How market research can distort who you are

By evoke
June 28, 2011

When done properly, market research can be incredibly valuable. It can reveal trends, golden nuggets, hidden insights and undiscovered market opportunities.

Unfortunately, too often it creates a distorted image of who you are, which has a dramatic detrimental effect on the performance of the company.

This happens when a company sanitizes the objectives and wording of the research, much to the frustration of the market research suppliers who are fighting to maintain the integrity of the study. Market researchers usually design studies to reveal the naked truth, a topic that can be quite painful and that can compromise careers, so they often lose the battle with the client over what questions to ask and how to word them. As a result, the studies either don’t reveal any new learning or what they do reveal is so incremental that it has almost no impact on growing the business. Nowhere was the reality of this dynamic proven to us more dramatically than in a conversation we had with a very senior executive in a very successful global company. He said “What you don’t realize is that most market research serves only two purposes: to prove what you already know and to validate decisions and actions you have already taken.”

Although it sounds cynical, most market research studies we have seen – and that is in the thousands over the courses of our careers in a wide variety of businesses – fall into these two categories. In other words, too often market research is like one of those fun house mirrors that is distorted to flatter your self perception.

Market research works best when a company understands that it has to be vulnerable, to lay itself bare to unvarnished truth of the marketplace. Only through an aggressive effort to break down the barriers and inhibitions that block people from speaking candidly and emotionally about your company, brand, products and services can you obtain an accurate understanding of who you are to your customers and where the opportunities lie with them.

Here is a suggestion for a question that will return some really valuable information about how you are viewed by your customers. In some form of qualitative methodology, ask customers “What drives you crazy about us?” If it sounds extreme, that’s on purpose because it will accomplish two things: it will encourage a passionate and emotional response, which loosens inhibitions, and it will give you a long list of improvements to consider in order to differentiate yourself from your competitors. If you can let your ego/fear of looking bad get past the fact that you are deliberately soliciting emotional criticism as a means of self-improvement – in other words, being totally vulnerable and willingly laying yourself bare to your customer – you will gain valuable business building insight about yourself, your customers and your competitors.

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