June 11, 2014

Fact-Free Research

While I am fond of calling advertising pundits, trade press reporters, and marketing gurus morons, nitwits, and cement-heads, the truth is many of them are pretty smart.

So how can it be that they have been so wrong about so many things over the past 10 years? For example, we've been told for 10 years that TV was dying when in fact viewing has reached record highs. How can this be?

Part of the problem is "narratives" -- the stories that cultures spawn. Once a narrative is born, it is very hard to kill.

Equally important is our naivete about what we call "research."

Last week I wrote about the lack of understanding of mathematics that plagues our industry. This is also true of our deficiencies in understanding research.

In the hard sciences, research is reasonably reliable because they measure things. In the soft (social) sciences, research is often not about measuring things, but about asking questions.

One of the most unreliable practices of our marketing "researchers" is to ask people questions instead of measuring their behavior. In other words, rather than watching to see if you're cheating on your girlfirend, they ask you if you are. Then they treat your answer as a fact rather than just the bullshit it is.

The consequence of this is that a great many of the surveys, reports, and studies we read tell us nothing about what we're trying to understand, they tell us what people say about what we're trying to understand. A very different thing.

Here's an example:

A recent article in Ad Age on loyalty programs, reported that...
...The number spikes to 37% when it comes to millennials surveyed for the study, who said they would not be loyal to a brand that doesn't have a strong loyalty program...
According to the study, 68% change when and where they make purchases to get loyalty rewards, and 60% will switch brands if incentivized.
They use numbers and percents to pretend they have facts. There isn't a fact in sight. All they have is what people say they do. There is no more unreliable way to ascertain what people actually do than to ask them.

Like this...

A couple of years, ago Forbes ran an article with this headline: CES: Survey Finds Traditional TV Viewing Is Collapsing. 

The "research" was done by Accenture, the consulting company. Listen to this frenzied nonsense from the report:
"...the number of consumers who watch broadcast or cable television in a typical week plunged to 48% in 2011 from 71% in 2009
Those are absolutely stunning results, which is (sic) accurate suggest that consumer behavior on television watching is changing faster than anyone had expected."
Accenture’s explanation for the trend is that the TV is losing ground to other devices – mobile phones, laptops and tablets..."
All this hysteria was based on asking people questions, not measuring their behavior.

Fortunately, someone was actually measuring behavior during this period, so we can see how wrong the self-reported baloney was (click chart to enlarge.)

According to Nielsen's Cross-Platform report (Q3, 2013) TV viewing during the period of Accenture's "collapse" didn't change at all. The only thing that changed were the answers that people gave to Accenture's annoying survey takers.

Accenture's "absolutely stunning results" were stunning all right. Stunningly wrong. 


Anders Bisgaard Madsen said...

"In the soft (social) sciences, research is often not about measuring things, but about asking questions. "
There is a big difference between qualitative research (soft social science) and surveying people with internet polls. The later would actually be placed under quantitative research. It's ludicrous to use surveys on things you can actually measure, unless the goal is to show the reliability of said surveys. Surveys can be fine, but the devil is in the detail, aka the formulation of the questions.

Cecil B. DeMille said...

Let's take a poll in the comments and masquerade our opinions as fact. We can be like the ad trade press, most cable news, and that supposed know-it-all down the hall that no one likes.

Jim Powell said...

A recent survey I read asked people if they would look for offers on beer, cider and snacks to be on offer during the world cup, 64% said yes.

Whatever next ? People would like things to be cheaper you say? The brains I tell you, the brains. It is like we have uncovered the true nature of humanity. Jim would you drive an Aston Martin if it was free?

My fave bit is this though - Forty-eight per cent of those interested in getting involved were male shoppers and 23 per cent female.


Shanghai61 said...

An excellent qualitative researcher I worked with used to say "there are three main problems with consumer research: people don't know what they really think, they don't say what they really mean, and they don't really mean what they do say".

Asking people 'what they did' is, at best, a poor memory test and, at worst, an invitation to lie - and almost as dangerous as asking people 'why' they did something.

Timm said...

The best thing about statistics is you can decide the outcome first, then make the numbers fit afterwards