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Re-inventing the researcher

Objectivity… It's a noun that means "judgement based on observable phenomena and not influenced by emotions or personal prejudices"; It's the first thing we are taught as we turn up to our first market research job, all wet behind the ears; It's the human condition's main mechanism for deciphering the truth. Lately, however, I've been questioning whether we, as an industry, might have forgotten the true meaning of the word.

It feels like, over the years, objectivity has started to shape-shift into something altogether less helpful. As though objectivity now represents keeping our distance from respondents, separating them from clients and not giving any of ourselves to the research process.

It is with this in mind that I ask: is the traditional paradigm of objectivity obstructing market research’s ability to uncover real insight and deliver business impact in a rapidly changing society and marketplace?

Recognising a new consumer reality

The world that we live in has altered significantly in the last five years, with key cultural shifts introducing a change in values which underpin a new consumer reality.

For us as researchers and the clients we advise, the manifestation of this new consumer reality is affecting the way that humans relate and communicate with each other — and the brands which they consume. Most importantly, these values are based on a level of intimacy, immersion and sharing that are seemingly incongruous with the premise of ‘objectivity’ in a Market Research context.

‘Objectivity’ promotes distance and keeping our ideas and opinions to ourselves for fear of skewing results, however the following cultural shifts suggest we should in fact be giving more of ourselves away and closing the ‘researcher’/ ‘respondent’ gap as a means of getting more out of the people we are researching.

Firstly, more and more of the things we consume are rooted in the shared economy (if looking for examples, just think AirBnB, Uber, GoCarShare, TaskRabbit — the list goes on) which is based on trust and the pooling of skills and resources. In relationships it is becoming normal to take, on the proviso you give something back.

Secondly, the millennial mindset — which demands two-way meaningful exchange and experience over possession — is managing to trickle down to all generations. Formal boundaries and hierarchies across all types of relationships are becoming a thing of the past. This means there is a greater fluidity and flexibility in the way we interact with the people we come into contact with.

Thirdly, the Psychology of Belonging is becoming integral to the way we communicate. The hashtag (which unites us through thought and opinion), social media ‘followings’ and ‘likes’ all strengthen the perspective that it is good to feel part of something bigger than yourself. It is no longer enough to have individual or private dialogue; conversations must contribute to a bigger story.

Lastly, the extent to which digital is part of our lives means — whether we like it or not — that we are becoming ‘digital natives’. It is being instilled in us that everything is immediate, that we can reach far beyond our physical geography and that we can project a curated image of ourselves. As a consequence, this means we are no longer restricted by traditional rules of engagement.

Witnessing a new client reality

In parallel to this change in consumer values, there has been a shift in what clients are expecting from market research.

Firstly, and least surprisingly, there is an increasing expectation that projects are delivered quicker and in a more costeffective manner. For researchers, this means that traditional techniques and reporting methods must adjust to the new reality.

Secondly, in a qualitative context, there is a move towards quality over quantity when it comes to respondents. It is becoming more useful to tap into ‘Super Users’ who enable them to dig deeper into more future-focused opinion about their brand or products.

Thirdly, clients recognise the developments in consumer values as previously outlined which point towards a more open and two-way dialogue between brand and consumer. As a result they want to get closer to their consumers and experience first-hand what it is like to be them.

Smashing the one-way mirror

It is not enough for us to just observe these changes to both consumer and client reality, we need to appreciate they create a whole new paradigm for the way that we should — and can — tap into the consumer psyche.

As an industry we need to question the relevance, efficacy and efficiency of standard market research approaches and the role of ‘objectivity’. We need to ask if protecting a researcher’s objectivity at all costs for fear of influencing reactions or results is the best idea? And, going forward, will our ‘respondents’ let us? I would argue no, we shouldn’t protect ‘objectivity’ and yes, our ‘respondents’ will let us. And there are three key ways we can do this.

#1 Respondent reimagined
This isn’t about the semantic conversation surrounding ‘participants’ vs. ‘respondents’, the former still suggesting distance between them and the researcher. Instead, this is about letting respondents ‘in on it’ by allowing them to act as informed ‘agents’ as opposed to passive ‘voices’ helping us in a more explicit way to explore and evaluate the real matter at hand. We can create ‘clubs’ that are fully branded with membership material, twitter handles and portals that make them feel part of something. We can ask them to infiltrate their individual subcultures and ‘report back’ giving them a sense of a mission and at the same time allowing us to reach people and insight we might otherwise struggle to. Lastly, we can get to know them and give them a sense of who we are. Like any friendship, this creates empathy and encourages honesty and engagement.

#2 Client collaborators
While reported insight is helpful and necessary — it’s consolidated and the nuggets have been drawn out and well packaged — tighter timeframes and the need to ‘get closer’ to their customers means clients need to play a bigger and more collaborative role in the research process. Ultimately, insight is much more meaningful if they have been involved in the process. And we mean really been involved in the process. Yes, one- or twoday ethnos. Yes, ‘mirror free’ workshops. Yes, long-term advisory boards. But more than this, pairing clients with consumers across multiple touchpoints and once again encouraging a relationship more akin to friendship than interested bystander.

#3 Sunday supplement reporting
Stories are best told by narrators you know. Narrators who put themselves into the story and let the reader truly feel how they felt in that situation. If this is the case, then why does the industry persist with dry and more formalised reporting styles and mediums. As researchers, we can still reveal the truth and put forward an objective view by packaging it up in a way that conveys some of our personality, wit and how it felt to be in the midst of the consumer. And why are we waiting until the debrief? In line with how we consume content in our daily lives, we can drip feed interesting and provocative bite-size insight to our clients throughout the duration of the project through secure community platforms.

Overall, there are many ways we can change our research approach to better suit this new consumer reality and moreover, use it to conduct even better and more insightful research. As an industry let’s set ourselves the challenge to #GetSubjective!

 

Rhiannon Price
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2016