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Michele Sims

Michele Sims

VP / Research Management


Michele likes to hijack TRC's online consumer panel to get relevant answers to her burning research questions. She loves asking questions relating to her favorite hobbies - TV and movies, golf, casino gambling and travel - and more often than not the answers can be generalized across industries.


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Sandy Hingston wrote an article appearing in the March 2014 Philadelphia Magazine about Milennials’ lack of interest in history, specifically as it relates to baseball (read abridged version here). Later in the article, she quotes Matthew Futterman, who posited in the Wall Street Journal that two key changes to baseball’s rules will produce a shorter, faster-paced game that will attract more youngsters. This notion didn’t sit well with Sandy Hingston.  

But it did sit well with me. Very well, in fact. I’m a Boomer like Hingston, not a Millenial, but I find myself increasingly frustrated by things that, put simply, take too long. Baseball is one of them. In fact, my TV viewing of the Phillies (go Phils!) decreased as my TV viewing of another professional sport was on the rise: golf.

Anybody who watches golf on TV, or attends an event live, will attest that players can take a very long time in between shots, which is essentially the same criticism lobbed at pitchers who take too long between throws. Slow-play in golf is a hot topic, and the golf powers-that-be are quite willing to put players “on the clock” for taking their good sweet time. So to be fair, both sports are grappling with this issue.

A first or second round of professional golf will take the better part of a day to televise. A 9-inning baseball game, in contrast, lasts around 3 hours. Given the disparity between how long each event takes, one would think that I, as someone interested in fast action, would prefer watching baseball. But that’s just not the case.

This got me thinking about an issue that we grapple with in market research: respondent tedium. Long attribute batteries of low personal relevance can tax a respondent’s patience. Even being compensated doesn’t always overcome the glaze that forms over their eyes when faced with mundane, repetitive tasks. That’s why we do our best to keep respondents engaged by having them make choices (our Bracket technique is a good example of this). In bracket, the choices become more relevant as the task progresses – not unlike how play at the end of a close game or match becomes more exciting to the viewer.

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  • Ed Olesky
    Ed Olesky says #
    Very interesting, Michele. I'll be looking forward to reading Part 2. Hope you are doing well! Maryann

As most anyone living on the East Coast can attest, the winter of 2013-2014 was, to put it nicely, crappy. Storms, outages, freezing temperatures…. We had a winter the likes of which we haven’t experienced in a while. And it wasn’t limited to the East Coast – much of the US had harsher conditions than normal.

Here in the office we did a lot of complaining. I mean a lot. Every day somebody would remark about how cold it was, how their kids were missing too much school, how potholes were killing their car’s suspension… if there was a problem we could whine about, we did.

Now that it’s spring and we’re celebrating the return of normalcy to our lives, we wonder… just what was it about this past winter that was the absolute worst part of it? Sure, taken as a whole it was pretty awful, but what was the one thing that was the most heinous?

Fortunately for us, we have a cool tool that we could use to answer this question. We enlisted the aid of our consumer panel and our agile and rigorous product Message Test Express™ to find the answer. MTE™ uses our proprietary Bracket™ tool which takes a tournament approach to prioritizing lists. Our goal; find out which item associated with winter was the most egregious.

Our 200 participants had to live in an area that experiences winter weather conditions, believe that this winter was worse or the same as previous winters, and have hated, disliked or tolerated it (no ski bums allowed).

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  • Ed Olesky
    Ed Olesky says #
    Now this is a research topic relevant to all!

We 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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I’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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Critics vs. TV Viewers

Posted by on in A Day in a (MR) Life

In the last episode of my blog, we compared the list of best TV shows of 2012 for two groups: 45 TV critics, as compiled by Metacritic, and 542 average TV viewers who ranked shows using our Bracket™ prioritization tool. The two groups had six shows in common on their Top 20 lists, including two from AMC: “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead.”

We wondered whether access to more content (through having basic cable or premium channels) would correlate with viewers’ opinions of the top shows.

Before we get to that, it’s interesting to note that the TV critics didn’t favor premium channel or basic cable programming. In fact, fully half of their 20 “best” shows of 2012 aired on the “standard” networks. TV viewers only had one more network show in their own top 20 than the critics did.

  Critic Top 20 List TV Viewer Top 20 List
Standard network shows (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, PBS) 10 11
Basic cable shows 6 6
Premium channel shows (HBO, Cinemax, Starz, Showtime) 4 3
Total 20 20

 

So, do TV viewers with premium channels choose more premium channel shows than those without? Well, that’s a little complicated.

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Tagged in: Prioritization

TV critics seem to think so. In 2012 they rated the AMC series the best show on television for that year. Now, they didn’t get together for a voting party, nor did they cast secret ballots in order to determine this. Instead, the website Metacritic analyzed the top 10 lists of 45 TV critics from the year 2012 and assigned point values to each show mentioned (see the list and the ranking criteria here). “Breaking Bad” came out on top and a mix of shows from basic cable, premium channels and the standard networks made up the rest of the list.

2012 TV Critic Top 20 as Reported by Metacritic
Breaking Bad (AMC)
Mad Men (AMC)
Homeland (Showtime)
Louie (FX)
Girls (HBO)
The Walking Dead (AMC)
Parks and Recreation (NBC)
Game of Thrones (HBO)
Downton Abbey (PBS)
Justified (NBC)
Parenthood (NBC)
Sherlock (PBS)
The Good Wife (CBS)
Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
Modern Family (ABC)
Community (NBC)
American Horror Story (FX)
New Girl (Fox)
30 Rock (NBC)
Nashville (ABC)

 

Traditionally we measure what TV viewers think of shows based on what they watch – in other words, the “ratings” or share of audience that are measured and reported. But anybody who’s spent as much time watching made-for-SyFy movies as I have knows that what you watch doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of what you’re watching. I can attest that those SyFy movies are among the most entertaining shows on TV, but they’re not on anyone’s “best” lists – certainly not mine.

So if we don’t look at ratings, how can we determine what TV viewers think are the best shows on TV? We did some research to find out.

First, we partnered with a reputable national online research panel to recruit our respondents. We invited male and female TV viewers age 18 and older to take the survey on our site. They had to watch at least 2 hours of TV content a day, weekdays or weekends, to qualify.

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I'm 5'5" tall, and my neck hurts. No, not all the time, just when I fly. And why does my neck hurt? Simple. Most economy-class seats have stationary bump-out head rests. Now, I’m not quite sure why these headrests bump out like this, since travelers of differing heights will surely experience them differently. My particular problem is that I’m just tall enough to get the back of my head to the bump-out...which means that when I place my head against it it pushes my entire head forward and down. So my neck hurts.

My best solution so far is to buy a neck pillow and wear it backwards. This helps to prop up my chin, but the bump-out and the neck pillow are in a constant battle for supremacy, and usually the bump-out wins.

So what does this have to do with research? Plenty. I wanted to know if other airline passengers would get excited by the prospect of an adjustable headrest to accommodate their needs. Of course, everyone would be happy with something designed just for them, so we tested it alongside other potential cabin improvements to see where it would land.

CABIN IMPROVEMENTS TESTED:
Adjustable headrest to accommodate any size traveler
Denser seat cushions for added comfort
Folding foot rests to elevate your feet
Lumbar support built into the seat backs
More leg room than in a standard exit row seat
Roomier seats - 2 inches wider than most domestic airlines
Seats recline 5 degrees further than other airlines' seats
Tray tables with non-slip surface - better for gripping beverages

 

We surveyed our intrepid online research panelists, limited the pool to those who fly, and applied our Message Test Express™technique, which is a tournament-style method of having respondents make choices from a list of items. MTE delivers rank ordering with a numeric value so you can see not just how they ranked, but how close they were in the order.

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My favorite feature of Quirk's Marketing Research e-newsletter is Research War Stories. In one issue this spring, Arnie Fishman reported that he had an unexpectedly high result when he asked research participants whether they eat dog food "all the time." He framed the question by asking how often they ate each of a variety of "exotic foods," including rattlesnake meat and frog kidneys, among others.

This got us thinking that maybe you'd get a different result if you asked just about dog food rather than about dog food amongst other crazy types of foods. So, being the researchers that we are, we designed a monadic design experiment to see what would happen.

Using Arnie's same framework of exotic foods, we asked one group of our online research panelists how frequently they eat dog food. On the next screen we asked the same question about rattlesnake meat. They always saw dog food first, so they had no other stimulus when they answered the dog food question.

We asked another group of panelists about dog food, rattlesnake meat, frog kidneys, gopher brains, and chocolate covered ants all on the same screen. We hypothesized that this group would be more open to admitting to eat dog food when grouped with these other items rather than just being asked directly about dog food.

Well, we were wrong about that – none of the folks asked about dog food alone admitted to eating dog food all the time, and 1% of those asked about dog food amongst the other exotic items did so (not a statistically significant difference). The percent of folks in both groups saying that they "never" ate dog food was the same as well (96%). So in our experiment, the "framing" of the question had no bearing on the response.

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I was treated to a presentation given by Professor Joydeep Srivastava from the University of Maryland at our Frontiers of Research market research conference in May. Joydeep’s discussion focused on pricing research and perceptions of what consumers are willing to pay based on the way the prices are presented to them – whether prices for the components are bundled together or shown apart.

One point he touched on almost as an afterthought is that no one wants to pay for installation. I must agree with him that no one wants to agree to a price only to find out a few moments later that something essential (such as installation) isn’t included. This seems to break the contract, and can lead to feelings of resentment – and, as he pointed out, lost sales. On the other hand, presenting installation costs separately as an option can be enticing to the Do-It-Yourselfers who would want to be able to weigh the pros and cons of tackling that step themselves.

I was reminded of all of this when I ordered a map update to my car’s navigation system. When I received the jewel case in the mail I assumed it contained a CD which I could pop into my car CD player and install the update on my own. Only the jewel case didn’t contain a CD, it contained a memory card, and there were no accompanying instructions – not even a phone number. After popping it in my computer to look for a read-me file, I was still at a loss. So I gave my car dealer a call and they told me to bring it in for installation. When I arrived, the service technician told me I could have saved myself the trip and done it myself by inserting it in the card slot. I told him I didn’t know I had a card slot, and if he told me where to find it, I’d be happy to go do it on my own. A senior technician intervened, and taking pity on me he asked a tech install the maps and then told me there would be no service charge.

By the way, I finally found the card slot after searching for it for about 15 minutes.

There was no mention of installation in the up-front sales process whatsoever. So my first assumption was the correct one, that I should be able to do it myself. But that wasn’t addressed in the sales process nor in the product packaging. Not addressing installation up-front can lead to very different outcomes:

  • The manufacturer can keep the cost low and potentially sell more updates by not having to create detailed installation instructions which can vary by model and year. But even if professional installation was not required, leaving the consumer confused after a purchase is never a good idea and no doubt leaves consumers with some ill will.
  • In my case, the dealer took the view that my purchase of the vehicle (and the update) gave them the opportunity to help me out in situations like this.... And I could view it either as an extension of their awesome service or that their service was “bundled” into the original price of the vehicle. Either way, the dealer comes out looking good – so much so that perhaps they can charge a premium for this all-inclusive service “bundle” the next time around.
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Pricing Research in Context

Posted by on in New Product Research

My last blog about pricing research was still fresh in my mind when I read an excerpt of Craig LaBan’s recent online chat. LaBan is the Philadelphia Inquirer’s restaurant critic and offers insightful reviews and information for foodies in the region. I was intrigued by the discussion of how Federal Donuts charges different prices at the ballpark than in their stand-alone restaurant locations.

Our clients typically look for answers to how to price their products either alone or bundled. But I personally have yet to have a client ask me how to price a product differently based on the situation or context. There is good information to be had on this topic: in “Contextual Pricing: The Death of List Price and the New Market Reality” the authors point out that the pricing scheme for Coca Cola includes air temperature at the point of sale. But what tools are available to the market researcher for exploring situation-based pricing?

At its simplest level, we can ask consumers what they’d be willing to pay given a certain situation (such as in an airport or on an airplane). By using a monadic design in which similar groups of respondents are asked about a single price point, we can compare across the groups to see what the various “take-rates” would be.

Discrete choice could be employed to vary both the context and the pricing – in that way multiple situations could be tested along with multiple price points. (My colleague, Rajan Sambandam will be speaking about Behavioral Conjoint at the Insight Innovation Exchange NA event in Philadelphia in June.)

I’m not sure how Federal Donuts arrived at their pricing decision – it could very well be that the ballpark charges more rent and that factor alone determined their pricing. But when all other factors are equal, determining how much to charge can have important financial consequences.

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I was in a meeting last week about pricing research and we talked about how far it's come from the days of simply asking people what they'd pay for something. From laddering to Van Westendorp's Price Sensitivity Meter to Discrete Choice modeling, the research industry has grown in sophistication in addressing this very crucial aspect of product development and marketing.

I started thinking back over some of the pricing research I've been involved with over the years, and I realized that at times our clients come to us without the information they'll need to make the project a success. That's not to say they're not doing their job -- but pricing research does have a few requisites. Here are 3 keys to effective pricing research:

  • Know what it costs to produce. This can be tricky for a start-up service or for a physical product that hasn't been manufactured yet. But we need a basic understanding of what the minimum price should be -- anything below that would be unprofitable, so there's no sense including extremely low price points. The sky's the limit on the maximum, but we need the minimum in order to anchor the study design in reality.
  • Know the competition. Speaking of reality, we can design pricing research with or without factoring in competitive products. But if you're going to include your competitors, we need an understanding of what their products are and how they're priced. We want to construct choices that are as close to reality as possible. Premium-priced brands should reflect premium prices, or your results could skew in a strange direction.  
  • Know your pricing objective. What are you trying to maximize: unit sales? revenue? profit? Of course, everyone wants all of these. But in laying out a pricing strategy, it helps to understand how the trade-offs will impact your bottom line: is it more desirable to sell more units at a lower price or fewer units at a higher price?  

This list is by no means exhaustive -- I welcome your additions!

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For years now, my colleague Jessica would solicit donations to the American Cancer Societythrough its annual Daffodil Days® campaign. Each year I'd give Jessica my donation and a few weeks later I'd receive 10 daffodil buds. I'd arrange them in a vase in my office and watch as they opened up into beautiful blooms over the course of a few days. And in doing so I'd be reminded that my donation is being used to find ways to eradicate cancer and help people in need.

It was announced that this year would be the final year for Daffodil Days®.

product optimization daffodils

I have to admit, my first thought was not, "how will I donate to ACS now?" My first thought was that something was being taken away from me! Which, of course, irritated me. My second thought was that I'll have to look for another way to get daffodil buds next spring. And then it dawned on me that by cancelling the daffodils promotion, the ACS could be losing a long-time supporter.

Businesses are faced with product optimization decisions all the time – what will happen if I remove a product, service or distribution channel from the market? Will customers be lost? What will the short- and long-term effects be?

Our utilities clients have raised the issue of infrastructure improvements on more than one occasion. These improvements are often expensive to implement, but the average customer sees no tangible benefit -- the water ran yesterday and it’s running again today.

Yet maintaining the pipes, lines and wires are critical to keeping water and power flowing to our homes and businesses. When it comes time to invest in these improvements, it’s hard to rally support when communities face other issues that can produce more visible outcomes when addressed.

Just how far apart are community leaders and residents about the importance of improving their communities’ infrastructure?

We decided to find out.

environmentProtecting the environment is in our collective best interest. Certainly, that’s a given, but people individually don’t always act in their long-term best interests (as behavioral economists posit) so why do we think companies would do so?

Turns out, employers are doing a lot to conserve and protect the environment and natural resources – at least according to TRC’s online panelists we surveyed this spring.

Nearly three-quarters of our panelists who are employed full or part-time told us their employer was actively doing at least one of five activities related to conservation and energy preservation. The larger the employer, the greater the participation. While we can't project our findings to corporate America as a whole, this is certainly encouraging news for our planet.

what increases attention paid to adsAdvertisers and researchers do a lot of testing to determine how effective their advertising is prior to launching a campaign or message. We look for ways to get inside consumers’ heads, and as technology improves, we are afforded interesting glimpses into how consumers process information and make decisions. As my colleague Rajan pointed out in his blog different areas of the brain lead to different types of decision-making. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman posits that human thinking can be classified into two forms, System 1, which operates automatically, and System 2, which requires mental effort (I paraphrase). Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide asserts in his blog “Our best decisions are a finely tuned blend of both feeling and reason and the precise mix depends on the situation. When buying a house, for example, it’s best to let our unconscious mull over the many variables. But when we’re picking a stock, intuition often leads us astray. The trick is to determine when to use the different parts of the brain, and to do this, we need to think harder (and smarter) about how we think.”

With all of this exciting work being done in the field of neuroscience and behavioral economics, I wondered what kinds of answers we would get if we simply asked consumers directly what they think motivates them in considering advertising. Do they believe they respond to characters like the Geico gecko? Or is it really just a function of what they need at the time?

Segmenting Movie Goers

Posted by on in New Product Research

A few months ago I posted that we researched 18 factors in deciding which movie to see and where to see it. We reported that “It’s in 3D” was at the bottom of the list, and concluded that 3-D was unlikely to save the American movie box office.  

What made the top of the list was “I like the plot or story,” followed by “It is in my favorite movie genre” and “It has my favorite stars.”  

But surely the plot isn’t the critical decision-maker for every movie-goer; there must be groups of viewers whose decisions revolve around some of the other items on that list. We took their ratings and ran a segmentation analysis. While this type of analysis is done on a much grander scale by researchers in the movie industry, we thought it would be interesting to do some analysis of our own.

new years resolution market researchWe had a notion here at TRC that by the middle of March most New Year’s Resolutions would have been tossed by the wayside, either in favor of giving up something meaningful for Lent, or the simple acknowledgement that this just isn’t the year to lose 25 pounds. Would folks who made a resolution at the beginning of the year still be keeping that resolution 3 months later?

We kicked around a few hypotheses, and then went about testing them using our online panel of consumers:

  • Younger consumers would be more likely to make resolutions than older ones (we figured they hadn’t become jaded by their resolutions not working out over time)
  •  People would be more focused on issues relating to their health (losing weight, exercising more) than other types of resolutions.
  • Most folks who made a resolution would have dropped it by the 3-month mark

So how did our predictions fare?

buffet sign panel studyOn a trip to Las Vegas in November 2011 I was twice presented with an option to move to the head of the line – for a price. I could take advantage of “early check-in” by paying $25. And I could get my buffet breakfast right away without waiting in line, again for a small fee. The buffet sign struck me as peculiar, since the 4 people ahead of me didn’t really constitute much of a “line”. I snapped a photo.

The concept of express fees is nothing new – Universal Florida, for example, has offered its ExpressSM Plus Pass for years, affording visitors to skip the regular lines, and as a result experience more attractions during their visit. But the express fee is spreading beyond the domain of the theme park.  You can even pay to bypass the long security lines at the airport now, if you’re so inclined.

This got me thinking...who’s in such a rush?  And, even more important, who’s willing to fork over some cash so they won’t waste any more time waiting? We put that question to the test with a small web survey among members of TRC’s online panel.

Among the general population of adults, paying for speedy service is a somewhat polarizing notion. While about half of our survey takers are neutral on the concept, 1/3 are pro and 1/5 are anti. We asked about specific situations as well. Paying for early hotel check-in has nearly twice as many fans (23%) as paying for premium seating at a movie (12%) or paying to jump the line at a warehouse store (13%).

In my last blog, we learned that the answer to the question as to whether 3D can save the American Movie Box Office is Probably Not. The adult consumers we surveyed do not view 3D as important to them in selecting a movie to see.

But what is important?

We polled 829 US consumers age 18+ who are part of TRC's online panel. They were part of a broader test in which we experimented with various methods to determine the best way to differentiate importance factors in the decision-making process. We chose movie decision-making as our topic, and participants evaluated 18 factors in their decision which movie to see and where to see it.

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