Consumer research is often de-prioritized or put off because it's not considered as valuable as big data, not able to uncover possibilities for innovation, and not seen as appropriately actionable. These claims aren't accurate, and to the extent that they're experienced, the culprit is bad research execution, not research itself. Consumer insights provides essential information for business strategy. Seek it out.
Ask me to tell you my deepest, darkest secret. Go ahead. Ask.
If you came right out and said, “Hey Nika, what’s your deepest, darkest secret?” I guarantee you won’t get an answer. I might tell you a shallow, light story that only passes as a secret. Or I might change the subject. But face it, I don’t know you that well.
There is a way to get me to spill the beans, though. It involves sophisticated communication skills and signaling to me (not telling me) that I’m in a safe place. But you won’t pound down my door with a hammer. And I’m pretty sure I’m not unique in this way.
Too often, I hear people comment about the weaknesses of consumer research, and the claims narrow in on one singular argument: you can’t know what consumers want or need by coming right out and asking them.
I only partly agree. It depends on how you ask.
Here are three major critiques of consumer research, along with why I disagree with them.
1. Consumers can’t tell you what you don’t already know. You can observe their behavior on your website and crunch your big data. You don’t need to ask them what they want when you’ve already been observing them. Besides, what people say they want doesn’t match up with what they do, and isn’t what they do what really matters?
Not really. Decision Science will tell you that people often don’t do what they really want to do. Their decisions are constrained by the situations they’re in, and sometimes those situations involve limited options or lousy trade-offs. Consumers often select a default choice because what they really want is missing out there. You could just be the worst of a set of bad choices. You won’t know if you don’t ask.
But what about empathy, you might ask? You’re a person… consumers are people… can’t you put yourself in their shoes and imagine what they need?
Empathy isn’t ESP. You can imagine what consumers want, but you can’t be sure unless you hear it from them. Do you really want to place business bets on what your gut tells you?
I vote for evidence. If anything, evidence is easier to explain to investors, C-level executives, and shareholders.
2. Consumers can’t imagine the possibilities. Most of the time, this is probably right: consumers couldn’t have imagined the iPod. But imagining the possibilities isn’t their job. It’s your job. Asking consumers what they want, or what you should create, is only going to get you so far. You can’t just come right out and ask them what the future should hold.
Good researchers will know what inquiries get at the answers you need to innovate. They’ll focus on consumers’ lives and experiences – more broadly than as they pertain to your product or service. They’ll get inside consumers’ heads to explore their hopes and dreams. And they’ll do it by opening the door gently, not pounding it down. Research participants can share surprisingly personal experiences if you know how to ask the right questions.
If you expect consumers to do your innovation work for you, you’ll be disappointed. If you expect them to help you understand what they’re thinking and how they’re struggling, so that you can then imagine and create the right solutions for them, then you’re using consumer research well. And if you hire a good consumer researcher, you’ll get the insights you need.
3. You can’t action on what consumers tell you. If this is what you’re running up against, then it might be your researcher who can’t imagine the possibilities.
Consumer insights is part data collection and part creative thinking. A good researcher will not just know what they learned from your study; they’ll know how it applies to product innovation, brand strategy, content marketing, social media marketing, SEO and SEM, and even the internal politics of your organization. They’ll make it their job to know as much as they can about your business, business in general, and the world in general so they can put your data into context and imagine the actionability.
You can 100% action on what consumers tell you. You just need a researcher who asks themselves the right questions to get to the right answers.
Bottom line: making good business decisions requires having the right information. Consumer research is one tool for making sure you have the right information.
Sure, sometimes research teaches you nothing new, but this in itself is valuable to know. It means you’ve left no stone unturned and are in good shape to make confident choices.
Don’t de-prioritize consumer insights. There is no real substitute. Just make sure you get the right insights expert to help you. If research isn’t working, it’s not because research itself doesn’t work.