What's keeping you up at night #5 - observation, implicit, in-the-moment

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August 01, 2017

by Mat Lintern


A massive industry trend is best summed up as ‘watch don’t ask’; in part driven by the System I debate, and in part by Behavioral Economics, both casting doubt on the validity of traditional survey and qual research. We think there’s merit in these new approaches, particularly around comms development, but equally we’re keen that the baby of more ‘direct’ research isn’t thrown out with the bathwater! The right questions, asked of the right people, at the right time, and in the right way still offer up huge potential for understanding consumer decision making!

Flowing naturally out of this debate comes the whole implicit area, where a raft of different approaches, from FMRi based neuroscience at one end, to adapted Implicit Association testing at the other, are being offered-up as the solution to all research ills. As you’d expect, we’ve been investigating potential applications for some of these implicit techniques, but with a focus on the types of work MMR does most of – product and packaging development.


The right questions, asked of the right people, at the right time, and in the right way still offer up huge potential for understanding consumer decision making!


Whilst we’ve found that many of the techniques such as EEG and facial coding can provide a slightly richer picture, none of them have really (in the trials we’ve done) shifted the game-on appreciably and, by-and-large, we found ourselves making the same decisions we would have without having employed these relatively time-consuming (and hence expensive) tools. Whilst they did add an extra layer of insight, and certainly created a talking point, given what we’ve experienced to date, they’re unlikely to radically change the landscape anytime soon.

We’ve also experimented with a number of IAT and timed-response ‘implicit’ testing approaches. In the types of research MMR’s typically commissioned to conduct, some of these approaches have proven very difficult to apply in the real-world (properly anyway – note there are plenty of adapted applications doing the rounds that bear little resemblance to the scientifically proven methods they’re theoretically grounded in), and often lead to confusion for the respondents hence inherently messy, non-replicable data. Others have delivered very similar answers to more direct questioning (calling into question whether they really are accessing something ‘hidden’), or responses that are extremely difficult to interpret. Sure there could be argument for saying they’re accessing System 1 thinking, so why should it correlate with what we typically find/expect, but for every situation where we’ve been able to craft a story that we felt made sense, there’s another where we were just left scratching our heads completely, even when taking into account a wider market context!

It’s certainly not to say these can’t be useful in other areas of research, in particular brand and comms work. But, as things stand, we feel a combination of more traditional direct questions (to access information that’s readily available to a consumer, with no social benefit to hiding their true reaction, e.g. do I like this product), supported by rapid-fire indirect questioning, such as that used in Brandphonics, to assess conceptual meaning (which isn’t necessarily unknown/hidden to the respondent, just not ‘at the surface’ hence less accessible by direct questioning) provide a really rich, clear and accurate understanding of how consumers interact with most products and packaging. As these implicit methods develop we certainly won’t stop exploring potential applications, but for the time being our focus in this area is largely around two things;

  • Blending external data sources with more direct consumer responses; For many years we’ve been statistically marrying up consumer feedback with expert sensory profiling and technical data to help provide a much clearer read on why consumers favour certain products (and how to go about improving this). This is massively powerful in allowing us to go way beyond what a consumer can typically articulate – and an extension of this type of approach into other areas will become a real focus for MMR going forward
  • Even before the ‘System 1 revolution’ really kicked in, a belief that we must delve below the surface, into the pre-conscious, lay behind the development of our Brandphonics toolkit. Brandphonics is the power behind Sensory Branding.
  • This uses simple, but highly effective approaches to access what various forms of stimulus (e.g. concept, product, pack etc) actually mean to consumers from an emotional and functional perspective. We find this hugely insightful, relatively easy to work with (it relates rational responses into marketing/R&D friendly language), and extremely actionable when it comes to making the right brand, product and packaging decisions. With Brandphonics we lean heavily on rapid responses to prevent over-rationalization, but package this in a way that makes it very easy to add into most types of research – allowing us to access that vital extra layer of information without having to completely change the way you need to conduct research.

All this being said, we believe that things do need to change – the future will not be large-scale, fixed format quant questionnaires (in the main anyway). To this end we feel six factors will increasingly come in play, and we embrace them whole-heartedly;


I. Research in a more natural environment; increasingly interviews will be conducted in-home, in-store etc – with more observation taking place, more intercept interviews at relevant times, and a shift to approaches that allow products and packaging to be assessed more naturally in a person’s daily life


II. Asking questions in-the-moment; For us, when you ask a question is perhaps even more important than how you ask
that question. We’ve clear evidence to show how much more accurate and insightful responses are when we get
respondents to answer at the time of consumption/purchase – so in-the-moment data capture really does need to be used
more often. Developments in mobile phone and App technology make it much more practical to use phones as a research tool; the natural communication medium for today’s consumers, and with a touch-screen interface, ability to send alerts, video/photo capability, not to mention the ability to conduct voice and video calls, they’re almost the perfect instrument for connecting with consumers. We need to make more of this now!

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III. Indirect and comparative questions; we’ve always been advocates of this approach, with Brandphonics and various other MMR techniques involving indirect, rapid-fire questioning to access information that might not be immediately obvious to consumers (but exists ‘just below the surface’). Comparative approaches are also really important, allowing people to make decisions in a more natural way and driving out deep-rooted differences often hidden via more traditional ‘question battery’ approaches


IV. Self-reporting; with the increased use of Apps, social media and video in everyday life, we have an amazing opportunity to tap into consumers more closely. Recruiting the right people, setting them up with the right tasks, and using targeted alerts (at specific times, or when specific responses are recognized), it’s possible to get self-generated content as people naturally use products and go about their everyday lives. On top of this applications such as MMR-TV make the analysis of large amounts of video more practical. This one’s going to grow, quickly!


V. Blurring of methodology lines; The lines between qual and quant have been blurring for years, and we feel multi-modal
projects will become the norm going forward. Video intercept interviews in hall and home testing, online communities blended with survey data, self-reported content etc – this is a huge opportunity and it will change the nature of research


VI. The internet of things; As more and more household and personal devices are online, it will be possible to collect a much
wider array of information. As an example we’re about to launch two sensor based research solutions, both of which will trigger an alert to access an App survey the moment a product is physically moved, with the second also automatically weighing how much product was used. Wearables will enable us to trigger surveys when we detect certain physiological reactions (allowing for in-the-moment reactions to be collected), beacons will enhance our ability to target surveys when respondents are in certain locations, and it’s likely that improvements in AI will allow for the practical use of technology like Chat Bots to delve a little deeper in consumer research. This sort of technology is available now (or coming very soon), in the main it’s reasonably cost effective and reliable, and this will only increase with the growing technology revolution

The long and short of it is that we can see research becoming much more connected, more immersive and more authentic. Increasingly we’ll be running Big Brother style product development sessions with consumers, making sure that standard CLT testing provides a more connected and immersive learning experience though our Connection-CLT approach, or linking clients direct with consumers in their own homes to understand sensory journeys via Sensory Emotional Exploration safaris. The options are almost endless, but the game’s going to change, and for the better!

What's keeping you up at night? #1 - Cheaper, faster, better >

What's keeping you up at night? #2 - Developing products in a millennial world >

What's keeping you up at night? #3 - Repeatedly failing BASES >

What's keeping you up at night? #4 - Renovating and extending >

Mat Lintern is Global CEO at MMR Research.