Someone asked me recently if I know anything about how to do research. Which was funny, because when I started out learning to be a planner (I still call myself that) one of the first things I learned was how to get to grips with the research tools we had back then.
Datasets like TGI (no touchpoints then), the specifics of quant research and how to manage, pre-testing (know thine enemy) but also conduct your own qual research. I could still get away with moderating focus groups now, although I hope you, like me, would rather carry out primary research that’s a little more useful.
A little while back, experienced planning folks use to bemoan new young turks joining agencies and getting to grips with idea creation and executional tweaking rather than understanding how to manage research. It’s fair to say we had loads of folks with brilliant opinions with little to back them up.
Of course, then came digital strategists, media folks doing content strategy and now, in our present day, an ocean teaming with Big Data. To the point where I’m seeing, perversely, a huge bunch of planning and strategy folks with lots of evidence and no opinion.
Sorry, opinion is a dreadful word, I mean instinct. In fact instinct is wrong too, thanks to our behavioural bias our instincts have shit for brains. I mean judgement.
Let’s think about this. What is research these days?
We still have plenty of organisations using traditional qual and quant, with planning types staying well away. Planners were invented to not just defend agencies from the tyranny of bad research, but to use research to make better work. It seems that we’ve gone back to letting research dictate again.
Even more challenging, we’re mobilising against Big Data, trying to own that, but also being totally subservient to it also. And not questioning nearly enough.
It’s fair to say that people now leave digital trails suggesting what they do, what they like and what they think. But people are not reliable digitally, not just in focus groups.
Take social mentions, sentiment and generally platform behaviour. No one is communicating what they really think, they’re communicating what they think is the version of themselves people want to hear.
There are few pictures of Mums about to have a nervous breakdown because their baby won’t stop crying, but millions of shots of little Mummy with her angelic little angel having the time of their life.
The most common words wives post about their husbands tend to overwhelmingly positive. But google data shows the most common words associated with searched around husbands are words like ‘mean’.
But even google searches, one of the few places where people don’t fib, are not reliable. They are short term behavioural signals and they don’t capture totally what influences people.
In other words, relying just on big data might well tell you what people do, it might tell you what influences them, but it rarely tells you both at the same time and it’s mostly short term. Just like a decent planning knows how to question and shape more traditional research, the best approach to big data is to ask what it’s not telling you.
Imagination, originality and, well magic is what still builds brands, even the digital ones- Amazon, Ebay, Facebook, Google? They’re all investing in emotional brand advertising.
Imagination beings me to Netflix, data led entertainment. Take the wildly successful House of Cards – built from data that lots of people like political drama and Kevin Spacey. I enjoyed Stranger Things, but you can see the calculating data behind it, the love of content from the 80’s, Speilberg tropes, Goonies, ET et al plus Twin Peaks. Like a really good covers band, familiar, much loved riffs put together into something that doesn’t fire the imagination like any of the originals did – that 20% of magic.
Programmed entertainment can be really good, like to scarily life like sex robots they’re developing, will never quite match the real thing.
So what does modern research look like?
Like it always has. You can’t beat going out to meet real people in the actual environment you are trying to influence.
It’s just we have more tools.
Sometimes, that can mean ‘meeting them’ online too.
But sometimes SatNAv gets you lost and without a decent sense of direction or ability to read maps, you're pretty fucked.
It means being clear if you want to find out what they do or what influences them – how you find these things out will be different.
It means getting to grips with a world of more tools and people using and delivering them that are not planners.
Basically, like when planners were first invented, it’s about using research to inform your judgement and great better, evidence- based solutions.
Not media and creative you can tick.