Tom Webster, writing and speaking

When All You Have Is A Hammer, Everything Looks Like A Nail

Added on by Tom Webster.

hammer_and_nails.jpgAs a market research professional, I use a lot of tools to generate the best consumer insights possible for our clients. When my company, Edison Research, started back in 1994, most of our work was telephone-based survey research and focus groups. Since then, we have incorporated Internet surveys, online qualitative research, consumer exit polling, social media monitoring and dozens of other methods into our repertoire. The Internet, in particular, has changed our business irrevocably, and made available a wide variety of options to reach consumers where they work and play online.

Yet, we still do a lot of telephone-based research (now including mobile phones, of course), and though our Exit Polling back-end systems would rival NASA's for complexity, the heart of that particular effort is still thousands of local interviewers with clipboards. The key for us is to be able to deploy "boots on the ground," even if the "ground" is online, to capture opinions whenever and wherever they occur.

I note this because there have been a lot of recent innovations in mining unstructured online data for market research purposes. As social media monitoring tools like Radian 6, Trackur and Social Mention continue to expand their coverage and capabilities, using those tools to discern what consumers are saying and doing online is becoming a more viable source for consumer insights, and one that no competent CMO or brand manager should ignore. We recommend social media research and use these tools on behalf of our clients whenever appropriate.

Social media research is attractive on many levels, not the least of which is that on some of those levels it's free. Anyone can set up Google Alerts or use other freely-available tools to begin mining the social web, and even the paid tools available aren't onerously expensive for the vast majority of companies. Because unstructured data online is "free," and free is good, it's easy to make the leap to thinking that social media research is a replacement for other methods and tools. Like any tool, however, social media research is great at some things, and lousy at others - just as telephone surveys are. The key is to focus on the best way to achieve your research goal - period - and not the best way you can use a given tool.

Historically, new technologies sometimes obviate the need for old ones, but just as often they cause the old ones to elevate their game and get better. Focus groups, for instance, will never be the same - they aren't going away, but they have certainly changed for the better, and are now just as likely to take place in the field or online as they are behind a two-way mirror. The Internet has made our jobs as researchers different (not easier) and gives us the tools to provide richer insights for our clients, which makes us all better. We have to be careful, however, not to fall in love with any one of these tools.

I write this because lately we have gotten requests from some companies not to provide them with consumer insights, or decision support, but to give them an "online survey," or some other specific tool. I actually got back from one prospective client that they didn't choose our proposal because we didn't employ a punch card system (!) they were accustomed to using. If an online survey is the best way to attack a given research problem, we recommend it. If it isn't, we don't. It's a balance, of course, between the needs of the client, the client's budget and the standards for quality research, but this balance is always best achieved when we start with the end goal in mind, and not with a specific tool.

One of my favorite cliches in the world is this: when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Relying too heavily on mining unstructured data, self-selected Internet polls or even telephone surveys can very easily lead you down this path. Not everything is a nail.

Hammers and Nails originally appeared in a slightly modified form on our blog at Edison, but I thought y'all might enjoy it here, as well.