The future of research: stop asking, start listening

At the start of the year, Research Magazine asked a number of top UK researchers to sum up in one word what they believed 2010 held for the research industry. “Listen,” said respected research director Reineke Reitsma from Forrester Research.

It’s an interesting thought, but you could argue qualitative researchers have always been doing that. As a facilitator, the art of listening is up there in terms of importance with the art of questioning. The two normally go hand in hand: listen, question, listen some more, ask some more questions. But when Reitsma talks about what’s at the forefront of 2010, the art of the question doesn’t follow.

For years the research industry has focused on different ways of framing questions to ascertain consumers’ wants and needs. Regardless of the methodology, researchers use countless techniques to draw out the answers required to uncover insight.

But slowly, a few are starting to rethink the fundamental question and answer approach. That’s because if you look in the right places, you’ll find the answers are already out there. Consumers are publishing them online, without even being probed. People are generating more content than ever before. Rich content that talks about their lives, their highs and lows, their experiences with brands, both positive and negative. Content that is openly available to anyone with an internet connection.

What this means for researchers, is that the art of questioning takes a backseat to the art of listening. By trawling through the incredible amount of data online you can paint a rich picture of consumers’ lives. What’s more, you often get deeper insights into how people are feeling about things, more than you’d ever get by asking people ‘how are you feeling about things?’. It’s the most modern form of ethnography you could wish for.

But how do the research subjects feel about this? You’d think people might feel a bit vulnerable at the thought of companies trawling their comments on open source sites. There’s more and more support for the view that suggests consumers expect companies to understand they’re interacting with them through a number of touch points and to recognise their feedback in all shapes and forms. The fact is they don’t want to be asked about the same content they’ve already shared before. Seemingly, no one wants to repeat themselves, regardless of the context.

So, what does this mean for the future of the research industry? Listening to what’s already out there could certainly speed up the research process; it can help focus what you need to do; it could send you in an entirely different direction; it may potentially even reduce the cost of your research. But at this stage, you’re not going to get all the answers you could ever wish for online. It’s not going to replace a brand tracker or specific NPD evaluation. But, it should reshape the way we look at things, and become another tool in the researcher’s toolkit.And you’d hope that market research will adopt more of a multi-media approach and embrace this new spin on ethnography.

2010 may not be the death of questions, but it should at least highlight the greater importance of listening before you speak.

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