Don’t ask me

Sometimes research can be your worst enemy.  “How so?” I hear you cry.

Consider this example.  Many newspapers are confronted with a conundrum.  More people are reading the paper (mostly online), but fewer people are buying it (paper edition).  Revenue falls while the demand for more content continues to rise.  One response is the pay wall.  But this threatens to marginalise your title and it appears to give other free offers a big advantage.  The Guardian’s response has been to appeal for voluntary contributions through different levels of ‘membership’.


Given the paper’s history and its loyal following among those who share a broadly liberal ideology (myself very much included) this seems pretty sensible.

But, if we look a bit further, here’s the ‘rationale offered to prospective members:


Let me draw your attention to the bit about revenues falling fast.  Behavioural economics and the writings of Mark Earls (‘Herdmeister’) give us some clear learning around this.  Telling people that others, like them, are deserting the paper in their droves is the worst thing you could possibly say.  Much better to say that more and more people are subscribing online.

There’s a significant body of experimental evidence for this.  Richard Shotton quotes a fab example from the Arizona national park, in which visitors were taking away start wood in alarming quantities.  The park authorities set up an observed section and tested three approaches: i) said lots of other people were taking wood home and this was depleting the area so please don’t take wood home ii) said most people don’t take wood home, so please don’t you take wood home either and iii) control saying nothing.  The second approach asking people to fall in with ‘herd’ behaviour was by far the most successful Indeed approach (i) actually seemed to encourage the taking of wood.  This result is echoed in lots of other studies.

So why is The Guardian – a smart operation with sophisticated marketing – getting it so seemingly wrong?

I would venture to suggest it’s because they have relied on asking people questions – using market research.  I know this is true because I have been a respondent in some of this research too.

In short, if you ask people what to do, they will give the common sense answer.  If you want me (and others like me, who support you) to remedy this revenue problem, it seems sensible to explain the situation and, because we want the same thing, we’ll offer our help – we’ll subscribe.  But we won’t.  because behaviour doesn’t follow those rules.  Marketing doesn’t work by explaining what I need you to do which prompts you to behave accordingly.  People don’t act to maximise their utility and they don’t do what you ask them to do – at least not directly.  It’s oblique.  The world of brands and marketing doesn’t make sense if you treat people as rational utility-maximising agents.  Most of the world’s most successful brands wouldn’t exist (and we’d be poorer for it).

Sadly, modern marketers seem to be using market research as a simple mechanism for asking people their opinions.  What’s needed is a proper model of influence – a set of hypotheses around which stimulus will provoke what response. Then, based on the answers we get to our questions, we diagnose the solution.  We don’t simply ask people what to do then do it.

I do hope the Guardian gets over this myopia.  We’d be much poorer without it.



Generational generalising

Millenial bollocks

We read a lot these days about Millennials.  My HR team say they’re revolutionising the world of employment because they have different hopes and dreams to other cohorts.  I say bollocks.

Millennials are in a younger cohort.  But mostly, they’re just younger.

Cohort generalisations are seductive.  They allow us to make sweeping generalisations which lend themselves to neat stories.  Boomers were the first generation to enjoy contraception and they gave us the swinging sixties.  They carried those hedonistic values through and now they refuse to grow old gracefully.  Their children – Generation X – rebelled against this rebellion and adopted values which are more staid and rigid.  Their children are Gen Y who…. blah blah blah. I’m not buying it.

Why?  Because twenty years ago, we were saying exactly the same things about Generation X, when they were in that pre-family lifestage.  They too appeared to value authenticity.  They were less materialistic.  They would save humanity.  They wanted experiences over possessions.  Simple pleasures.  They sought control over their lives.  They were getting used to the idea there were no jobs for life and embracing a future of self-determination.  Climate change hadn’t hit the headlines, but if it had, they’d be in the vanguard of fighting it.  They had ideals.  It’s called being young.

So why are Millennials more accepting of their ageing looks?  Because they’re not ageing.  They’re young.

Worse, this whole conversation betrays a misunderstanding of how segmentation works.  When we use consumer segments in marketing the idea is to start with a behaviour we want to explain – say who does or doesn’t buy our brand – and then relate this back to the various dynamics that influence it.  Could be demographics, psychographics, generational cohort, whatever.  It doesn’t work the other way around.  Define a group which may or may not be meaningful and then try to describe how they’re different to another group.  This can be interesting, but it’s always likely to lead to this kind of spurious analysis which doesn’t help much.

It also flies in the face of all the evidence that age is increasingly a very poor predictor of behaviour.  We really don’t act our age any more.

Add to that the now unfashionable idea of need-states, which reminds us that we drift in and out of our various roles, making generalisations misleading.  In the parlance…the same person is more different on two occasions than two individuals are on the same occasion.

So after this eminently balanced and reasonable piece, I say to you:  “Millennials, my arse”.






Bad research

Conducting market research is a dying art, it seems.  I’ve seen a lot of really bad research recently and it worries me.  I’m a bit sad like that.

Here are just a couple of examples of questions from surveys commissioned by significant clients who probably should know better from significant research companies who definitely should know better.  I have loads more.  I’ve been collecting them.  There, I told you I was sad.

What’s wrong with this one?bad question 1

Just try answering it.  You can’t possibly know this information without having kept a diary on the subject for the 30 days in question (which would be a better way to get the information, no?)

What about this one?

bad question 2

This one’s a bit more insidious, because you might be tempted to have a stab.  But it’s obvious we don’t know how far we are influenced by these things.  Imagining we do is a bit worrying.  Any worthwhile basic training in research would tell you that very early on.

In real life, respondents will do their best to answer, but the data will be nonsense.  It will be used as though it were the truth.  Oh dear.

The problem is that marketers in some companies have seemingly lost the instinct for research. Like understanding that it’s more about designing experiments than it is about asking questions.  It seems the modern way is to write down what question we need to answer – like what influences our target audience – and simply ask them.

Come on chaps.  We can do better than this.