When it comes to market research, we often default to either focus groups, in-depth interviews (IDIs), or surveys to answer our client’s questions.  It’s how the proposal discussion usually starts with a conversation about which of these traditional market research methodologies best fits for the objectives at-hand.  These methodologies focus on gathering new information for your client and assume that answers to your client’s questions do not already exist or can’t easily be obtained without undergoing a large-scale survey or focus groups conducted across the country.

In some cases this may not always be necessarily true, especially in B2C studies.  Often overlooked and underutilized is the advent of observational research. Observational research (or ethnography) is a qualitative market research methodology in which analysts watch or observe people in a particular environment.  The subjects are unaware of the observation and as a result, act in their normal manner.  Observational research goes hand-in-hand with behavioral data.  Behavioral data is series of data points that track actions over time (purchases, traffic, etc.)  The beauty of observational research is that it incurs little to no bias.  Traditional market research is sometimes partial depending on the methodology chosen for the study.  A market research study can incur a large number of biases including: question bias (wording of questions or leading a respondent), environmental bias (the study occurs in an environment atypical to the tested environment, such as using online surveys to study soda purchases in grocery stores), or even group dynamic bias (situations in focus groups where participants agree with the majority, attempt to please the moderator, or are aware of the sponsor).

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A good market research consultant will work to mitigate bias as much as possible in traditional market research studies.  In fact, there’s often no other way to obtain information for decision-making other than conducting a survey or focus group of some kind.  But this growing trend of observational research including heat maps, eye-tracking data, and others do offer a unique and real-time way of gathering data.

Many decisions that consumers make are on the subconscious level.  In the book, Consumerology, written by Philip Graves, subconscious decision-making is a main theme.  This means brands or images subconsciously generate feelings and attitudes for consumers without the consumer realizing it.  When they are called a month later and run through a survey script to explore the reasons why they purchased an iPad2, results may differ from the actual day and time they were in BestBuy purchasing it, which stresses the importance of limiting the time frame between actions and the subsequent market research follow-up.  Exit interviews caught on to this concept long ago.  Perhaps that day in Best Buy the respondent intended to look at Nook Tablets, Kindle Fires, and iPads, but because they had seen a person at customer service exchange desk complaining about their Kindle Fire, they subconsciously eliminated that tablet from their consideration set.  Or maybe they used a friend’s MacBook a few months prior to check their email and it created a positive association with Apple.  Would that person remember either situation months later if they were called and asked reason(s) behind their decision-making process to purchase an iPad2?  Perhaps.  But maybe they didn’t realize those were the first and true key drivers to purchasing.

Shop-alongs seem to be a nice in-between methodology, which capitalize on both traditional market research (questionnaire follow-up during or after purchases) accompanied with observational techniques (e.g., accompanying the consumer around the store while you observe).  Shop-alongs offer real-time follow-up with consumers, offer the analyst the ability to explore reasoning in-the-moment, and specific measures can be taken to eliminate some of the bias, such as blinding the two or three products or aisles that the analyst is most interested in gaining information on.  They are also conducted in the real-life environment where decisions are made by consumers.  Some concerns with observational research are potential ethical challenges with field observation of unbeknownst subjects, disruptions in a controlled environment, and potential technological needs or requirements to set up the study.

In this blog post, I am not discounting the value in traditional market research methodologies but rather advocating for more outside-of-the-box market research techniques.  As a market research firm in Upstate, NY, we are tasked with providing our clients the best possible and purest market research project.  With that in mind, observational research cannot be overlooked because it provides real-time, unbiased feedback from real consumers.  As a market research firm, we owe it to our clients to look for new and better ways of collecting data.  Market research needs to continually evolve.

Are you interested in speaking with a market research consultant in Upstate NY?  Contact our Business Development Director Sandy Baker at SandyB@RMSresults.com or by calling 315-635-9802.