The 3 Questions that will Elevate your Qual Research Results

Posted on May 17, 2017
Written by Hunter Thurman

Most qual research still yields the WHAT. Here’s how to make it yield the WHY.

For as long as qualitative market research has existed, it has been conducted in the same basic fashion: ask consumers what they THINK they think, or what they THINK they would do. And regardless of whether it’s conducted in a paper survey, mall intercept, focus group room, or on a whiz-bang mobile phone screen, ethnographic market research companies agree that this basic research approach continues to yield the same basic answers.


As they craft research plans and evaluate potential market research providers, the challenge for market research pros is that every agency talks a good game, and comparing the value of one technique vs. another is an apples-and-oranges conundrum…

Everyone knows that we’re trying to truly understand consumer behavior. However, few have the proficiency to really deliver it. As you craft your next research RFP, pondering 3 simple questions will help you separate the real-deal from the business-as-usual…

1. What are the WHYs you really need to understand?

Do you need to know “how to prevent share loss to store brand products?” Or, is the challenge actually to “uncover WHY consumers are migrating to store brand products?” And, when you say “consumers,” should research be focusing on current users? Light users? Competitive users?

Leveraging the fields of neuroscience, behavioral science, and evolutionary psychology can help prioritize the foundational emotions and perception drivers that compel human behavior – and help focus a research brief on the aspects of consumer emotions and perceptions that truly drive behavior in your category.

So when you tighten the focus and frame research deliverables as WHY answers, it’s much easier to assess whether the question has truly been answered. And, it results in much more accurate learning to enable real progress towards uncovering the reasons behind consumer behavior that you seek.


2. What pearls lie within your past research and existing knowledge?

Market understanding is a journey, not a project. So any primary research should stand on the shoulders of all that has preceded it, and help inform deeper questioning in key areas. Some marketing research firms offer techniques, frameworks, and expertise that can reveal lots more from past work (and even tribal knowledge within the company) than might meet the eye. Ask potential vendors directly how they address this, and how they use existing knowledge to form hypotheses that enable primary research to dig deeper where it matters most.

Let’s consider the marriage of research and science: Research is defined as observing behavior and reporting what was observed. Science is defined as forming a framework via informed hypotheses, and then using that framework to understand the causation behind observed behavior.

In the hyper-saturated world of brand marketing, understanding causation (aka “the WHY”) is the only way to truly understand – and to enable solutions that truly address it. Need laddering techniques within behavioral science can be very effective in squeezing much more value from the round-file of past research.


3. What truly new lens will you look through?

Remember that asking someone why they behave in a certain way will yield the same perspective – regardless of whether it’s asked face-to-face, in a mobile check-in, or otherwise. Resist the illusion that a new way of asking the question will actually improve the question itself. So what lens will a potential technique or partner bring that you haven’t leveraged before? In what ways will qualitative research observe what a participant is ACTUALLY doing versus what she THINKS she’s doing?

The practice of psychology provides a number of ways to empower a respondent to provide a more transparent view of what’s really driving her perception and behavior. While “the rules” of market research dictate that a respondent ONLY report on her own opinions, psychology reveals that a person is actually quite astute at explaining the behaviors of others. This is because she’s able to assess others objectively – a few research techniques to keep in mind…

  • Ask a family member – empowering a mom, for example, to conduct a video interview of her child lets her discover things even she didn’t realize.
  • Explain it to a newbie – asking someone to explain a product, or category, to someone with no knowledge of it (such as an imaginary newly-emigrated friend) lets her strip away assumptions and biases to more accurately explain nuances.
  • Watch what happens when nothing’s happening – observational research enables observations of things that may not overtly link to a given category, but directly dictate emotional perception. Be sure to look at a respondent’s entire “day in the life” to uncover the weak-ties that may influence the category in previously unrecognized ways.

These are simple questions – but the answers mean the difference between qualitative research that merely re-treads what’s already known, and research that truly enables breakthrough decisions.

These 3 Common Mistakes Can Hinder The Effectiveness Of Your Journey Map

Posted on June 3, 2015
Written by Nakita Blodgett

Journey Map

Let’s review the checklist:

•  A saturated marketplace, and ever-stiffening competitive retail environment. Check.

•  Consumer / shopper / customer hyper-awareness of options and access to in-the-moment information. Check.

•  A more crucial need than ever for marketers to meet their users in the marketplace in uber-relevant ways to break through the noise. Check.

Enter the Journey Map… the living document that finally makes creating hyper-targeted, user-centric communication programs simple. Journey Maps are an articulation of the steps a person goes through when engaging with a specific category, making them a great way to understand what the would-be purchaser / consumer / advocate is dealing with – from both an emotional and functional standpoint – at each phase of their engagement with a category.

However, 3 common mistakes can keep Journey Maps from becoming a pivotal tool instead of just another document on the share-drive:

Common Mistake 1:

It’s Written From the Perspective of the Brand – Journey Maps should be written from the perspective of the key users who have the most potential to engage with and grow our brand. Consumers don’t care what we marketers think about our brand, so a journey map should not be a reflection of internal views or strategies agreed to in the meeting room. This point may seem obvious, but it can be difficult to take a step back to fully understand what matters most to a purchaser before exploring how / what our brand can deliver.

Common Mistake 2:

It Only Accounts for the Person Buying / Using the Brand – People don’t live in a silo, and while they sometimes may consume a brand’s product by themselves, there are many other people, places, and things that are influencing how they feel about a category and even a brand before they ever actually purchase or consume it. Who are the main influencers to our consumers and how do they affect the relevant feelings and decisions in regards to our category?

Common Mistake 3:

The Main Focus is on the Purchase – In the grand scheme of the journey, the physical purchase is one small activity within the larger purchasing phase of the journey. Too often, this is all brands think about, but the reality is that consumers’ engagement with the brand starts long before and extends way beyond the actual purchase. The before- and after-experiences are more crucial to creating a long-term user than the relatively transactional activity of purchasing our brand.

Journey mapping can become your brand’s map to more targeted engagement and communication with customers, consumers, and shoppers if you know what to look for and how to frame the experience of your audience.

The Long Term Lesson From Super Bowl XLVII—Avoiding Product Amnesia: Are Ads Emotionally Aligned?

Posted on March 12, 2013
Written by Hunter Thurman

Super Bowl

This article originally appeared in CommPRO

This year’s Super Bowl saw brands like Anheuser-Busch, Go Daddy and Chrysler receive major attention for creating ads that evoked strong emotional reactions. Whether heartwarming, like the Budweiser’s “Clydesdale Horses,” or disruptive, such as Go Daddy’s “The Perfect Match,” each of these ads was designed to arouse emotion amongst consumers that would lead to action. But was the evoked emotion of these ads properly aligned to the brand to build long-term engagement?

Many big game ads of the past bear the regrettably common theme of being a highly memorable ad, but with consumers having no recollection of the products. You have these in your personal mental vault as we speak. Great entertainment and emotion you’ll never forget – head scratch as to who to thank for it.

Each of the brands splashed across screens on the eve of February 3rd undoubtedly had a strategy and purpose.

But even for the best of breed ads, it’s clear that a fundamental understanding of human cognition was absent. This is not a knock on those brands or their creative agencies – they created great ads that everyone talked about on Monday morning. But the way many brands cultivate consumer empathy and memory are devoid of the true drivers of human behavior – the emotional subconscious that compels the vast majority of what we as humans think and do.

The challenge to creating retained value from these ads lies in the efforts of the brands to create messages that align with consumers’ needs and motivations… many of which are unconscious. But without tapping subconscious cognitive workings, it’s a bit like throwing a dart and hoping to strike gold speaking in the code of a person’s mysterious Paleo Brain.

Sounds great in concept, but what’s a brand supposed to do? Consider some of this year’s top big game offerings, with an armchair assessment through the cognitive lens…

Anheuser-Busch’s Clydesdale Horses

Pro: drove a 45% bump in domain & hosting sales
Con: will require another equally disruptive ad in short order to drive another spike

This is undoubtedly the likability winner this year, topping USA Today’s Ad Meter. A-B has spent decades building the Clydesdale horse as an iconic symbol of its brand. However Budweiser may not reap the benefits of all that dopamine with it’s heavily male beer-drinking target audience. That’s because, according to the principles of evolutionary psychology, the originating emotions sub-consciously emitted in response to viewing this ad are those correlated with maternal bonding and parental investment. These emotions are not hard-wired to the group unity and camaraderie that drive behavior such as beer consumption. Feel good: absolutely. Sell beer to dudes: wrong emotional well to tap.

On the other hand, if this were a Huggies ad, diapers would be flying off the shelves…

Go Daddy’s The Perfect Match

Pro: drove a 45% bump in domain & hosting sales
Con: will require another equally disruptive ad in short order to drive another spike

Who can argue with the results? A 45% bump would get any brand team’s attention. What GoDaddy did incredibly well to earn that spike is, in neuroscience terms, called “creating contrast.” Leveraging an originating emotion of disgust as Bar Rafaeli mugs with the “geek guy” caused the Paleo Brain of every viewer worldwide (including that of my 6 year old) to stand up and take notice.

Disgust, however, for categories like toilet cleaner or mouthwash, would likely drive long term recall and a correlation that aligns with the natural cognitive process.

Jeep’s Super Bowl Ads Salute to Veterans

Pro: evoked strong emotional feelings of pride and belonging
Con: there isn’t one, unless you’re a competitor of Jeep

The emotions are directly in line with the brand — loyalty, pride, and courage directly align with Jeep’s steadfast positioning as a club of which one can become part through purchase and ownership. That direct emotional tie to the brand’s purpose and vision not only compelled sales to skyrocket days after, but will naturally persist in the subconscious minds of viewers. It’s certainly a new idea for most that, for advertisers to be successful, they need to understand how a human being’s brain receives their messages, forms raw emotions, and compels desire or avoidance. But it’s a principle based upon millions of years of human evolution, and well studied in academia. By tapping into these ancient dynamics, brands can bridge the chasm between likability, emotional impact, longstanding loyalty and steady sales.

Wanted: X-Ray Vision For Focus Groups

Posted on March 26, 2013
Written by Hunter Thurman

Focus Groups

This article originally appeared in FOXBusiness

For as far back as we can remember, focus groups have been the go-to market research tool to gather insights to guide new product innovation. The problem is that, while human nature has remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years, the 21st century consumer is significantly more complex than any predecessor, motivated by both conscious and unconscious needs spawned by integration into a digital planet.

And with only 20% of new products actually succeeding in the market, there is now a highly compelling imperative to insure that beyond listening, marketers get inside the heads of consumers to harvest the unarticulated – and often unrealized – true tastes and values around new products.

So today, innovation teams must discover consumer empathy well beyond WHAT consumers say to reveal WHY they feel the way they do. In darkened observation rooms everywhere, we talk endlessly about the WHYs, all the while harboring a nascent, nagging feeling that something’s just not quite clicking.

And so the industry has created a number of focus group derivatives and alternatives. One-on-ones. Triads. Ethnography. Online platforms. Mobile. All promise to get to the coveted WHYs. And yet, 80% of new product introductions continue to sputter along, and only 25% earn $7.5 million in sales with only 1.1% earning $50 million.

But there’s an answer. Keep doing focus groups. Because, just as with consumer sentiment, it’s not WHAT you do, it’s WHY it’s not delivering the goods in terms of insights that drive innovation that sticks.

For starters, focus groups – or research of any kind – is not an ideal format by which get to the real and unarticulated preferences of consumers. The groups are too controlled, too inorganic. Human beings have this compulsive need to please, so most times, those participating in focus groups just want to be helpful. Even at the hands of a skilled moderator, they end up crafting the most advantageous response rather than sharing their true feelings, then collecting their $100 and returning to their lives. It’s not a criticism on research professionals, it’s psychology.

But a more fundamental reason traditional market research often falls short is that humans have very little insight into why we do what we do. We simply are not physiologically capable of recognizing the cognitive processes that compel everything from interpersonal relationships to decisions in the detergent aisle.

So in research, the information they present when approached with a question becomes subjective. As one of our psychology cohorts, Dr. Art Markman puts it, a person rationalizing his/her behavior is akin to a third party describing his/her rationale. From a cognitive standpoint, either would yield the same degree of accuracy (which is not much).

According to a McKinsey study developed in 2006, “consumers are notoriously poor at articulating needs or benefits beyond those they have already experienced.” This can be attributed to this lack of emotional awareness and subjectivity in assessing their own behaviors.

When seeking to find those deeply felt needs that drive innovation that works, brands simply must improve and deepen their focus to better understand the innate hard-wiring of consumer decision making.

So it’s not the venues that are broken. After all, that’s all a focus group, tablet app, or in-home visit is: a venue through which to interact with consumers. It’s the fact that we keep asking the questions in the same way and expecting different answers. That’s the issue.

For your next project, consider the following three principles to help tap a deeper level of consumer understanding.

No. 1: Don’t recruit people based on what they do – recruit them based on how likely they are to do something new.

Every research screener looks the same, capturing a litany of demographic information, followed by a raft of questions on what types of products a respondent uses now. It’s all WHATs.

But the world of psychology yields gifts that, leveraging subconscious personality markers called the Central Six, empower us to identify those people that are likely to adopt new product and behaviors, and those who aren’t. By finding felt needs with those early adopters, much more strategic innovation can be created with greater confidence that launches will stick in the real world.

No. 2: Don’t ask them questions they can’t answer.

Remember the point about a person’s self assessment being no more accurate than an assessment by another person? No matter how many clever ways you ask the same question, the human brain is not capable of accurately answering.

But don’t despair. Whether within a focus group room, a smartphone screen, or an online setting, deeper insights can be revealed. Forcing choice from among new potential offerings and current ones can help bring the suspended reality of research into more tangible – and reliable – context. In other words, don’t ask them if they’d buy your new idea. Put it against its competition and have them select one or the other. This can be done on anything from wiz bang hi-def virtual walls to smartphones to 80# sheets of 11×17 paper.

No. 3: Follow the markers.

Psychologists, neuroscientists and parents of teens agree that the vast majority of communication is transmitted non-verbally. Without realizing it, your brain processes an avalanche of small details in forming emotional reactions to everything from a prospective mate to a new kind of cereal. Social media has amplified the breadth and speed at which an individual can create the “markers” that communicate what makes him or her tick, regardless of what he or she says. And while it’s difficult to codify this wealth of non-verbal markers, it’s something we humans innately experience.

To complement concerted market research, immerse yourself in the tribe of people you seek to understand. Hit the mall. Go to a farmers market. Surf Facebook pages. It sounds kind of touchy-feely, but from a neuroscience perspective, we know that your brain will be busily collecting, netting, and averaging empathy. Your right and left hemispheres will process all these markers – especially when you’re not thinking about it – and you’ll simply find that you “get” these people better than ever. You’ll feel empathy that, often times, gets relegated to focus group written reports. And your outcomes will be better.

Just as the marketing and insights world has matriculated beyond the WHAT to seek the WHY, don’t seek innovative gold with merely the latest WHAT in terms of research technique. Use the wiring-guide of human emotions to ask different questions. You’ll find the WHYs are abundant – even in focus groups.