Why Market Research Is Flawed, And What You Can Do About It

Rigorous Ignorance

Around 80% of new products fail. And yet the majority of products will undergo rigorous testing and focus groups before they are unleashed into the public eye. So why aren’t the results consistent with the research?

To understand why question-based user research and surveys are futile, we must first accept that we are terrible at self-reflection. People assume that they are rational, however 40 years of work in Behavioural Economics has shown this to be false. Emotions, prior experience and context all play a huge role in our decision making. In reality, if people were good at decision-making, they would know better than to smoke, they would wear sun cream and they certainly wouldn’t drink drive. Our rational and self-aware System 2 brain knows that these behaviours can be detrimental to our health, however our irrational and subconscious System 1 brain is a social smoker, who wants a great tan and refers to himself as “Beer-cules”.

System 1 System 2 thinking

Research suggests that our System 1 brain makes between 90-95% of our decisions each day. It is for this reason that not all research techniques can be considered equal. The issue facing market research is that conventional methods assume that customers make decisions about products using their System 2 brain and direct their communications to this area. This is the reason that the attitudes expressed during focus groups do not always match the resulting behaviour. To quote Colin Camerer, (Professor of Behavioural Finance & Economics at Caltech University), to discover what really drives consumer behaviour, “don’t ask the person, ask the brain”.

Customers cannot articulate the drivers underlying their behaviour because they are unable to tap into their subconscious processing. In a study by Kang, Rangel, Camus & Camerer (2011), participants made real and hypothetical choices about purchases of consumer goods. Measurements from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) revealed that brain activation was much stronger in response to real choices. This suggests that when people are placed in a hypothetical situation where they must determine if they would buy a product, they do not have access to the areas of the brain that determine their behaviour. Therefore these responses are unreliable. It is evident that in order to gain a more holistic view from customer research, we need to talk to System 1.

Why do agencies continue to use traditional methods of research, even though the results are flawed?

The simple answer is that focus groups and other conventional research methods are quick, cheap and easy to do. Therefore some agencies may be aware that other methods are more accurate and choose to ignore it. This is known as information avoidance, where people will actively avoid information that threatens their beliefs and the status quo. However, following the crowd (social norms) and lack of awareness may lead to the same result.

If traditional methods are unreliable, how do we speak to the System 1 brain?

Implicit research techniques measure the underlying responses from our subconscious brain. They do not rely on deliberate or controlled self-reporting.

Some examples of these techniques are:

– Implicit association testing (IAT) – measures customer attitudes by measuring the strength of associations between concepts

– Bio-measures – galvanic skin response measures the arousal levels through skin conductance

– Neuroimaging (EEG, fMRI) – looks at blood flow in the brain to detect areas of activity

– Eye-tracking – records eye movements to reveal where customers place their attention

It is unlikely that implicit will replace traditional testing, however a combination of the two methods will allow clearer insight into the context behind decision-making and more successful commercial applications. Implicit association testing can be incorporated into a range of traditional methods to tackle questions such as: which facets of my website are most engaging; which media platform is most effective for my creation execution; which target audience is most strongly associated with my brand; and countless more. It is vital that companies strive harder to incorporate implicit research methods into their mainstream market research to prevent the rigorous ignorance currently associated with product research.

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