Archive for January, 2013

How Does the Internet Smell to You? — The Perils of Predicting Trends

dog-nose--300x200

When we first started doing significant work among youth, we noticed that many established competitors in the field were “trend hunters.” The idea was that trends seem to start among youth, and organizations that have a head start on identifying emerging trends would be in a position to capitalize on them.  Trend hunting firms started putting out newsletters and selling syndicated reports.  The ones that were (and continue to be) the most successful were the ones that made the most outlandish predictions.

We thought hard about getting into this trend forecasting business ourselves.  Our clients have a clear need to spot emerging trends.  We put together a business plan and were about to move forward when I attended a youth marketing industry event. One of the keynote speakers was well-known as a trend forecaster and led a successful company.  I listened intently, hoping to gain a few pointers on how to get into the business.

She ran through her top 20 trends for the upcoming year.  One of them was that “smell will become an important feature of the Internet.” Yes, she was predicting that technology would permit smell devices being placed on computers, and web site owners could control them (presumably through some type of Smell-O-Vision wizardry) to extend our interactive experiences to another sense.

I was about to raise my hand to say “you’ve got to be kidding, right?” when I noticed most of the other attendees nodding and intently taking notes so they could take this insight back to their companies.  I genuinely thought she was joking as a presentation technique.  She was not.

This experience was 10 years ago.  When I look back at her top 20, 19 of her predictions haven’t even come close to coming true.  (One has – she did make an excellent prediction relating to touch-screen technology.)

I realized at that conference that trend forecasting of this nature isn’t really research and it isn’t really accurate.  However, if you make an outlandish prediction and it comes through, you become famous for seeing something nobody else did.  Nobody remembers that 95% of your predictions were way off the mark.  But, if it happens, you can become known for being the person that predicts smell will rule the Internet 10 years before it happens.

I’ve long thought that our clients are better off understanding more fundamental things about their customers.  So, we focused our studies more on generational theory and understanding how the generations intersect with age and history to help understand the future. We try to predict longer term patterns in behaviors and attitudes, and work with clients to make hypotheses as to how this might affect their business going forward.  By taking this approach we may miss fast emerging (but ephemeral) trends, but we do seem to provide a good understanding of longer term forces.

For the record, we don’t think Internet scent is going anywhere soon.  But, I saw the person who made this prediction on the Today show last year, so maybe we are in the wrong business after all!

Hey Mom! Put down the phone!

Businessman balancing basketball on finger while working

Yesterday, American Baby and Safe Kids Worldwide released a poll of almost 2,400 mothers which showed, among other things, that 78% of moms admit to talking on the phone while driving with their children. 24% admit to texting when there are children in the car.

Do you think that nearly 4 out of 5 moms would be willing to drive with their children if they were legally drunk? Probably not. But, the reality is talking on a cell phone in a car is just as dangerous.

Using driving simulators, University of Utah psychologists have published academic studies showing that motorists who talk on cell phones are as impaired as drunken drivers – even if they are using a hands free phone.  The Utah studies indicate that cell phone users are 5.4 times more likely to get in an accident than undistracted drivers. The studies have shown this risk is about the same as for drivers with a 0.08 blood-alcohol level.  That is about the legal limit in most communities.

So … mom, if you are talking on the cell phone with your kid in the car, you are putting your child at about the same risk as if you drove legally drunk.

Texting while driving is even scarier. One study suggests that it is the risk equivalent of driving with a 0.16 blood-alcohol level.  That level would make standing up difficult let along driving. Yet, this latest poll shows that 1 in 4 moms are willing to text while driving with their children in the car.

At Crux Research, we are proud to be on a community-wide team put together by the Ad Council of Rochester that is hoping to address this issue. You can learn more about this effort at www.urthatdistracting.org.  We are sure to have many future blog postings on this effort and other issues surrounding distracted driving.

We were born in a small town

More snow

When we are asked where we are located, our answer varies based on our audience.

  • To cab drivers and those who know little about NY state geography, we say “New York.” They tend to think that means the big city.
  • To those who are only familiar with NY City, we say “Upstate.” They tend to think that means the Bronx.
  • To those a little less geographically challenged, we say “Rochester.” That is usually met with an “I’m sorry” look and questions about how many feet of snow there is on the ground.
  • To those who truly are familiar with our area, we say “Honeoye Falls.” This is the most accurate response – as we are actually located on the four corners of a small town about a half hour drive south of Rochester. (It is pronounced “Honey – Oy” with the Yiddish pronounciation of “Oy.”)

This is a pretty cool place to be.  Our offices literally overlook the “Falls” part of Honeoye Falls, and the picture above is close to our view all day long.  Of course, this picture was taken in July … it does snow a lot up here!

How weighting data is like playing with Silly Putty

Silly-Putty-cartoons

Remember Silly Putty?  It was a really popular toy back in the day.  It could do all sorts of things.  It bounced.  It could be used to glue two things together.  It was actually used by astronauts to secure their tools while in space.  If you left it alone on a warm day it would melt.  And, it was darn near impossible to get out of your clothing and hair.

The coolest property of Silly Putty was that if you flattened it and pressed it against a newspaper, it would transfer the image to the Silly Putty.  For those of you that remember that, we have an analogy to weighting of survey data to share.  Bear with us, this is a bit of a stretch. 🙂

Imagine your survey data set is a flattened handful of Silly Putty.  Your task is to faithfully represent a one-panel comic from the newspaper with it.  If your survey sample is plentiful and covers the image perfectly, this just requires that you are careful as you press it against the comic.  Voila, you’ve represented your universe perfectly!  (Okay, we know it will be a mirror image, but ignore that!)

However, this isn’t really how it worked with Silly Putty or how it works with survey data.  What tended to happen was you didn’t have quite enough Putty to flatten onto the newspaper, or you didn’t quite cover the entire comic with it.  So, you spread it out as best you could.  Then, when you had lifted the image, you stretched the putty a bit to try to make it look like the original.  The problem was that if you stretched the putty in one direction, there tended to be a contraction of it in another.

That is analogous to what we are doing when we try to make a non-random sample match a universe.  We may be lacking enough putty (not enough sample size) or might not be able to get it to perfectly cover the picture (we under-represent some groups).  Through careful weighting (stretching the putty) we can usually get an imperfect, but accurate enough representation of the universe (the image).  If we weight (stretch the putty) too much, we distort the universe (the image).  (That can be really funny with Silly Putty, but it isn’t so funny with research data.)

As “silly” as this sounds, we have found it to be a useful analogy for clients.  Clients often push us to weight data too much.   This is like stretching the Silly Putty so much that you can’t recognize the picture any more.  Well thought out adjustments can make sense if we know what we are shooting for.  We need to know what the universe looks like, just as the Silly Putty user needs to know what the image he/she is seeking to represent looks like.  Stretching it in the dark doesn’t meet with good results.  And, when we weight one group (stretch the putty in one direction), it has the effect of distorting another (contract the putty in another direction).

Weighting is best when we are making subtle adjustments that improve the picture.  Because we almost never have a random sample, it is necessary.  But it can be overdone, and we have to be careful not to stretch the Silly Putty too far.

Are Kids Getting Older, Younger?

Childish

There is a lot of talk today about kids getting older younger.  You hear this described as “Developmental Compression” by academics.  The concept is so ingrained in youth marketing that it is often refer to as an acronym – KGOY (this is not a west coast radio station!).  Like many presumptions, there is some truth in the concept, but that truth may not be as simple as an acronym implies.

There has undoubtedly been an age compression going on.  The emergence of new marketing segments, notably tweens, is a reflection of this. As an example, when boomers were growing up, Sesame Street was targeted to kids aged 3-7.  Currently, it is targeted to ages 3-4.  By age 5, kids have moved on to other shows. Similarly, toys companies struggle with kids “aging out” faster than they used to.  This makes marketing to children challenging.

There is no real consensus on why this has happened – why young people seem to be growing up younger.  There is controversy over it.  There are those that say that youth marketers have caused this to happen.  Youth marketers have for years used aspirational approaches to product promotion. Youth product imagery and promotional tactics use kids older than the intended age target purposefully.  This in turn, can cause kids to feel pressured to grow up quickly and perhaps not comfortable with their current age.

Our view is there is some reality in KGOY, but there are underlying components to the concept. Development takes place along a number of dimensions:

  • Cognitive
  • Physical
  • Emotional
  • Social

There is evidence is that kids/tweens are progressing cognitively and physically faster than they historically have.  Cognitively, as any parent who has tried to help their child with homework can tell you, school curricula are more challenging that a generation ago.  Test scores have slowly progressed.  Physically, there is convincing evidence that both girls and boys are reaching physical maturity faster.

But there is little evidence that they are progressing any faster emotionally or socially than in the past.

This from a Girl Scout Research Institute study:

“Physically, girls’ bodies are maturing earlier than ever before. Cognitively, they are acquiring information about the world at an accelerated pace do to environmental influences like traditional media and new media. Since they appear older, society, peer, and family expectations, as well as their own inquisitiveness lead them to adopt matching teenage social behaviors. The dilemma is that these same girls do not have the emotional maturity to match their accelerated aspirations and expectations.”

So, our view is that yes, kids are growing older, younger, but that this growth is not along all dimensions of growth.  This creates unique challenges to those of us who raise them, educate them, and market to them.

Welcome to the Crux Research Blog!

CRUX_logo_web

In this blog we hope to share insights from the research we do and the collective wisdom of our clients. Between us, we have decades of research experience and have managed thousands of projects. We like to tell clients that what this really means is we have made almost every conceivable mistake that can be made on a research study. As we tell our children, if you never make the same mistake twice you’ll end up being incredibly smart. And, we have done a lot of ground breaking things as well.

When I think of blogs I often think of a Bob Dylan line: “I heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’.”  Blogs can be a great vehicle for self-expression. But, you have to wonder sometimes if anyone is actually reading or thinking about the voluminous blog content that is out there.

In this blog we will try to stick to subjects we know well: Market research. Education. Youth. The Generations. New studies that have been released. We’ll try to stay away from telling you about our favorite meals, our business travel woes, or the pain and suffering that goes with being a lifelong Buffalo Bills fan.

So, we begin this blog with a goal of not trying to be cathartic – but trying to engage people and provide a forum for issues that affect us as researchers. Like an untrodden trail in the woods, we might not know where this is taking us, but it is taking us someplace!