQR should rename the award the ‘Prospers’ and have a proper show complete with gongs?). His paper on insomnia summed up what the awards are really all about: innovative methodology, great case history and a clear likelihood of affecting the business results.

Closely fought race

But then there were a lot of other very good papers, too. The race was closely fought and the MORI paper by Sarah Castell and Nick Pettigrew was a close second. There were a number of factors that shaded it for Doctor Bob. Firstly, you could ‘see’ the difference the debrief made because you could actually sample it on CD-Rom. There it was, like a reality TV show: relationships, work pressure, tiredness and how really, really severe this problem is for sufferers.

Secondly the solution to the brief was innovative and yet, though not mould breaking (video diaries), showed a leap of sensitivity and an understanding of the technological age we live in and what is now possible.

Finally it was truly qualitative — almost in an old fashioned way. There were only four (!) respondents. It went extremely deep and the themes, though they would have been mentioned in a conventional group approach, might not have been given the weight of importance that the video showed clearly, like the effect on partners. This was rather telling, about how sufferers were unable to articulate to their other half that they were not 'doing it on purpose' to keep them awake (partners not really being told about the problem in detail).This was, for some, almost the worst thing about the problem.

Educational shortlist

Sarah and Nick’s paper was about researching the value of Public Sector Broadcasting for people in the face of changing delivery systems. Their approach was to conduct mini Oprah Winfrey sessions with about 20-25 people in each and introduce different scenarios with financial implications. In this way, the respondents gradually got to grips with a complex subject and the longer term issues rather than just what was O.K. for now. This was an approach which one could characterise as jury-like and appropriate to the topic, plus the need for the research to be seen to be ‘democratic’.

I would say that I learned something from nearly all the final shortlist (some ten papers-strong).Acacia Avenue’s bricolage segmentation approach for AMEX was particularly strong on how the segmentation was used to affect the marketing of the card. I particularly liked its cultural approach and use of ethnography to avoid the obvious problems of qualitative and financial research. If there was a prize for the paper ‘making business planning more effective’, this would have been the winner.

Howard Frost of Farrugia and Nolan O’Connor of Haymarket Exhibitions produced an interesting entry about researching a hybrid exhibition appealing to specific types of people where the research was conducted in the process of attending a similar event — sort of a ‘real time’ qual.

Role reversals

Jem Fawcus and Sam Buckley of Firefish had a similar approach to researching Cognac with Hip Hop fans in NYC, where the solution was to engage in ‘serious’ nights out. This case was interesting because the research approach and recruitment were almost completely intertwined with the brief in such a seamless way that you felt the respondents were interviewing the researchers to be in their ‘club’.

Miles Werrett of Northcliffe Newspapers, with a paper about an in-house team’s approach to revitalising a magazine sector, and Piyul Mukherjee and Sriram Chandrashekaran explaining how the fortunes of the Indian giant TATA were revived with students (AQR winner in Dublin) would have been close if there had been a ‘best conversion of client to research’ award. In both cases the problem of how to get research woven into the company’s fabric was graphically demonstrated.

There were two shortlisted papers focusing on food research. Bryan Urbick of the Consumer Knowledge Centre explained how his workshops were helping to ‘stretch’ the palates of children to explore potential new taste areas. The approach got down to child level by treating the kids as experts who were ‘creating’ something new themselves. We didn’t quite get to the broccoli with French fry taste, but it’s headed in the right direction. It can lay claim to the ‘optimism for the future’ award.

HJHeinz and Duckfoot reached the shortlist with an interesting paper on researching pack design for the Weight Watchers brand. By adding some cognitive psychology-based tests to conventional group discussions the research was able to identify clearly which pack performed best on brand affinity, equity and engagement.

Finally, if we had had a prize for ‘best use of ridiculously low budget’, Firefish would have romped home with its case for Yahoo-Eurobloggers. In fact, a paper like this in some ways suffers from having a low budget in that the methodology chosen seems the only possible response to the money available and the nature of the client. The inspiration for the idea came from Salam Pax (the Baghdad blogger whose courage seemed to have been inspired by the internet).This paper suggested that there is more to be done in this area.

Common theme

The common theme in all these papers was their use of approaches that would have been difficult, if not impossible, ten years ago. Equally, they conveyed a sense of greater egalitarianism between customer and client/researcher, plus a tad more feeling of ‘reality’.

Given our obsession with ‘reality’ it is tempting to ask if we are being seduced by technology to believe all we ‘see’. Personally, I don’t think so. All the kafuffle we hear everyday about ‘insight’ is, I think, because research (and ‘focus groups’ in particular) has become a way of barring insight to the people who make actions as a result of reseach. Here were a group of people dedicated to actionable qualitative research, willing to try new ways to let the action takers get direct access to gain their own ‘insight’.

O.K. But why, really, did the Nytol case study win? Well, it achieved two things that the others didn’t, or couldn’t. Firstly, it provided a physical experience for the Nytol stakeholders who would ultimately use the research — and, of course, the judges — to assess what it was all about. Firefish let us see the respondents for ourselves by providing the edited ‘highlights’ on a CD-Rom. I, personally, can still remember almost everything about this video.

Secondly, it contained a ‘category-killer’ quote from the client, Joanna Stone. ”There’s a filing cabinet full of historical research debriefs on Nytol,” she said, “but nothing compares to the depth of understanding the video diaries gave us’.

So, time to start preparing your ideas for next year. I’m thinking of whether it would be a good idea to start a TV show called ‘Who wants to be a respondent’…..