The BigTreetop Blog

  • 02:15:31 pm on September 18, 2008 | 0
    Tags: , , ,

    Large companies are beginning to strongly consider the limits of the consumer survey, and their efforts are nicely laid out in a a recent Ad Age article, which reports on a new series of summits held by the Advertising Research Foundation, which will include companies like Proctor and Gamble, Unilever, ESPN and others.

    “I don’t know if we are going to have a choice but to move away from survey research,” said Donna Goldfarb, VP-consumer and market insights for Unilever Americas, who will headline a Sept. 22 workshop ARF is hosting in New York. “We continue to torture consumers with boring and antiquated search methods.”

    What these companies are proposing instead is the use of what i will call for the purpose of this article “consumer observation” techniques, through which, according to Artie Bulgrin, senior VP-research and sales for ESPN,

    “We can actually improve our [initiative’s] success rate if we just listen a bit more … on a passive basis.”

    Which means that they will be using services which will sniff out conversations around their brand and listen in as a means of gaining insights.  For an example of this methodology, visit this link to see all of the things that have been said on the microblogging service Twitter about Proctor and Gamble.  (you can also search for your own company there as well)

    I would like to suggest a metaphor for the different approaches companies are talking about with respect to their consumer relations.  (note: i am not in any way suggesting that companies ought to treat consumers as monkeys.  heck, i’m one of those monkeys!  ..and heck, i’m looking forward to the day when terms like “consumer” and “user” are replaced by more human terms.)

    Consumer Surveys: Domesticating Consumers
    One way to learn about animals is to put them in a zoo, where you can watch them interact with each other and with the environment.  The problem, however, is that we do get to see them in a real environment, eating their actual food, living their actual lives.  If we were to extrapolate all that we know about animals from the zoo, we would have a very limited knowledge indeed.  ..And animals don’t generally seem suited to this type of treatment, in my opinion.  Consumer surveys and similar methods are similarly limited in the knowledge that they can provide about a real-world consumer.

    Observing Consumers: Understanding them from a Distance
    At the opposite end of the spectrum from domestication, some naturalists prefer to study animals in their natural habitat from a great, objective distance, watching their behaviors through a zoom lens so as to not interfere.  The new approach discussed in the Ad Age article reflects this mindset – and will yield a lot more genuine consumer insights by understanding what we all think and say when the corporate folks aren’t around. While certainly a step ahead of “consumer domestication” in my opinion, there is a third way that needs ongoing consideration:

    Interacting with Consumers: Learning from Each Other
    I would like to suggest a third metaphorical approach to gaining consumer insights which was not mentioned in the article.  It is similar to the approach that famous primatologist Jane Goodall took in understanding primates.  In her work, Jane actually went and lived among primates, interacting with them.  Though her methods have sometimes been criticized for their lack of objectivity, the type of intimate knowledge she gained was far different from methods that sought either to domesticate or to observe from a distance.  The use of social media in business has a great deal of promise in this sort of research.  Companies can now not only observe consumers from a distance, but even interact substantively with them in conversations that will allow each to learn from the other.

    This third metaphor represents a pretty fundamental philosophical shift for companies.  I will write more on my academicky blog in the next few days for those of you interested in a slightly deeper look at this.


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