Market research isn’t about storytelling, it is about predicting the future

We recently had a situation that made me question the credibility of market research. We had fielded a study for a long-term client and were excited to view the initial version of the tabs. As we looked at results by age groupings we found them to be surprising. But this was also exciting because we were able to weave a compelling narrative around why the age results seemed counter-intuitive.

Then our programmer called to say a mistake had been made in the tabs and the banner points by age had been mistakenly reversed.

So, we went back to the drawing board ad constructed another, equally compelling story, as to why the data were behaving as they were.

This made me question the value of research. Good researchers can review seemingly disparate data points from a study and generate a persuasive story as to why they are as they are. Our entire business is based on this skill – in the end clients pay us to use data to provide insight into their marketing issues. Everything else we do is a means to this end.

Our experience with the flipped age banner points illustrates that stories can be created around any data. In fact, I’d bet that if you gave us a randomly-generated data set we could convince you as to its relevance to your marketing issues. I actually thought about doing this – taking the data we obtain by running random data through a questionnaire when testing it before fielding, handing it to an analyst, and seeing what happens. I’m convinced we could show you a random data set’s relevance to your business.

This issue is at the core of polling’s PR problem. We’ve all heard people say that you can make statistics say anything, therefore polls can’t be trusted. There are lies, damn lies, and statistics. I’ve argued against this for a long time because the pollsters and researchers I have known have universally been well-intentioned and objective and never try to draw a pre-determined conclusion from the data.

Of course, this does not mean that all of the stories we tell with data aren’t correct or enlightening. But, they all come from a perspective. Clients value external suppliers because of this perspective – we are third-party observers who aren’t wrapped up in the internal issues client’s face and we are often in a good position to view data with an objective mind. We’ve worked with hundreds of organizations and can bring these experiences bring that to bear on your study. Our perspective is valuable.

But, it is this perspective that creates an implicit bias in all we do. You will assess a data set from a different set of life experiences and background than I will. That is just human nature. Like all biases in research, our implicit bias may or not be relevant to a project. In most cases, I’d say it likely isn’t.

So, how can researchers reconcile this issue and sleep at night knowing their careers haven’t been a sham?

First and foremost, we need to stop saying that research is all about storytelling. It isn’t. The value of market research isn’t in the storytelling it is in the predictions of the future it makes. Clients aren’t paying us to tell them stories. They are paying us to predict the future and recommend actions that will enhance their business. Compelling storytelling is a means to this but is not our end goal. Data-based storytelling provides credibility to our predictions and gives confidence that they have a high probability of being correct.

In some sense, it isn’t the storytelling that matters, it is the quality of the prediction. I remember having a college professor lecturing on this. He would say that the quality of a model is judged solely by its predictive value. Its assumptions, arguments, and underpinnings really didn’t matter.

So, how do we deal with this issue … how do we ensure that the stories we tell with data are accurate and fuel confident predictions? Below are some ideas.

  1. Make predictions that can be validated at a later date. Provide a level of confidence or uncertainty around the prediction. Explain what could happen to prevent your prediction from coming true.
  2. Empathize with other perspectives when analyzing data. One of the best “tricks” I’ve ever seen is to re-write a research report as if you were writing it for your client’s top competitor. What conclusions would you draw for them? If it is an issue-based study, consider what you would conclude from the data if your client was on the opposite side of the issue.
  3. Peg all conclusions to specific data points in the study. Straying from the data is where your implicit bias may tend to take over. Being able to tie conclusions directly to data is dependent on solid questionnaire design.
  4. Have a second analyst review your work and play devil’s advocate. Show him/her the data without your analysis and see what stories and predictions he/she can develop independent of you. Have this same person review your story and conclusions and ask him/her to try to knock holes in them. The result is a strengthened argument.
  5. Slow down. It just isn’t possible to provide stories, conclusions, and predictions from research data that consider differing perspectives when you have just a couple of days to do it. This requires more negotiation upfront as to project timelines. The ever-decreasing timeframes for projects are making it difficult to have the time needed to objectively look at data.
  6. Realize that sometimes a story just isn’t there. Your perspective and knowledge of a client’s business should result in a story leaping out at you and telling itself. If this doesn’t happen, it could be because the study wasn’t designed well or perhaps there simply isn’t a story to be told. The world can be a more random place than we like to admit, and not everything you see in a data set is explainable. Don’t force it – developing a narrative that is reaching for explanations is inaccurate and a disservice to your client.

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