When Research Isn’t for the Pros, and DIY has a Place

Over the years, I’ve had many clients bring me research needs and objectives that are truly thorny challenges, requiring an experienced hand. 

And… I’ve also had requests for research bordering on the ridiculously simple, such as requests to understand mostly observable behavior or to ask consumers straightforward questions with quickly-explainable rationale. My next research fallacy in the series:

RESEARCH FALLACY 2: Research is always a dedicated project for full-time research pros

I realize that I’m talking myself out of some jobs here (which is a likely a rare move for a LinkedIn article). And certainly, when a time-crunch is on, a researcher might be brought in to do an extremely simple task to keep on-schedule for a barn-burner of a project. 

But in many cases, I’ve run across mindset that research is a formal thing done only through formal engagements, no matter the size or scope. Despite the fact that some research questions are highly-observable behavioral questions, or questions for which a few responses will do the trick to answer a quandary, and for these times— there’s a lot of value in do-it-yourself (DIY) research. 

If you think about it, marketers and advertisers have a rare advantage over many other industries— we share spaces with consumers everyday, and people are typically interacting with our products and services within our own observable world. With the exception of a few ultra-exclusive categories, we can access our people in the spaces we all inhabit.

Marketers and advertisers are often sitting at their desks speculating about how people are thinking when standing in front of a grocery shelf, or at a promotional display in a retail store, or when seeing a mobile ad on their phone during a commute. Each of these scenarios isn’t a theoretical one, but things happening right now— and each offers an opportunity to get away from that desk, and to observe or connect with a consumer first-hand to better understand the way they think. 

An example: I once was approached about a project for a rice brand. They were so keen to do formal research that they were asking for a huge engagement, including dozens of lengthy (1.5-hour) shop-alongs and follow-up interviews with the consumers— but for the straightforward issues they wanted learning on, this like wearing a suit to a diner— total overkill.

What did they want to know? It all came down to in-aisle decisions. How did people shop for rice in the aisle? What did they consider? What brands did they think about? What types of rice did they mull over, for what occasions? And while that seemed like a multitude of questions, all worthy of answers, most of those answers were likely obtainable via observation and a small handful of direct questions. 

I told them they might not really need their massive research plan, and suggested they scale back to a simple in-aisle intercept methodology instead, one they could run themselves and replicate whenever they wanted. 

Here’s some things you’ll need for doing ‘DIY’ observational and intercept research— 

  • 5 open-ended questions— narrow to 5 questions about the situation at-hand
  • A handful of gift cards— Amazon or other ‘everything’ stores are a good option
  • A clipboard and pen or tablet device— for you to write notes

That’s it. Well, that and a little curiosity-fueled bravery— full disclosure, it’s never all fun-and-games when approaching strangers; people refuse, the brush-offs can be dismissive— but remember: even if you talk to 1-2 people for 10 minutes, that’s better than sitting at your desk writing up a paragraph about how people feel (when you could just ask them). 

The rice client took the suggestion, and *Spoiler Alert*— as you might have guessed, rice isn’t a deeply-considered decision. At ALL. Doing 90-minute shop-alongs with consumers would have been excruciatingly fruitless— they observed that most people bought on auto-pilot, quickly sweeping the bagged rice into the cart.

When they intercepted people (and offered them gift cards on-the-spot to answer 5 questions), they found out that people tended to buy the brand that was in their household growing up, and the names of brands often escaped them— let alone any attributes about them. People in the aisle were exhibiting a simple behavior they could easily explain: they were identifying packs by look and color, not even registering the brand name. And nobody was too worried about the style of their rice unless a recipe called for a specific kind. 

This rice client was able to achieve answers to most of their questions for the cost of $300 and a few hours’ time. Not a bad return on the investment! 

One last “hot tip” about creating those 5 questions for intercepts — make them 1. open-ended (a respondent can’t answer with a “yes” or “no” alone), and don’t forget to make them 2. neutral (neutrality seems obvious, but is a bit harder for people close to their brands and businesses). Read your questions again: and strip out your opinion, your organization’s opinion, or any modifiers (e.g. adjectives) that might tip a hand towards indicating your opinion. 

Right now (OK, probably minus the gift cards), you have everything you need for DIY-research to dig into observation or intercepts. When it’s a question that’s 1. observable or 2. easily-explained, the world is your research space— and you’re the researcher. 

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