Pitfalls of Poor Research: Stimulus Edition

“Let’s get a reaction to that.” How many times have you heard that phrase uttered as the impetus for a research project? But many times when we set out to do this, we are getting just that– a reaction. We ought not confuse a reaction with an insight, but this can be an unfortunate byproduct of poor research design.

Market research fieldwork often devotes lesser time to exploring the wider world non-marketers actually live in–AKA the real world– and instead explores the narrow, insular, somewhat naval-gazing world of marketing. To be perfectly brutal, we are very often doing research about ourselves and our own jobs (more than about consumers and their lives).

Positioning statements. Mood boards. Concepts. These are not exactly a natural part of daily life, but instead are false constructions of a world consumers do not occupy. All too often consumers provide feedback on internal marketing materials that were never intended for the general public. We very often show them stimulus made up of the building blocks of marketing and ask them to improve these behind-the-scenes marketing accoutrements. We are, essentially, asking them to have an opinion on and a hand in creating something 1. they fundamentally aren’t that interested in, and 2. they would never actually see in the real world.

At it’s best, this kind of research potentially allows consumers to mitigate their distaste for a brand’s marketing, but at worst, spends time and money getting consumer feedback on things that only exist in “marketing land”– focusing on constructions made BY marketers FOR marketers that are irrelevant to anyone outside the profession.

We are forcing the way marketers organize the world onto consumers– and in so doing, how could they help but begin to frame their thinking the way we frame ours? Meanwhile, we and our clients are missing the benefits of learning about the bigger and broader picture of how consumers frame their own lives. Instead of doing research earlier in the process about the way consumers see, experience, and organize their lives– learning that could make products and services and marketing more relevant to them– it seems many companies are content with tweaking in-progress internal documents that will serve as wall decor for the cubicles of the marketing department.

One of the most insistent gripes about market research is that it lacks authenticity. The environment is so fake, the white walls and bad lighting are stark and unwelcoming, and so forth. Basically, the criticism boils down to the idea that consumers cannot possibly give authentic answers in such artificial circumstances–however, this line of thinking is rarely applied to the stimulus itself, which is often the most artificial part of the entire process. It is a wholly invented thing, a thing that consumers will never see or experience in any other setting.

What is the actual point of showing consumers something they will never see? Why are we using what little time we have with them to get their reactions to how we speak AT them, rather than listening to them? Do we know foundational things like how our consumers organize their worlds in general, or are we too busy worrying about the way our category and chosen field organize the world?

A few ways to address the pitfall of Fieldwork About “Marketingland”:

Get further upstream
Discover and listen before getting a reaction to stimulus. The goal should be to gain foundational learning as input into the development of strategy vs. feedback on strategy in-progress. Start by developing a deep contextual understanding of the people you’re trying to connect with and do this without prejudice of your brand or category.

“Real-world” stimulus
If it isn’t something they will actual see in the “real-world”, why are we getting feedback on it? There is no doubt we’ll get feedback– we’re paying them for it– but need to be more critical about what it actually means. Challenge yourself to create and present stimulus in a way that is reflective of how consumers will be actually be exposed to it in the real world. For example, if you’re getting feedback on a new product concept – visualize the pack and communicate the one or two points that you could realistically get cross in a launch ad. DON’T write a 300 word description of precisely how it meets all their needs.

Examine your ratios
How much of each recent discussion guide is exploratory versus soliciting reactions? It is qualitative, and exploratory is not just a valid goal, it’s the name of the game. Time is finite, and so more stimulus means less exploration, by nature. And can mean less time in which respondents are able to share their unfiltered and unrestricted views, not crowded out by an at-hand task.

Bring your brain
Once we have the right grounding, we need to apply our OWN brains to taking these insights and turning them into sound strategies, and eventually into end materials. If the insights are gathered in a more foundational way, they are more sound and solid– and thereby, there is no need to continually do more research for ever-more reactions, spending time and money on “check-ins” on at different stages of the development of internal documents.

We are not suggesting that stimulus serves no purpose or should be eliminated–it can be effective, but we believe it should be deployed with much more consideration than it is currently given. Exposing the standard handful of “marketing land” internal documents just doesn’t qualify as insightful, and often is used at the expense of the real insight that could be gained in more foundational research.

So let’s drop “getting a reaction” from our research vocabulary, and more insightful research will follow.


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