Archive for June, 2009

The Art and Science of Market Research

Here’s a question (and answer) posed by the thoughtful Gavin Johnston, Chief Anthropologist at Two West, on a LinkedIn market research message board:

Q: Do demographics and psychographics obscure our understanding of our customers, users, clients?

A: I understand that segmentation and quantification are essential to a point, but do they also provide and inherent deviation from understanding context and the complexities of human interaction? I sometimes think that businesses are inclined to obsess over the trees in the forest, so to speak, without thinking about the linkages between the trees, the forest, the entire ecosystem. People rarely function exclusively as individuals, but as part of a shared socio-cultural system. Does the emphasis on neatly categorizing people obscure the larger system?

[After I posted an answer, I thought it seemed like as good a place as any to start beta-testing this WordPress software.  So here goes.]

That’s a pretty big question. First, any type of research or observation only reveals a part of the ecosystem…it’s the researcher’s job to relate the specific study result to the whole. But the question posits a more actively negative function–it’s a bit different to obscure reality than only to reveal a part of it.

Businesses absolutely obsess over statistical trees. Look at the way good measurables might point towards short-term stock performance, but not necessarily reflect a sound business plan and management team poised for long-term growth. In another field entirely, Bill Simmons had a column recently bemoaning the state of basketball statistics, wondering why so many intangibles remain uncaptured, despite the advances of baseball’s sabremetrics. Basketball skill, he contends, can be measured much better by a trained observer than by piles of statistics.

Or check out this Nation column decrying the use of evolutionary psychology and (gasp!) quantitative measurement in literary criticism: http://tinyurl.com/ll4e4z. Sample quote: “[The literary Darwinists’] goal is not only to reseat literary studies on a basis of evolutionary thinking but to found a “new humanities,” as the title of one book puts it, on scientific principles: empirical, quantitative, systematic, positivist, progressive.”

All of the increased computing power has put enormous quantities of information at our disposal, and with it, the expectation we can find the little bit of information we need when we need it. But that also leads to forcing square pegs into round holes. On a practical level, that might mean taking a Claritas Prizm segmentation and imposing it on your customer base. If you’re looking to do a direct mail campaign, maybe that’s okay. If you’re trying to gain new insight, probably not.

But where technology has confused us, I’m hopeful it provides an answer, or at least one answer. The field of social network theory and the software developed to monitor social media are both concerned with linkages and ecosystems and relationships. Just now are we starting to apply those models to more conventional data sets.

The other solution is much more low-tech–good research is part science, surely, but part art. The tension between the humanities and the social sciences is an interesting one. Art (and the humanities) are a harder sell, for sure. Just ask a high school senior. But I don’t think they’re less valuable. Does an overemphasis on science “obscure” one’s openness to art? Perhaps. But data doesn’t segment itself, even with SPSS. You need a person at the other end who can piece together the story, paint the whole picture. That can’t always be done with numbers alone. The trick, as with the Old Masters, is finding a good patron.

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