While the Internet and social media are a potential boon to market researchers, they've also raised concerns and ongoing debate about methodology and the ability to project results.
Now, one social media-based research firm is charging into the fray with a report that maintains that today's empowered consumers and marketers' need for faster, actionable insights requires an approach that combines the strengths of newer, "humanistic" approaches with those of traditional, experimentally-based research.
The principals of Communispace, which employs relatively small (generally 300 - 500) proprietary communities for market research clients such as* PepsiCo and GlaxoSmithKline, say that their goal is to encourage industry conversation about the "trade-offs" involved in the two approaches and how to best leverage both, given the now "blurred" boundaries between marketing and customer research.
Specifically, Manila Austin and Julie Wittes Schlack, respectively research director and SVP innovation and design for the firm, maintain that it's time to stop equating research quality with scientific "purity," and use brand-transparent community engagement to generate insights and explore nuances of consumer attitudes and preferences on an ongoing basis, while using traditional blind, episodic, experimental research designs for confirmation and testing purposes.
"Today, it is more important for research to be actionable than irrefutable," the report contends. "This means shifting our focus -- aiming not for the perfect, bias-free study, but for an approach that pragmatically applies a range of methods to generate and test hypotheses."
While some might well point out that a firm engaged in offering proprietary online community research is bound to have its own biases, in an interview with Marketing Daily, Wittes Schlack and Austin pointed out that the report includes examples and comments from consumer market researchers based on their own experiences, and stressed that Communispace is advocating achieving a pragmatic integration of approaches that reflects 21st-century realities, rather than an either/or mentality.
"Some in the market research field feel that the discipline, as critical as it is, does not get enough respect," Wittes Schlack says. "We would argue that part of the problem is a perception that market research is focused on lengthy studies that mainly confirm what's already more or less known. We need to be willing to leave our research comfort zone and move with agility between exploring and generating insights and testing and confirming these, to produce actionable information that supports specific business needs."
Among others, the report quotes Stan Sthanunathan, VP marketing strategy and insights for The Coca-Cola Company and co-chair of the Advertising Research Foundation's Online Research Quality Council, as observing that "quality is an urgent issue, but there's a more important issue to do with what needs to be done going forward, because the industry isn't keeping up with the change going on around us. People are too focused on quality, on probability and non-probability samples, on respondent engagement ... this is all about making minor changes to what we are doing now. Those are all necessary, but they're not sufficient conditions for the success of the function."
Humanistic or "consumer-focused" online/social media-driven research enables an "ongoing discovery process" that allows consumers and the brand to explore new questions and issues as they arise naturally from a conversation, the Communispace report notes. In contrast, "top-down, researcher-centric" methods are most useful for "confirming what is already known or suspected," since these methods by definition "do not expand a problem space, nor do they generate knowledge outside of the researcher's frame of reference."
While concerns about the ability to project results to a general population, and the risks of bias or "group think" in brand-transparent scenarios in which consumers interact, are understandable based on the traditional research mindset, they fail to take into account changing real-world dynamics, these researchers contend.
Given that most consumers are now online, the Internet population is rapidly becoming the general population, Wittes Schlack says, adding that the artificial environment of blind-sponsorship studies conflicts with the reality that "today's consumers do continually influence one another."
Contrary to intuitive assumptions that consumers are reluctant to be honest or critical of a brand or product idea if the sponsorship is transparent, a "natural," conversational environment that encourages consumers to be active collaborators rather than study subjects leads to greater candor as the relationship progresses, according to Austin. "When people feel involved, they feel ownership toward the brand, and they are frank because they don't want you to make mistakes" that will undermine the product or brand, she says. "Having an intimate conversation with consumers provides a more revealing, true-to-life picture."
In introducing Alli, GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare used communities to pose questions to both users and non-users of the product and learn from consumers' answers to one another and sharing of experiences with the product, according to Andrea Harkins, the company's manager of integrated insights, as quoted in the report.
"I'd like to think that we were visionary market researchers doing cutting-edge work but, honestly, I think we were just being realistic about the fact that consumers have unprecedented opportunity to influence one another online," Harkins comments. "Our goal wasn't to preempt 'group think' so much as to understand it -- to see the peer-to-peer influence process in action and learn from it."
Wittes Schlack also shares a case study not in the report: Kraft's use of consumer communities to explore "diet" product concepts. "What they learned was that people didn't want 'diet' foods -- meaning foods with artificial sweeteners and low or no fat that don't taste good -- they wanted tasty snacks and foods, but in portion-controlled packaging," she says. "That was an insight with huge implications -- Kraft 100 Calorie Packs basically created a whole new category that's since been emulated by many competitors."
Kraft also conducted traditional research to confirm the insight, but "late in the game," according to Wittes Schlack, who reports that the concept produced the highest-to-date basis score for a new food product.
Editor's note: The story was amended post-posting/-publication.