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Through a glass darkly – understanding customers through research

Here’s a link to a provocative piece by Jim Carroll, chair of BBH London about how difficult it is for us to reach customers in the moment. And how too often research relies on asking people to remember what they were doing. The answer I believe is that of contextual research. You either need to run an ethnogaphy study and follow people through as they buy and use products. Or you need to take people’s context ‘pulse’ so they record their emotional state at the time and some other basic information,. Spring Research where I work has a product exactly like this. But what brought this post on was not contextual research or mirrors but the idea of using preraphaelite painting (the Lady of Shalott) and the poem by Tennyson as a way of talking about it.  Research has got itself bogged down in the prose business. Earnestly using words to capture customer experience. I was intrigued that Jim Carroll to talk about it opted instead to use art and poetry.

The big news at the moment is Big Data which is going to come and eat us all alive or transform customer understanding (your perspective depends on whether you are a research professional or a buyer) . But there’s a lot more threat to research than big data. Companies buy art (usually to decorate their boardrooms) and they are increasingly investing in content strategies which attract their customers and help them learn more about them. Which might just be entertainment, but could as equally be education or partnership in environmental or social issues.  These are just as useful for understanding human feelings and behaviour as automated tracking of behaviour. I suggest that these are just as much rivals for market research. The received wiskdom is that  they can’t possibly match the ferocity of the researchers direct assault – will you please answer my question?  But like big data it reveals what moves people. What activates people.  Big data doesn’t cover all of that. So expect much more creative interpretation of best seller lists and film reviews. It is popular culture which can also tell us a lot about what people care about and where they choose to spend their time. Some enlightened agencies are starting to follow the culture trail.

In the interview with Stanley Pollitts daughters which I posted before Christmas it turned out that his father was a portrait painter trained by Holman Hunt and the Pollitt family still own a collection of Hunt’s drawings and sketches. Interesting to discover that a father of account planning was a polymath who included preraphaelite art as one of his passsions.

You can read the rest of the Tennyson poem here.


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