News from the QRCA-AQR Conference in Barcelona - Day I & II - Bridges to Excellence

Connecting with the Consumer 2.0
Jose Antonio Rodriguez, Director of Marketing and Communication at Barcelona University

The keynote speaker was Jose Antonio Rodriguez, Director of Marketing and Communication at Barcelona University. He explored the, by now, fairly well trodden landscape of Web 2.0 and its implications for research in order to fully keep up with what he called the ‘2.0 World’.

The main point he developed for researchers was that the multiple identities the virtual world allows means that conventional personality segmentation is a less realistic and useful way of describing people.

It also means that behavioural analysis is not only preferable, but essential. What people do is at least measurable: who they are is increasingly elusive.

But as with so many analyses of the impact of Web 2.0, there is the assumption that people will carry their behaviour with them as they grow older; for instance, blogging is now almost wholly concentrated in the 20–30 year old age group.

Playing with identities, made more tangible in the digital landscape, has always been a distinctive characteristic of young people; there are now just more ways to express and demonstrate them. So, rather like a great deal of youthful behaviour, people will simply outgrow it.

Nevertheless, the deeper point is that companies and researchers need to develop more inventive methodologies to understand what is happening in a world of constant interaction, feedback and sharing.

The Jetsons meet the Flintstones – anthropology and technology
Esther Berrozpe, Whirlpool Group, Paola Fael and Giuseppe Tonolini, Research Plus (Italy)

Cultural anthropology and ethnography figured extensively in many of the papers today. In recent years, ethnographic techniques have been increasingly incorporated into many different kinds of research projects with great success and usefulness.

A particularly impressive example came from this presentation describing the use of a multi-country panel over a two/three month period by Whirlpool developing new technologically enhanced appliances.

New technology is known to be challenging to research: consumers are unreliable judges of how it will be used and success often requires collective acceptance rather than merely individual purchase.

A point not made by the presenters, but nevertheless important, is that technology companies are typically run by engineers with limited knowledge or respect for marketing and with a tendency to be arrogant in their assumptions.

Not so Whirlpool, which has embraced an ethnographic approach in the development of its appliances. The subject being described was ovens, and the need to understand the cultural rituals associated with cooking.

Countries such as France and Italy, with rich cuisine cultures, are ideally suited to this kind of model, which takes as its underlying hypothesis that new technology in the field of cooking appliances must not violate established food preparation rituals.

Thus an oven that cooks something quickly (like a microwave) needs either to be relegated to non-cooking tasks (heating, boiling water, etc) or the efficiencies must be made in other areas – like being able to cook several things at the same time. Most interesting however, was what they called an ‘imaginary diary’.

Having had the concept of the new oven (or whatever technology is being researched) introduced to them, respondents, kept two kinds of diaries: one that describes the food preparation task actually being conducted, and the other, how that task is imagined to be different using the new product.

This has a pseudo-reality to it missing in conventional research, and allows for analysis, diagnosing benefits, exaggerated expectations over time and with different tasks.

Redefining brand essence
Chris Barnham, Chris Barnham Research and Strategy

Chris began with the observation that the subject evoked two general responses these days – boredom (we’ve been talking about this for too long with the inevitable consequence of it becoming calcified into onions and pyramids); and aggression (creative people finding it limiting and bureaucratic).

His argument was that not only is the conventional idea of brand essence as a static distillation independent of context wrong, but it lacks the kind of utility required to manage brands dynamically.

The crux of his argument distinguished between the idea of the brand as having a single essence and the idea of a brand being a collection of essences that are fluid, dynamic, flexible and responsive to people, place, context.

He traced this view of reality back to pre-modern philosophy, a pedigree that while intellectually interesting, isn’t strictly necessary.

Although his preferred phrase ‘propositional hierarchy’ – referring to the fact that a brand consists of a number of images/ideas/beliefs that can be manipulated according to audience and context – doesn’t flow off the tongue, and tends to disguise a quite straightforward idea, the attack is fresh and creative.

Once liberated from the obsession with the notion of a single essence, the opportunities of reinforcing good aspects and compensating for bad one become clearer.

Increasing the impact of Ariel’s advertising
Janet May, P&G, and Siamack Salari, Everyday Lives

These two discussed what ethnography can reveal about the moments, moods and locations when consumers are most responsive to communication about washing powders. This was a dream assignment from P&G, according to Salari.

Although the general question about how people consume media has been around for decades, only recently has anyone seriously tried to answer it using a research methodology.

The IPA Touchpoints survey using diaries provides a rich tapestry of quantified data on where different media are consumed, but only with some kind of ethnographic observation can one understand the more complex emotional moods that accompany media consumption.

Although samples are notoriously small in any kind of ethnographic research, this is more than compensated for by the creativity of the output – the voices of women talking about what they are doing, when, and what it means, is a vivid source of insight and creative stimulation.

An excellent example of creative media thinking in laundry products is summed up by the image of a woman on her balcony hanging out clothes, looking down at the street as she does so and seeing washing powder advertising on the roofs of buses.

Semioscreen: a new, powerful analytical cocktail
Joseph Sassoon, Alphabet (Italy)

Storytelling is another theme that is gaining currency these days, and Joseph Sassoon described how the classic French semiotic models lack the subtlety and flexibility required to be useful in communication analysis. His technique blends the rigour of the French approach with the narrative skills of Hollywood.

While it seems unlikely that advertising creative people will spend much time delving into the classic works of anthropology (although George Lucas is known to be a follower of Joseph Campbell, a guru on the subject of myth and legend), a study of Hollywood described in the many books written about script writing would sharpen up the narrative power of a lot of contemporary advertising.

The point Sassoon made was that despite the overwhelmingly visual nature of advertising these days, the power of a good story is timeless, and universal and no one does this better than Hollywood.

When traditional models don’t work: slippage, constructionism and proxy ethnography
Dana Barach, Janssen LP, and Kendall Gray, Kendall Gray Consulting,

This presentation took on perhaps the most bizarre example of the boundary pushing in methodology characteristic of today’s Research 2.0.

It described an experiment called ‘Proxy Ethnography’, which involved trying to understand a dilemma in the marketing of an anti-psychotic drug.

The dilemma was that doctors said they recommended it but patients wouldn’t take it, while patients said that doctors didn’t recommend it. Standard questioning procedures clearly didn’t work, and filming over time was too expensive.

So the authors (client and researcher) devised a technique which involved role playing with the client – a woman – playing the role of a psychotic patient, with the interaction observed to understand exactly what doctors were doing.

Although the presenters stoutly defended their actions on the basis of success in unravelling this dilemma and the actionable marketing results produced, there was a feeling in the audience that an ethical line had been crossed.

This is an example, albeit an extreme one, of what is by and large a healthy and necessary development in market research – i.e. a much more inventive, more collaborative, more interactive relationship between researcher and subject. It does, however, raise issues of exploitation and questionable ethical practices if uncontrolled.

The Focus Turns to Groups

The morning session showcased qualitative researchers at their best – imaginative, intellectual (Wittgenstein, Marx, Aristotle, Freud, Jung were quoted), occasionally profound, articulate and extremely witty. The subject of their collective concern was the current status of qualitative research, which always brings out much heartfelt soul-searching and breast-beating.

The theme that got the presenters going was the role, function, use and misuse of the key tool in the traditional qualitative researcher’s armoury - the ubiquitous focus group. And that was precisely the point: is it just too ubiquitous these days? Has it lost all credibility from the overuse by dodgy practitioners, or worse, non-practitioners? Can/should all problems be solved by focus groups? What about all the other methodologies? Indeed, what actually is a focus group?

In Defence of Focus Groups
Peter Cooper and Simon Patterson, Cram International

Peter Cooper and Simon Patterson of Cram kicked the session off with a splendid pastiche: the focus group on trial. For the prosecution, the arguments were lethal: focus groups are accused of being unreliable, outdated, artificial with misguided moderators - at best, naïve reportage.

In defence, however, Peter rose to elegiac heights with a paean to the concept of the ‘group’ as fundamental to knowledge-sharing through the ages, from ancients sitting around camp fires to consumers clustered in viewing centres. It may often be misused and abused, devalued and subverted, but it is the foundation of how we understand each other: where motives are revealed, stories shared, human dynamics played out.

What is required is a wider repertoire of different types of groups branded as such, e.g. extended creativity groups, friendship groups and so forth, but always recognising the essential importance and power of the dynamic interaction of several people engaged in community, no matter how temporary or how seemingly trivial.

The Focus Group is Dead: Long Live the Focus Group
Caroline Hayter Whitehall, Acacia Avenue and Chris Forrest, the Nursery (UK)

This was another double-act, opened by Carolyn Hayter questioning why the 8-person group is the norm. She could find no evidence of why 8 is the magic number (does it really matter?) and went on to argue for a much looser approach to qualitative methodology, a more careful look at what the problem required and, echoing Cooper and Patterson, argued for a much wider range or possibilities and more imaginative approaches.

Chris Forrest then supplied further analysis of what is wrong with focus groups as currently practiced, and in the process exposed the dirty secret of the viewing facilities: the tedium on the part of the viewers, the restlessness, the curled sandwiches, the excess boozing, the mockery, the ‘black-berried findings, the essential de-humanising of the whole experience.

He also named false oppositions – the equation of novel techniques with more insights – and the fashionable notion of herds and co-creation as attacks on the basic idea of the focus group. And finally, he criticised the so-called Research 2.0 techniques (‘toys for boys’) as an obsession with technology with little or no theoretical under-pinning, While acknowledging they were here to stay, Chris argued for them to be used more sparingly and integrated into more conventional methodologies.

Pimp My Qual
Andy Baxter, Spinach Ltd (UK)

Andy Baxter weighed in with a lurid title perfectly chosen for a stimulating and articulate airing of his concerns: specifically, in the search for ever more innovative techniques for solving clients’ problems, has qualitative research sold its soul?

He opened up a Pandora’s Box of anxieties, mainly centred on what he described as ‘ethics creep.’ Is this inevitable with the use of ethnography and psycho-analytically derived techniques? Not just the amateurish use of these techniques in non-professional hands, but their essential dishonesty.

Are researchers crossing boundaries in their enthusiasm for getting ‘close’ to consumers by moving into consumers’ lives sometimes under false pretences; are they exploiting vulnerabilities, betraying trust with what are at worse bald lies or at the very least devious trickery?

From another angle, is the work that qualitative researchers are doing no more than shallow snake oil salesmanship? Is the relationship between researcher and respondent simply too opportunistic to feel comfortable with? These are deep waters though, and require much more discussion than the session allowed for. Certainly the question of ethics deserves a more thorough airing at a later date.

Are We Confusing New Qual ‘Data’ Sources with Analysis?
Rosie Campbell, Director, Campbell Keegan Ltd

Another sparkling performance was turned in by Rosie Campbell who argued for a much more thoughtful approach to language. Reminding us of the power of language in poetry – beautifully chosen extracts from Eliot, Keats and Dylan – she developed her thesis deftly and imaginatively: that language is the root of analysis and that the sloppy syntax, tired clichés and banalities so often read in reports and heard in de-briefs signalled lack of analytical rigour rather than simply lazy articulation. The words ARE the findings: language tells us how people think; it is the stuff of meaning.

She criticised the ludicrous time constraints that mitigate against the ability to turn a microscope on the precise words people use to describe their experiences. Who is to blame? Researchers had to bear some responsibility, colluding in this ‘slippage’ by agreeing to absurd timescales which inevitably miss the natural gifts for expression (echoing neuro-psychologist Steven Pinker’s view that the brain as hard wired for metaphor).

She urged more attention to textual analysis and narrative analysis – what story is being told – and used her experience with women talking about their bodies for Weight Watchers as vivid examples of how careful attention to unpacking the colourful metaphors used by ordinary respondents led to more successful ways of communicating.

Connecting Real and Virtual Worlds: Is Qualitative Research Standing Still
Sarah Davies, Henley Centre Headlight Vision (UK)

The techies got their revenge in this presentation of the potential uses of new online Research 2.0 techniques. Sarah argued that for a generation brought up ‘online’, the virtual world is a reality that naturally complements the real world and that the conventional real world qualitative techniques risk being left behind unless virtual activities are accessed and incorporated into understanding of what people do and why they do it.

The scale of blog writing and social networking is huge and growing (assumed, perhaps unrealistically by people on this side of the argument, to be linear and endless). Nevertheless, the point is that if people have repertoire lives (or repertoire identities), a repertoire of techniques is required to access them and incorporate learning from the virtual world into the real world.

At this stage in development, the view seems to be that it doesn’t really matter how you connect to people, how you engage with them, how you gather data, or indeed, how you analyse it (compared to the established codes and practices of market research in the real world). The most important point is to explore what interests and excites people and thus the philosophy is of continuous contact and continuous learning rather than discrete studies.

Immediacy, self-generated content and access to difficult to reach audiences are justification in themselves. But clients want and need to know how to use this new world to promote their brands. Without an understanding of how consumers are using the world of web 2.0, things can go badly wrong, as illustrated by Wal-marts failed foray into social networking.

Conversely, Google has understood the power of putting consumers in the driving seat and letting them co-create with their viral e mail compaign. So, the simple message is: the research industry needs to understand the web 2.0 world or risk getting left behind.

Focus Groups on Second Life
Jack Tatar GEM Research Solutions USA

Tar described the work of the iAskCenter in the US which is celebrating its second year of conducting qualitative research on Second Life – which spans research on Second Life residents as well as real life respondents who become part of a virtual world for research purposes.

The Center allows respondents who are physically located around the word to interact in an environment that mirrors a real life focus group facility – a facility technically outfitted to allow for business meetings, training etc, as well as research. He described a case study from a client who wanted to develop a line of ‘Restaurants of the Future’ and essentially wanted an international ‘brainstorming session’ to develop concepts.

This was convened using avatars at the Center who discussed the concept and produced a long list of ideas. These concepts were subsequently refined and researched in a more conventional manner in real life groups in key cities.

Second Life Groups won’t replace conventional research but they extend online bulletin boards and he gave evidence of the enthusiasm with which clients agreed them. Because the Avatar requires more interaction, it forces more engagement and creates a dynamism lacking in on-line chat/bulletin boards.

The Verdict:
Over-all the conference delivered the title: many bridges and much excellence.

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