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What Does the Fox Say?

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Nate Silver’s much anticipated (at least by some of us) new venture, launched recently. In his manifesto he describes it as a “data journalism” effort, and for those of us who have followed his work over the last five years – from the use of sabermetrics in baseball analysis through the predictions of presidential politics – there is plenty to look forward to. Apart from the above topics, his website is focusing on other interesting areas such as science, economics and lifestyle, bringing data-driven rigor and simple explanation to the understanding of all these fields. It follows the template of the blog he ran for the New York Times as well his bestselling book, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail, But Some Don’t. As a market researcher, I found much to like in the basic framework he has laid out for his effort.

In critiquing traditional journalism, Nate describes a quadrant using two axes – Qualitative versus Quantitative, and Rigorous & Empirical versus Anecdotal & Ad-hoc.

qual quant market researchSource:www.fivethirtyeight.com

He is looking to occupy the mostly open top left quadrant, while arguing that opinion columnists too often occupy the bottom right quadrant and traditional journalism generally occupies the bottom left quadrant. For someone with such a quantitative background he is not dismissing the qualitative side at all. On the contrary, he argues that it is possible to be qualitative and rigorous and empirical, if one is careful about the observations made (and cites examples of journalists such as Ezra Klein, who occupy the top right quadrant).

For those of us in market research the qualitative versus quantitative dimension is, of course, very familiar. Somewhat less so is the second dimension – rigorous and empirical versus anecdotal and ad-hoc. But this second dimension is especially important to consider because it directly affects our ability to appropriately generalize the insights we develop. As practicing researchers, we know that qualitative research is excellent for discovery and quantitative is great for generalizations. But we also know that is not always the way things are done in practice.

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fruplaitWe recently conducted an online survey on behalf of a national food brand in which we displayed various images of a grocery store’s shelf space and asked consumers to select the product they would purchase from among those shown on the shelves. This project was successful at differentiating consumer choice based on how the products were packaged, and gave our client important information on package design direct from their target consumers.

That project got me thinking about how shelf space is a limited resource, and in some cases purchase decisions are influenced as much by what’s not on the shelf as by what’s on it.

For example, my Yoplait Fruplait yogurt has gone missing. And I blame you, Greek yogurt.

Fruplait is a delicious (to me) yogurt-fruit concoction that’s heavy on the fruit. There are four single servings to a pack and there are four fruit flavors from which to choose.

I had a wonderful relationship with Fruplait up until the time Greek yogurt started hitting the shelves. With Greek yogurt muscling in and shelf space at a premium, suddenly, the number of flavors in a given store was reduced. Then some stores stopped carrying Fruplait. Now, none of the four stores at which I typically shop carries it at all (it’s still available at some retailers).

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survey questions be clear on choicesI’m happy to work for a research company that embraces the philosophy that the respondent experience should be as close to the consumer experience as possible in order to elicit the most useful and actionable information. To that end, we employ different techniques that allow our survey participants to make choices – similar to what they would do in the real world. In so doing, we can provide results that are informative and actionable.

But enough of the sales pitch. I recently faced a problem that made me think of choice in an entirely new way: what if a consumer has a choice but doesn’t realize it? What are the potential consequences?

In my case, my physician ordered a treatment that required pre-certification by my insurance company. When I called for pre-certification, I inquired about the cost (my doc had warned me that the treatment can be very expensive). I was told it would be covered under a $250 co-pay.

I got the treatment and several months later the facility that administered my treatment sent me a bill for $1,500. After a lot of phone calls to my doctor, the facility and my insurance company, we finally determined what happened: my treatment can be performed either in a physician’s office (subject to the $250 co-pay) or at an outpatient facility (subject to a $1,500 outpatient deductible). Yet when I iniitally asked about the cost, the representative only told me about the in-office cost – without informing me that this cost only applied to in-office treatments. I was never told that where I received the treatment had a bearing on what I would pay. So I blindly made my appointment at the treatment facility recommended by my doctor.

We know that decisions should never be made in a vacuum. As researchers, we need to pay attention not only to the choices that we’re putting in front of our survey participants, but also to their awareness of whether or not these options even exist. For example, we’re about to launch a survey about an add-on to an existing technology. But we need to take into account whether the respondents even know that the existing technology is available to them – let alone the add-on. Defining and describing the existing product will help us put how interestested participants are in the add-on into context for our client. The more our participants know about their choices, the less likely they are to make a “mistake” in the choice task we put in front of them, and the better the data for our clients.  

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Every year, the fall harvest yields tasty pumpkins used in traditional baking and the carved pumpkin has become a symbol of the autumn holidays.

In the past few years, pumpkins have spread beyond the traditional baked goods of pies, loafs and muffins and can now be tasted in just about any type of cuisine imaginable. From beverages to entrees and salads to candy and ice cream, pumpkin flavoring is enjoying its moment in the sun.

But do people really like pumpkin flavored coffees and Pumpkin Spice M&Ms? And if pumpkin is so desirable, should it be available all year round?

We polled our trusty consumer panel, and here’s what we found:

Pumpkin pie isn’t enjoyed by everybody.

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I attended IIeX (Insight Innovation Exchange) in June 2013 where the message was all about dramatic change coming and coming fast. A sort of “innovate or die” message. I expected CASRO’s annual conference to take almost the opposite view. After the first day I am pleased to say that while the view from CASRO is more measured, there is little doubt that change is coming.

From the opening remarks the focus has been on change. Not how to avoid it, but how to embrace it. IIeX presented the opportunity to see how new methods are being used and lots of sessions on new products and services that offer both opportunity and threat to the status quo. CASRO is less specific and focuses more about how to think differently, how to recognize opportunities and how to innovate to stay relevant. In the end, however, the message is clear…you must innovate.

This should come as no surprise to researchers. Whether you do product development as we do, or virtually any kind of research, we advise our clients on how to change to meet the demands of the market. Why then should we expect to be any different in our own business?

So, while I expected the two conferences to present distinctly different views, I am pleased to say they are presenting complementary views.   I walked away from IIeX with lots of ideas on how to apply some great new tools. Thus far I have grown in confidence that I’m on the right track and I have new ways to look at the innovation process. It has already helped me refine my thinking and caused me to want to accelerate change in my company.

We’ll see what the next two days of CASRO hold in store. Ideally I will be glad to have been at both IIeX and CASRO and have a hard time saying which one was the most valuable. One thing I can say, however, is this: while my friend Lenny Murphy has done an outstanding job leading the call for change in this industry, CASRO still outshines IIeX when it comes to food and drink.  

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