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United we understand

Conducting research with, rather than on, people can give incisive glimpses into their behaviour
Co-operative inquiry is a technique well-known to academics but almost virgin territory for marketers
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

Researchers probing human behaviour have always confronted a problem: how do they know whether respondents are actually telling the truth? Classically, their solution has been to get their deceit in first, obscuring from respondents the true objectives of the research, and masking the real methodology involved.

This lab-rat approach to human understanding reached its nadir in the early ‘60s. In one infamous study, respondents were asked to apply electric shocks, in escalating voltages, to what they thought were fellow volunteers engaged in a pre-set task.

The ostensible research objective was to explore the connection between punishment and learning: the shocks were ordered to be applied each time a task-error was made. In reality, researchers were interested in the extent to which subjects would obey orders. The recipients of the shocks were stooges, whose feigned screams of agony were frequently ignored by respondents, in their obedience to the researcher’s demand for more pain.

Today, nobody applies shocks, real or otherwise, to consumers in the search for truth; aside from anything else, the technology has moved on a bit. Today’s dark arts are practised with the aid of MRI scanners, facial EMG electrodes and, as next week’s MRS Retail Research Conference promises, ‘eye-tracking and video surveillance’ techniques. What hasn’t changed is the objective: to extract veracity from respondents deemed to be too unreliable to be taken at face value.

Still, as a marketer, what do you do if you sense that consumers have become savvy and disingenuous in their answers to traditional focus group probing? Well, you could join the arms race and patronise these neuroscience methodologies and their supposedly laser-accurate, though creepy, technologies.

Alternatively, you could venture to the opposite end of the spectrum, and invite respondents inside the research command tent. You could embrace co-operative inquiry.

This counter-intuitive methodology is well-known to academics but almost virgin territory for marketers. It challenges the most fundamental tenet of conventional qualitative research: the notion that some kind of ‘we’ studies some kind of ‘them’.

Instead, the methodology closes the separation between researcher (traditionally the active agent) and respondents (traditionally the passive subjects). The result is ‘active subjects’, fully aware of the objectives of the research, and fully participating in the exploration of their own behaviour and the extrapolation of meaningful conclusions.

Co-operative inquiry breaks with the terminology, as well as the methods, of conventional research. Respondents are called ‘co-researchers’. Together they form an ‘inquiry group’.

I have worked with co-operative inquiry methods many times and have always been struck by two things: the sense of responsibility that people bring to the exercise when they feel part of the research team, and the penetrating glimpses into human behaviour that you achieve from the committed engagement of intelligent people with an objective they understand.

Whether the results are as accurate as sticking a probe directly into someone’s brain is moot; perhaps they are not. Either way, though, absolute truth from qualitative research will remain an elusive goal. In the end, co-operative inquiry will appeal to marketers whose concern is not just efficacy, but ethics.

Consumers as lab rats

The techniques of wiring consumers to electrodes, close-eye tracking and galvanic skin response have taken off in recent years in the marketing quest to better meet ‘consumer needs’…

GMTV researched morning ad viewing

GMTV researched morning ad viewing

In the UK, Honda has used the techniques of neuroscience to research the emotions of buyers visiting car dealerships. Heart rate, respiration and muscle contraction were logged to help identify triggers of sale.

John Bunyard of the Newcomen Group claimed that, ‘in an ideal world, the (research) technology would be invisible and the subject barely conscious of wearing it.’

PayPal changed its communications emphasis from security to speed after conducting brain-wave research to find out what turns people on.

GMTV, in conjunction with Neurosense, used the technique of functional magnetic resonance imaging to establish that natural increases in cortisol in the morning result in greater absorption and memory of ads seen at this time – providing a neat argument to advertisers for greater investment.

Not everyone is a fan: Craig Bennett, a scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that the MRI-based signals of brain activity of a dead Atlantic salmon were similar to those that neuromarketers see when testing commercials on consumers.