A few years after graduating with my masters in marketing research, I returned to the University of Texas at Arlington to attend their semi-annual marketing research event. This is around mid-2000s. I had the great opportunity to watch a panel made up of representatives from two research firms and two client firms. The topic of conversation was data and insights (although back then they may have not used the term “insights” as it wasn’t yet the buzz word that it is today). It was interesting to hear the clients at that panel complain about how they just “receive data, bunch of numbers” as their research reports, and that they do not get the “what does this mean for my business?” kind of information. I was nodding my head as I was listening, both with surprise and relief that it wasn’t only my problem, that I wasn’t the only one failing to convert the research data into meaningful business-focused information (again, I doubt I thought of it as “insights” or “story” back then yet, but you get the point).
Fast forward to today, year 2016, approximately 10 years after this experience, and I see that we’re still struggling with this concern: many research studies fail to tell a story! They are delivered to clients in the form of tens or hundreds of slides of charts, numbers, and text that recite the numbers on those charts. There is no translation of those statistics into real business language for a wide variety of audiences who will read that report. Well, so what? We do research to gather data, so naturally we will talk about data, we will deliver data, and that’s bunch of numbers and scores. So, what do we complain about??? Why the cry for stories in the business world? Aren’t stories just for kids?
Why a story?
Neuroscience studies show, through brain scans, when one person tells a story and the other actively listens, their brains actually begin to synchronize (“Stories Synchronize Brains”, written by Roger Dooley at Neuromarketing blog, July 29, 2010).
Facts and pieces of information brought together and presented in a coherent form that connects these pieces of information and demonstrates relationships, basically in a story format, will be more memorable in the audience’s minds. Especially if the story is told in a clear and relatable way, it becomes even more powerful as a communication tool. The audience will relate to what they hear, and the brain will store and recall this information more easily due to familiarity and similarity to other pieces of information from the past. Better recall means that the research user can make greater use of the insights from the research. Additionally, by telling a story where the listener can understand the content, the speaker has a higher persuasive power over the listener.
How can we tell stories from survey research data?
Our best practice uses a four-step process leading to successful communication of market research results to business end-users:
1.Understanding: Context is everything. Before we design a research study, it is critical to understand the business’s objectives, current environment and situation, pain points, the stakeholders’ interests, and the use of information. Researchers gather context about the business and the research needs through the clients, their organization, and other outside sources before planning and designing the study.
2.Planning: We believe in designing a research study with the “end in mind” and look at the process from the end to the beginning. First we focus on the business objectives, then design the way we will deliver the information to meet those objectives, then design the analytic plan to provide this information, and finally design the survey instrument and the sampling frame to collect the data to be analyzed.
3.Discovery: When the data is collected, an essential step is to review the data and discover the story hidden in it. It is a common failure of many market research studies that the researchers deliver a long report of results from the study, basically a dump of information, question by question, without focusing on a story to answer the specific research and business objectives. Instead, a discovery phase needs to occur, where the data is reduced to a coherent story that will answer businesses’ research questions.
4.Communications: Finally, now that the data is reduced to a story, how do we tell that story in the most effective way? This is the last and most important element of delivering research results, as only effective communication of results will accomplish the goal of meeting the business’s research objectives.
As I observe many researchers and their clients initiate and design studies, I see that many do not follow the principles of the second stage listed above, the Planning stage — designing with the end in mind!
In his 1985 HBR article titled ‘Backward’ Market Research, Alan R. Andreasen talks about the Backwards Research Process (BRP). BRP is a method used to ensure that the end product of the research meets the needs of business users. As the name suggests, it is about designing a measurement program in backward sequence, from end to beginning. And that’s where “designing with end in mind” comes into the picture.
As the collective team of researchers and clients starting a particular research study, we need to maintain a focus on the business objectives and envision what the answers to the business questions are going to be based on the data from research. With that envisioning, we need to start by planning the final deliverable, usually a PowerPoint report or presentation. Again, in this report, the focus should be on addressing those original business objectives. Therefore, the report should be designed around those objectives. While we may have a lot of data from the survey or other databases, we do not have to report every piece of data or each question in the survey in this final report.
Once we visualize how we will report the findings to address the business objectives, then we work backward from there to design the analytic plan, then the data collection and sampling, and then the survey instrument. Yes, this is backwards, as many rather follow the chronological order of research process happening, starting with survey, then sampling and data collection, then analytics, and then report. Many times, the conversations about what analysis to conduct and what data breaks we want to look at in cross-tabulations even happens while we’re in the middle of data collection.
However, by designing the research with the end in mind, starting with report design and working back to survey instrument, we identify exactly how we will get to those findings, get to the answers of business questions. What analytical methods do we need to use to answer that question? Whom/what kind of consumers with what kinds of qualifications do we need to survey? What types of questions in what format should we ask to capture the most valid and relevant information?
Unfortunately, as most can relate, there are so many research studies out there, at the completion of which, some important research objectives were not addressed, due to reasons such as “we did not run that analysis”, “we do not have data laid out that way,” or worse, “we have not talked to that consumer group” or “we did not ask that question in the survey.” The first two examples are at least workable, requiring rework, extra time added to the schedule, and maybe extra cost. But the last two examples are not salvageable, unless we want to re-do the research or pay more money/extend timeline to get back into field to capture the information from the needed consumer group. At the end, it either costs us a successful research fulfilling business’s needs, or a combination of time/money/frustration/re-work. None of these are the outcomes we aim for when we excitedly start the research.
Let’s Design to Tell a Story!
Here I call you all, researchers and clients of research studies, to take the time and design your entire research study upfront starting with the final deliverable, working backward to survey instrument, before that survey instrument is approved and finalized by the organization and is ready to be sent to programming. This will save you a lot of time and headache at the end and ensure your ability to find the answers to address your business’s research needs. As discussed earlier, there are more stages to the process to translate the research data into a successful business story, such as finding the nuggets for the story and then communicating it effectively to hit the home run. The most critical stage of the process, nevertheless, is the Planning, the design of the research to ensure the availability of the right information to pull the story from. Backwards or not, this order of designing your research will move you forward from research to business success.