"Is it legal?" is not enough

I just posted a link to this Computerworld article on my Twitter feed, but I think it's so important that I have decided to mention it here as well. The article describes the dangers brands are beginning to face with over aggressive big data and data mining practices. The key point is that it's not just about what is legal, but that consumers are can also be sensitive to what they view as privacy violations and over aggressive marketing.

These are extra legal areas where codes of conduct developed by industry and trade associations have traditionally protected both research agencies and their clients from public backlash. It has become fashionable in some quarters to argue that these quaint notions are holding back market research and providing an opening for new entrants to realign the competitive balance in the industry. This is a good reminder that respect for consumers never goes out of fashion.

Is market research for dummies?

A few weeks back I got myself in some trouble with some folks when I posted this piece criticizing the new book, Neuromarketing for Dummies, without having read it.  I also received some emails suggesting that the book is better than it sounds and that the authors are not pop science hacks, but people with broad knowledge of the subject matter and experienced survey researchers. I even got a very nice note from one of the authors asking that I read the book and let him know what I thought of it.

DummySo I went ahead, bought a Kindle version of the book, and have now read it.  My overall impression is that the authors indeed know their stuff and generally have done a nice job of organizing the material.  But the Dummies format was at the heart of my original critique and reading the book has not changed that view.  As the authors tell us early on, “we don’t take our subject matter or ourselves too seriously.”  And, like all Dummies books, it is designed so that you can jump in and out, focusing just on “the important parts” with the help of icons that draw your attention to tips, important points, and things to avoid.  There is even an online cheat sheet that boils it all down to a single web page.  What there is not is a list of reference that lets you dig into the content in more detail, although I understand one is in prep.  They also refer the reader to two other related books in the series dealing with neuroscience and behavioral economics, but I have yet to look at them.

There are some content nits that I could pick but that is not the point of this post. It is only to say that my initial criticism of the book stands.  I worry that it encourages a superficial understanding of what are pretty complex ideas, something that I think is all too common in contemporary market research.  If, as some argue, behavioral science has the capacity to transform much of market research, a point of view for which I have some sympathy, we need more than a superficial understanding of its basic principles and theories. The is subject matter that deserves to be taken seriously.

No offense Stephen, Andrew, and Peter, but I just wish you had written a different kind of book.

Thinking fast and slow in web survey design

I am a huge fan of Jakob Nielsen's work on web usability.  He has a post out this week--"Four Dangerous Navigation Approaches that Can Increase Cognitive Strain"--that puts web usability into a system 1/system 2 framework.  As I've said many times before, I believe that his research on web usaiblity has important implications for web survey design. 

In his post Nielsen offers evidence for a principle I have long aruged is important in web survey design: unfamiliar answering devices and complex instructions absorb cognitive energy and distract from the key task of simply providing an answer to a question. I'm not going to rehash Nielsen's full post here, but encurage you to follow the link and have a read for yourself.  You may want to pay special attention to dangerous navigation approach number four: "Fun" tools that become obstacles.

That old seat at the table

Attend an MR conference and chances are good that sooner or later a case of consulting envy will break out.  Symptoms include repeated use of phrases such as “seat Consultantat the table” and “C-level access.”  This is not a new phenomenon; it’s been a pretty steady part of the MR inferiority complex for the almost 20 years that I’ve been in the industry. The syndrome manifested itself at last week’s ESOMAR Congress in a session titled, “Think BIG: Imagine.”  It started from the premise that MR is twice as old and yet only one-tenth the size of management consulting (poor us) and then wondered how we might create “exponential growth” to close the gaps in revenue and prestige.  The answer, it turns out, is behavioral science.

To be clear, I agree that behavioral science is a megatrend with the potential to transform our industry.  But will its smart application make us rich and at long last bestow upon us that mythical seat at the table?  I doubt it. 

Management consultants and market researchers work at fundamentally different levels.  The consultant’s playing field includes corporate strategy and the full range of company operations, the whole enchilada.  Market researchers primarily provide tactical advice on how to take products to market. The two value propositions are fundamentally different and they result in fundamentally different ways of interacting with clients.

I am tempted to say that we should just get over it, enjoy the work that we do and take pride in the value we deliver. Then again, as tiresome as it can be maybe our fundamental insecurity is a good thing.  Maybe the constant fear of our lunch being eaten by management consultants and predictive analytics keeps us on our toes, pushes us to innovate, and makes us better if not bigger.  Andrew Grove probably was right; only the paranoid survive. 

I think we check that box.

Neuromarketing for Dummies: a book that knows its target audience

For a couple of weeks now I have been meaning to write a post about behavioral science, or as we seem to want to call it in MR, neuromarketing.  I admit to being a skeptic, driven in part by a belief that it is very complex stuff for MR to get its arms around and by controversies like that surrounding Martin Lindstrom’s iPhone love story, which confirm that belief.  Nonetheless, I attended the first day of The 2013 Applied Educational Alliance Assembly, partly out of curiosity about behavioral science but also because it was happening about 15 minutes from my house.

It was a day well spent with an excellent series of presentations, mostly by academics steeped in theory and a broad literature of peer-reviewed experimental research.  There is a lot that can be done way of measuring emotions in the lab, but even then lots of unanswered questions and dots to be connected.  Measuring emotions outside of the controlled environment of the lab is a good deal more challenging.

Most of the others attendees were marketers interested in leveraging emotions rather than measuring them, so it was not as MR-focused as I might have liked.  But I did get the chance to talk to some of the presenters, especially about how to separate the science from the bullshit.  One of them had this to say: “In academia we have a peer review process that separates out the good research from the bad research; in market research you have the marketplace.” 

By coincidence, that same day the news came out about Google using their glasses to measure emotions via eye pupil dilation.  Although this sounds cool, The Scientific American reminds us that doing this outside of the lab is harder than we might think.

But I digress.  What got me to finally write a post was the release of the new book, Neuromarketing for Dummies.  My first thought was that it was a hoax, a parody.  What fun!  But no, it’s the real deal.  Already being lavished with praise on Greenbook.  And it probably will sell like crazy in MR because this is how the industry learns new things: pop science, not real science.  Always looking for the Cliff Notes.  Boiling it down to a few bullets on a PowerPoint slide.

Behavioral science is the real deal.  Just as big data has the potential to redefine how we describe what people do, behavioral science can transform how we describe why they do it.  We should be digging into it, learning its foundations, and not overselling it.   Unlikely on all three counts.