Dishing: Look Forward to Research

Why do we do research in media? That's what I asked a group of freshly minted media trainees at a seminar last year. Seemed a simple enough question -- until I heard the range of answers that came back at me. "To prove something worked." "To answer a question." "To see if your investment was worth it." "To cover your butt." "To learn something you don't know."

All of them were valid answers -- and accurate reflections of the reasons our industry annually spends millions, even billions, on both syndicated and proprietary research. In truth, the "right answer" to that question depends on which direction we're looking when we choose to do research.

When we do research that looks backward, we're typically trying to assess something we already did, usually to prove it worked, or -- heaven forbid -- find out why it didn't. This type of research often has an agenda, which is to validate (or excuse) past actions, so that the entire design of the studies can too often "lead the witness" to the desired outcome. This can particularly be the case when the research is underwritten by the media vendors who executed the program of interest.

In contrast, if we turn 180 degrees and look forward, the answer to "Why do research in media?" completely changes. It becomes something like: to enable us to make better decisions that lead to better results in the marketplace. This kind of research has one singular agenda: to come as close to revealing the consumer reality as is humanly possible.

This is what we call strategic research. It's a discipline that seeks to address an issue in a manner that yields the most true-to-life, unbiased perspective possible, and as such adheres to a strict set of rules of engagement to accomplish its truth-seeking goal. Here are four important aspects of strategic research:

>> It goes beyond simply answering who, how many, and how much to consider questions like why, how, under what circumstances, and to what benefit to my brand. This requires the artful application and amalgamation of both qualitative and quantitative techniques to yield an uncommon level of understanding.

>>It is obsessed with sampling the real audience relevant to the question in the most valid way possible. As a result, it knows the pros and cons of all available methodologies in reaching and engaging the honest participation of the target of interest in a representative manner.

>>It strives to go deep and wide, and it solicits in advance the input of key constituencies to make certain their core areas of interest are addressed. And it tries to cover the issues across, up and down, and diagonally to ensure a 360-degree perspective. Since this kind of research has no prior opinion regarding what the learning should be, specific questions are crafted without bias in wording to ensure the respondent has no sense of what the "right answers" might be.

>> It strives to standardize questions on universal topics so that, from study to study, learning can be compared and contrasted through the development of norms or common themes. It also avoids selective perception in the analysis of results, looking across the entire database to find the "true story" in the information. No single observation is held out as "the answer." The ultimate answer lies in the whole, in the common themes, and not the individual parts. So as an industry, how do we adopt a more "strategic" approach to research?

First, we need to dedicate ourselves to being experts in consumer research methodologies, and to push vendors to adopt legitimate practices that have validity and reliability to research the issue at hand.

Second, we need to grasp how to achieve the most representative sample possible, and to recognize the dangers of "sample bias." I'm amazed how many research suppliers tell us that nobody but our company ever asks about sampling. If your sample stinks, so will your data.

Finally and most important, researchers and those who commission us must have a passionate commitment to conducting research that seeks the truth, not answers that will make us look smart and feel smug about things we've done in the past. Because, as we learned when we were kids, sooner or later the truth's gonna come out. And it's better coming from us than somebody else. So point your research compasses straight ahead, and drive toward better answers for better decisions.

Jana O'Brien is executive vice president, chief research officer at GM Planworks. (jana.o'

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