I’m not sure what it is. Maybe it’s the time of year and the fact that my upcoming holiday makes me a bit introspective. Maybe it’s the weather, as it’s been a horrendous summer so far in the Netherlands. Or maybe it’s just me, being inundated with tweets, blog post, articles, white papers, vendor briefings, etc., about market research. Whatever the reason, the outcome is the same: I’m currently struggling a bit with the pervasive authoritative voice in the industry. Don’t get me wrong; I’m well aware that I’m as guilty as everyone else. But we all seem so certain about what’s going on in research, what needs to happen, what’s wrong, and what’s right; about who’s in and who’s out. I feel we’re losing an important skill that distinguishes good market researchers from great ones: the ability to doubt.
With market research, there is no absolute truth. Research is about interpretation of results, placing numbers into context, finding the story behind the numbers. Any data set can have multiple stories; it’s the market researcher who uncovers and shares the story that he or she believes to be most powerful for the business. In the end, however, it’s just one perception of the truth. Great researchers know this, and they always challenge themselves, trying to pick holes in their story, finding examples that prove the opposite. The problem with today’s business environment is that it doesn’t leave much room for doubt or uncertainty. In fact, doubt and uncertainty are seen as weaknesses. So, what do we do? We cover up and only show our best side.
For example, I’ve been to quite a number of conferences in the past year, and I’ve only seen one (1!) case study that showed where research had it wrong. We seem to be falling collectively into the “file drawer problem.” When something doesn’t work or doesn’t look good, we store it safely in a drawer never daring to look at it again. Rather than really taking stock of what went right and what went wrong, moving forward with it and announcing it to others as a way to aid in the growth of market research. It doesn’t look good to show that we struggled — and that is both human nature as well as a sign of the times. So we end up with case studies that only show the shiny side of the new toy, and that’s a bad thing. The overall industry could benefit at least as much from stories that show the issues and challenges researchers face as from stories that share their successes.
But who dares to go first?