Rethinking market research in the digital world

Market research is still perceived by many consumers as a conventional activity involving clipboards and lengthy questionnaires. But a combination of technology and radical thinking has changed what the industry can deliver and how it gets those results.

Sutherland Labs in London is a research outfit that employs the skills of psychologists, anthropologists and documentary film-makers to plot the lives and discover the motivations of consumers. Their role is to fit into the shoes of their research subjects.

Rather than just asking a series of questions, the company goes in search of the behaviour that shapes buying decisions. Its researchers will shadow willing participants while they use a particular train service or fly with an airline, observing and filming them in order to study the whole gamut of experiences that go to make up the customers’ real relationship with a brand.

Owen Daly-Jones, who runs Sutherland Labs, explains the thinking behind his immersive approach to customer research. “When a brand thinks it understands its customer that means it has a level of understanding of one person in a household who has signed up for that service,” he says. “But the brand does not understand the other people in that household who influence the buying behaviour.”

To prise open this intimate layer of influence, Sutherland Labs will shadow individuals inside their own homes, searching for motives in that person’s purchasing decision such as the opinions of marital partners.

A similar approach is in use at the research arm of media planning giant MediaCom. This agency uses a panel of 40 families in an exercise it refers to as Real World Britain. These domestic groups are set various tasks which they film via their own smartphones.

The agency’s subjects may set up tripods or another family member may assume the film-maker’s mantle while they decide what to eat or watch on TV. Pauline Robson heads up the research team and thinks that staying at arm’s length while people relax in the presence of family members delivers an authenticity to her studies that was lacking before smartphones turned everyone into a potential cameraman. “People do forget that someone will be watching them – it becomes real fly-on-the-wall stuff,” she says.

In recent years, a new factor has emerged to cloud the picture of what influences customers. The self-service approach of online commerce, with customers carrying out administrative tasks on behalf of the supplier as they fill in forms and complete order details, is another challenge to market researchers. How can a business understand what is going through the minds of website visitors as they reach a decision on whether to buy a product or to disengage with the site?

The Direct Line insurance group is concerned with how people navigate this online world. It has 16 million active insurance policies and a clutch of different brands, such as Churchill and Privilege, in its portfolio. This wide scope means Direct Line has to keep on top of how these brands communicate to their respective customer bases.

Mark Evans, Direct Line’s marketing director, stresses that with different brands representing insurance products he has to know the target audience is getting the message. Without this he fears a “brand collision”. This dramatic event means advertising to the same customers twice over and that is a wasted expense which Direct Line relies on market research to avoid.

“Market research used to be dominated by focus groups and lengthy phone interviews,” Mr Evans recalls. Today he sees a world of online activity where technology can track the movements of a customer across a specific page on a website. “We see the customer journey, how they move around the internet. And then they might phone us while they are on the website.”

If customers feel they will get better service, then market research is accepted

Such multiple contact points between a company and its customers allow more information to be gathered about how that customer behaves. For Mr Evans, this is about spotting the pain points, places in the website that cause customers difficulty and might deter them from completing a purchase.

Software embedded in the website can see where a computer mouse pauses and how long it takes customers to complete a task. Using this software Direct Line identifies tricky online locations. It then launches web-chat options that allow people to type queries to a service desk that could help them negotiate any obstacles. This is real-time market research performed by monitoring visitors to its websites.

If technology has presented new avenues for marketing and market research, it has also changed attitudes among the subjects of the research. Brian Jensen, managing partner at customer experience agency OgilvyOne, believes that the public is quite relaxed about being monitored as it goes about its online business.

“Customers are becoming more comfortable about how their data is used,” he says. “If they feel they will get better service, then the market research element is accepted. But brands must be transparent with them about that process.”

The public’s rush to embrace digital technology is an unexpected bonus for market researchers. Customers accept they are being analysed as they click in and hover over a website. The big opportunity here is not in the indiscriminate observation of these customers. It involves working out what they are telling their chosen brands as they shop online and then treating that message as a business priority.