Don't Run Research Like Opinion Polls | BTalk Australia

Last Updated Jan 19, 2010 5:43 PM EST


Ian Woolcott

Ian Woolcott

(Episode 372; 13 minutes 59) Ian Woolcott, Managing Director of Woolcott Research, says we have become so used to opinion polls that there's a danger of companies using the same techniques for customer research. He says not enough time is being put into understanding the psychology of human behaviour.

I talk to Ian about how people think and how businesses can find the right answers to make meaningful decisions to guide marketing and product decisions. We look at what is changing in the approach taken by market researchers, including the more engaging approach of deliberative engagement.

What do you think? How are you getting the answers you need from prospective customers? Add your comments in the Talkback section at the end of this post.

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  • Transcript
Phil Dobbie: Hello, I'm Phil Dobbie. Welcome to BTalk Australia. Today, market research. Are we using quick and dirty methods to get, well, quick and dirty answers?
The answers to any piece of research are, of course, only as good as the questions you ask --- and who you choose to answer them as well I suppose. There's always been debate about the relative benefits of quantitative versus qualitative research. In other words do you ask a load of people sort of predefined questions or do you work in small groups and really try and figure out what they're thinking? Well I wonder if there's a happy medium, something midway between the two? Ian Woolcott is the managing director of Woolcott Research and he's been in this game for a while now. So Ian, there is a danger with research isn't there? That if it's not done right, you can make a lot of assumptions that are just not right themselves. Do you think that happens a lot?

Ian Woolcott: Yes, I think Phil that's absolutely right. And I think we're living these days in what I'd call the age of the opinion poll. I mean every TV channel, radio station, newspaper, magazine is running polls or surveys on anything from who likes bananas to who should be the next Prime Minister. And I think we're now confronting these polls, it'd be the week in their everyday lives, the simple numbers usually, very often there's little thought or planning gone into designing the surveys that lie behind these things. But somehow or other they seem to have the credibility of being chipped in stone. If they talk to 1000 people and they said yes is the answer, well that must be right. I think you're right. I think it's a very, very dangerous trend.

Dobbie: So you think that trend has spilled over. Those opinion polls are now spilled into the way we make business decisions as well then.
Woolcott: Absolutely. In many respects this sort of age of the opinion poll thing, and the ability to now do surveys online, is fuelling a whole raft of new approaches which are very dangerous. I mean there's actually a thing called SurveyMonkey which now anybody can buy in a box which is a do-it-yourself (DIY) survey design instrument. I think you just drop down boxes and pick the questions and off you go.

Dobbie: Yes.
Woolcott: And then you put them on a web survey and after you've got the answers. I wish it were true, but unfortunately doing surveys is by no means that simple. Consumers or well people speak with a forked tongue very often. We had a saying years ago when I was a young fellow that people don't say what they mean or mean what they say very often in life, let alone in response to surveys. So this notion that you can just ask the question, get the answer and then that's gospel is awful. In my view, there's just not enough time and effort being put into planning these things, designing questions very, very carefully so that you can have some level of confidence about what's being fed back to you actually makes sense.

Dobbie: It's either very simple or very complicated, isn't it? And unfortunately we're saying the very simple answer doesn't work. But the complicated answer to me seems very complicated because if you look a bit deeper and if you ask a similar question, the answer they give depends on where they are at the time, what mood they're in. They might have just had a blazing round with their wife, for example, and they might just say no to everything. I mean how do you get over issues like that?
Woolcott: That's right and as much as the notion that the simple answer because it is simple is one we should rely on is unfortunately not the way life is. In the world of academic psychology it's now absolutely confirmed that not only are we lead in our behaviours and our thoughts and feelings by rational thoughts, and by emotional thoughts, but by intuition. By a form of memory which we can't even access ourselves consciously. But which just gives us gut feelings about things that guide a lot of our behaviour, a lot of our relationships with other people are often guided by just those strange feelings that emerge from no where but give you often a very good guide as to what's the right thing to do.

So if behaviour itself is that complicated, if it is guided certainly by rational evaluations but also by our emotions and I should say very obviously from moment to moment and by intuition which we can't even access ourselves, then the sad thing is how accurate a picture on things are we going to get by asking a few simple questions and taking those answers as being the way to go? I wish it were that simple, but unfortunately human behaviour is just not simple at all.

Dobbie: So how do you get to that intuitive level? How can you find out if somebody doesn't know themselves, how do you know how they're going to act intuitively?
Woolcott: It's interesting and without getting into detail, there's an awful lot of new stuff going on in the research area. And this makes the simple online survey look pretty silly by comparison. But I mean not that I advocate this, but there are researchers in most countries in the world now using MRI or brain scanning to actually image people's brains while they are asking questions and while they're viewing stimulus material. There are some word techniques. There's a technique we're using that's called response latency. There's a variety of techniques actually that are now coming in which are coming from the world of academic psychology and which have a better ability, for the first time I think in the last 10 years or so.

We're starting to get some techniques which have a better ability to come to grips with what's really driving behaviour. I mean as you say somewhat unkindly, I've been in this business for a very long time. And I guess it's fair to say that I've always been a bit frustrated with their own, including my own, efforts to accurately understand human behaviour. We've always felt that we're falling a bit short. I think we can improve the chances that business people will make the right decisions on the basis of doing their research, but it has by no means been a perfect game. All the research in the world can't guarantee you're going to get the right answers in terms of your marketing or business approaches. We're getting closer now that we understand that there's a whole part of what drives human behaviour that we've never got to before. And which perhaps explains the gap between what research often indicates and what turns out to be the case.

So yeah, there's some exciting new things and I think if people really are interested in getting to the truth and the voracity of situations, they're going to need to use a mix of methodologies. They're going to need to use a number of different approaches, and not just rely on the simple one-off survey.

Dobbie: I love one of the techniques I noticed on your website is using juries. And I guess this is almost replicating the court system, which actually seems like a sensible approach because court systems are obviously all about trying to get to the truth of very complicated issues.
Woolcott: That's right, you're referring to an area called the liberty of engagement which has been very, very big in the UK and we're partnered with the UK company and bringing that sort of approach to Australia.

It's very interesting because the old model of market research was that you've got a marketer or a government department who employs an independent research firm on their behalf to go off and understand the consumer, present the findings back and then everyone sits around in a board room or a meeting room, looks at the findings and works out some strategies on the basis of that. This new deliberate engagement approach, whether it's juries or forums, is one in which we actually partner with our consumers or our constituents, our stakeholders. Partner with them to give them information, to get feedback from them, but to jointly arrive at shared solutions in terms of how we should move forward.

This sort of stuff has been done a lot in governments; for example, health reform, where you might say why don't we just ask people opinions and then we decide what they want to do? Why don't we ask them what they want to do instead of, I mean traditionally in research, if a consumer started telling us what they thought the marketer should do, we'd tell them to shut up. We'd basically say, oh no, no, no, don't think I do, we just want to get your opinions. We will then make decisions about strategy and about how we go forward. This new process is actually saying no, let's just engage with our constituents, let's share with them the issues, let's wrestle with complex trade-offs.

We've got one coming up just in a couple of weeks' time for a local government for a council here in Sydney, in which they are unfortunately faced with the difficult decision that they've got to put a pretty substantial increase in rates in. Well we're getting people who live in the area, rate payers and residents of the area to come together and talk, we'll put it to them that there are some tough decisions that have to be made. Either service is dropped or rates go up. Let's wrestle with that, let's spend a day talking about that in a big group and let's come up with answers that best meet the needs of the people with them actually sharing in the solutions that are coming out. It's a good way to go.

Dobbie: Much more sensible approach, isn't it. Does that reflect a trend? Are you finding that you're becoming more of a facilitator these days? So rather than being told by a client hey go and research this, you're getting a bit more involved and actually what you do need to research before you start looking for the answers.
Woolcott: Yes, very much so. When you think about that old model where the research company was sort of positioned in between the marketer or the government department and the customer or the citizen. I mean in a way researchers are almost a barrier to marketers genuinely engaging with and understanding their customers. These days with these deliberative techniques, the marketers or the government are present on the day, they're all there sitting at the tables, talking to people. In the UK for example, Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, and Tony Blair before him, they attend these things themselves. And they directly sit there for the day and talk to people and feel like they present some of the information. So it's not like researchers getting in between the marketers and their customers. It's researchers facilitating a method by which those people can engage together and move forward.

Dobbie: Now I wonder whether technology can help here. You've said online surveys are pretty useless in the SurveyMonkey-type format and you're right. I mean I could go and set up a SurveyMonkey. I've done them myself. I can set them up in 10 minutes and I can get people to give the answers I want them to give.
Woolcott: That's right.

Dobbie: So don't I feel great about that. But when you're starting to look at a more collaborative way of working between a company and their customers or their prospective customers, given this boom in social networking, there's got to be a huge opportunity there, isn't there?
Woolcott: Yes, that's true. Don't get me wrong, I don't for a moment debunk that the use of the internet as a means of working with consumers or stakeholders. It's a fantastic device and it has some huge advantages that traditional survey methods don't offer. There's no question about that. But it's a two-edged sword. The only point I was making before is that the very ease of being able to do online surveys means that there's some real dangers that superficial efforts will be made and that unprofessional attempts will be made to do surveys which will just give you the complete wrong results. Totally agree. This sort of deliberative event or forum, there is a form of online deliberation which we do. Sure absolutely there's no reason whatsoever why we can't use those sort of networks to help bring people together, absolutely. No trouble at all.

Dobbie: Exciting area, isn't it? Do you think generally companies are, obviously this is a leading question for you because I already know the answer, do you think companies are under spending in research? Are they undervaluing it?
Woolcott: Yes, I think to a degree, but I'm not going to agree with you as quickly as you might expect. I think the whole marketing process over the last decade or so has been undervalued and when you think about it from a top management prospective --- with the short-term tenure that many chief executives and senior general management have these days and with their incentivisation, share schemes and whatever else and by short-term bonuses --- they're looking for quick results.

So if you're a marketing guy and say give me $20 million and I'll generate some extra sales for you, which in time will generate increased profit, that's a pretty weak option by comparison with a bean counter that says oh this cuts 20 million bucks off your bottom line, by reducing the marketing spend. And that goes straight to it. So if you want a quick profit, it's much easier to cut costs than it is to invest in medium to long-term marketing activity. So we're seeing less investment in brands, for example, because that's a very long-term pay back and so the short term of the current business cycle doesn't really gain. If you're lucky you're going to gain, this year's bonus is not going to be increased if I spend a lot of money on a brand. It might pay back in five, 10 years time.

So I think in that the whole notion of marketing, of understanding your stakeholders, constituents is undervalued. And that in turn I suspect is just part of that, as I say, the unfortunately short-term cycle that we're in for the moment. No doubt that'll change, things do.

Dobbie: OK, it was an interesting and emerging game isn't it? And I do love this idea of collaboration. I love the idea that you actually might, I mean what you're talking about really is broadening that first question of asking people what they want rather than telling them which of these would you like to have. You're actually broadening the question and saying what is it that you really want.
Woolcott: Yes, in the government and social sphere, for example, it really is empowering the whole concept of democracy. I mean I could go on forever. There's a notion that we don't have a democracy, but we vote once every three years. And people then finally get a mandate to do whatever they like. That's not true. So generally bringing people back together from time to time to talk about the big issues, get their views and their ideas on the outcomes and solutions is empowerment of the democratic process and it's also sort of a brand democracy if you like, in the commercial sphere.

Dobbie: Yes, absolutely, scary time for politicians or maybe it makes their job easier. It should be making their job easier really, shouldn't it?
Woolcott: If they embrace this sort of stuff, it really definitely makes their job easier.

Dobbie: As always with politicians, that's a big if you had at the beginning of your sentence.
Woolcott: That's right.

Dobbie: Ian Woolcott, thanks for your time.
Woolcott: Cheers.

Dobbie: We've also got to move with the times as well, which might be a bit difficult for some of them.