Get Lost! Buyer Research in a Digital World
“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”
― Arthur Conan Doyle
How do we navigate in a world without landmarks? We create them. In 1714, as more and more ships set sail away from shore, the British government created a prize for the first person to find a way to determine a ship’s east or west position: longitude. Yet mariners rallied against the campaign as the certitude of longitude would erode the serendipity of the sea. Or look at market research, a $73.4 billion industry today. For aeons, understanding buyer preferences was done by observing the needs of society and meeting them better than the competition. With the rise of mass production businesses turned to psychologists and statisticians to quantify consumer behavior through surveys. Innovators, like sailors, bristled against the certitude of statistics. “If I had asked people what they wanted,” Henry Ford noted, “they would have said faster horses.”
Management consulting, originally known as management engineering, began in the same era to quantify and systematize business processes to weed out inefficiencies and irregularities from rapidly expanding companies. Once again entrepreneurs and innovators balked at the idea of outsourcing their instincts. “We never hire consultants,” Steve Jobs quipped, “We just want to make great products.” In every business we are paid to know, and paid to do. We create landmarks when we don’t know, and to set objectives so we know what to do.
The clarity of data is essential to document the past, but it is no way to create the future. Innovation is about deconstructing our old landmarks so that we can reframe our businesses into fresh ideas that create greater value. And in this last year, stuck in a mediated and overly indexed online world, has reinforced this fact. But let’s face it, we will continue to live, work and play online like never before. Even as restrictions are lifted the office, travel and customer research will likely remain heavily reliant on the internet.(1) In a recent Harvard study 81% of workers surveyed either don’t want to fully return to the office or would prefer a type of “hybrid” schedule.(2) 3/4 of people using digital channels for the first time during the pandemic say they will continue using them when things return to “normal.”(3) 91% of CEOs expect business travel to drastically decrease and office space will be reduced by 30% post-pandemic and it is expected that 50% of business travel will not return.(4)
If more and more of our interaction with the marketplace will be conducted online, what are the benefits we should keep and enhance, and what should we change in our remote work to minimize the downsides? First, I’m only focusing on qualitative online research. Plenty of work has been done illustrating how companies use the enormous amount of quantitative data vacuumed up by the billions of web usage every day. Understanding how to conduct online qualitative research to understand the online, and more importantly, offline lives of customers and noncustomers generates greater root-level insights such as the what, who, when, why, where, and how of buyers’ desires.
What are the internet’s benefits to keep and amplify? Convenience: research can be organized and executed faster, easier and at a lower cost with no travel requirements. Scale: simply the scale possible on the internet is incomparable to the physical world. Openness: participants are in their own environment, and studies illustrate that people are more open online than they are offline. Blended Learning: ambient media, blogs, videos, audio and pictures are fantastic in creating a collective narrative by the team to capture noncustomer insights. Multi-lingual: using online translation tools, it is within any teams reach to conduct research outside of their native language. Familiarity: especially after this last year, the online qualitative tools of Zoom, Google Docs, smartphones, etc. are used daily by team members. Synchronous/Asynchronous Workshops: maximize research subjects’ and team members’ time by leveraging the reflective communication of asynchronous consumption and the collective interaction of synchronous workshops.
As I explored in the last article, the technology we create shapes us more than we shape it. And over a year completely engulfed by the digital world we have also witnessed the dark side of the web. Xenophobia, conspiracy theories, tribalism, anxiety…and the list of negatives goes on too long to count. But specifically for business, and even more specifically for strategy and innovation, there are a number of characteristics of the internet that we need to be attentive to and correct in our favor.
In business, as in science, many of the most important discoveries have serendipitous origins. In a study of 33 breakthrough discoveries “in which serendipity played a crucial role” concluded that “when it comes to ‘chance’ factors, few ‘tell it like it was’”.(5) Businesses love a simple cause and effect case study when sometimes its just plain luck. And randomness is rewarded by buyers. A recent study found that serendipity led to a 10%-25% increase in enjoyment and satisfaction of a product or experience.(6) The internet is as random or structured as one allows it to be. We humans prefer organization, confirming information and ordered categories so the internet too often resembles a library.
Online you need to have a sense of purpose in creating randomness. Noncustomers are always the first stop. Once you enter the online world of your noncustomers — facebook pages, search results, news feeds, reddit posts — a universe of buyer behavior opens up that you have likely never considered. To push variability further, we have a serendipity button on our platform that randomly chooses a buyer group and location the team must take time to explore during their research. Another way to push against the claustrophobic confines of the internet and focus on spaces that are an open book. Be inspired by slow TV, which is online or television coverage of an ordinary event in its complete length. It could be a train trip, a city street corner, a sheep shearing session, whatever, but do it for your marketplace.(7) Simply open a live stream where you want to explore noncustomers.
An open, or weak narrative, gives your mind back to you. By observing life, even if it is thousands of kilometers away and online, your team is inspired to interpret information in a way that is familiarly human. For your business it moves the individual “I think” to a collective “me and you think” by spending the slow time interpreting the mundane. In our business over the last year we’ve found a multitude of ways to disorganize the internet and add a level of chance to discovery. The point is to push against the technologies we create so that we shape them more than they shape us.
© Jason Hunter, Corners Group
1) Before the pandemic two-thirds of global consulting and training initiatives were focused on “getting boots on the ground” to understand buyers. 83% of managers reported that they do most of their work in customer-focused teams while 80% of employees surveyed said they fully understand their customers. Yet only 8% of customers believed companies understood them.
(2) Michele Reynolds, “Is ‘business as usual’ gone for good?” The Harvard Gazzette. March 25, 2021.
(3) Aamer Baig, Bryce Hall, Paul Jenkins, Eric Lamarre, and Brian McCarthy “The COVID-19 recovery will be digital: A plan for the first 90 days” McKinsey & Co. May 14, 2020.
(4) Alan Murray and David Meyer, “Here’s what CEOs see coming after the pandemic” Fortune. May 20, 2020.
(5) Fink, T.M.A., Reeves, M., Palma, R. et al. “Serendipity and strategy in rapid innovation.” Nature 8, 2017.
(6) Aekyoung Kim, Felipe M. Affonso, Juliano Laran, “Serendipity: Chance Encounters in the Marketplace Enhance Consumer Satisfaction” Journal of Marketing. May 17, 2021 .
(7) Consider that at any moment there are thousands of live streams and hundreds of thousands of users on Reddit’s “Where in the World” subreddit. WindowSwap is another alternative featuring livestreams from 175 different countries. Or how a seven-hour and 14-minute-long train ride became one of Norway’s most watched television shows in history.