Tom Webster, writing and speaking

The Myth of the Golden Gut

Added on by Tom Webster.

The Golden GutIf you couldn't tell from the character of this blog, I love my line of work. I'm fortunate to have been a part of some great collaborations between brands, properties, products and research, and have experienced first-hand the power of asking great questions, and seeing through the "answers" to get to the insight. So you'll forgive me if I admit to sometimes being a little discouraged by the bad rap market research often gets in social media. True, there are a lot of crappy studies out there, but there are also plenty of snake oil hucksters in social media, too - I don't judge the entire field by its bad actors (and just you wait until someone comes out with "Social Media Monkey" - I'm sure that'll help.[/sarcasm]) Not a day goes by when I don't see someone who should probably know better disparage surveys, market research or consumer insights as the problem, and not the solution, to moribund products and services. Take the broadcast radio industry, for instance. If you've listened to music radio in 2010, you'll note the following: localism is present mostly in the advertising, playlists have been homogenized to utter blanditude (not a word, but should be), and the "personality" of a station has been delegated to prerecorded liners and jingles as the industry sends its "expensive" air talent packing. Often, when I read about the state of music radio on blogs, or see offhand remarks about radio on Twitter, I'll see people complain that stations have been "over-researched" into nondescript, banal jukeboxes - neither fish, nor fowl.

Ironically, what these commenters don't know is that the radio industry, like other traditional media outlets, has never done less market research than it does today. In the mid-90's, some of the most successful, big-box radio stations spent a lot of money on local audience research - upwards of a quarter of a million dollars a year or more. Today, the average station is lucky to spend 10% of that, if anything, on learning what really matters to its listeners. So if you don't like the crap coming out of your speakers, don't blame research. Blame an industry with almost no ability or desire to listen to you. But I digress.

Equally damaging to the perception of market research is the opposite belief, that truly creative products and brands don't need to do research, because they are shepherded by visionary leaders. The "myth of the golden gut" is often perpetuated by cult brands, who are eager to present themselves as driven by love, greatness, coolness and any number of things that couldn't possibly have come from the clipboard of a market researcher. Apple and Nike are certainly two of those cult brands, and I've often seen devotees of both celebrate the fact that they build products with passion, and not with surveys.

This perception couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, Apple's celebrated collaboration with Nike, the Nike+ line of exercise gear, was almost entirely research driven - I had the pleasure of attending a presentation at the Advertising Research Foundation's annual conference a few years back that went into (satisfying) detail about how market research didn't just influence the marketing or packaging of Nike+, but its very creation. Certainly, folks in my business need to tell stories like the Nike+ case study loudly and proudly, so we all have a lot of work to do there.

Needless to say, I was thrilled by Steve Jobs's latest keynote speech, announcing the newest line of iPod products for 2010. The clues were all there - this line of iPods was heavily influenced by market research. Yes, it takes a creative genius like Jonathan Ive to translate consumer needs into brushed aluminum, and a visionary leader like Jobs to set the standards for his product team almost impossibly high. If you watch the speech, however, you'll hear a dozen references to Apple's consumer research efforts, and how research was an integral part to what might be the greatest lineup of iPods ever.

A few examples: The new iPod Shuffle sees the return of buttons, which Jobs attributed to listening to its customers and their desire to return to the more obvious control scheme of earlier shuffles. True, the last, buttonless model didn't sell very well, which is in itself a form of information, but were that their only source of data they would have just killed it, and not returned it to the control scheme of an earlier version.

The new Nano was both a product of listening to consumer requests to make it smaller, and continued consumer research into the most popular use cases for the Nano. It's no accident that the latest Nano has a built-in clip, or that the Nike+ app was mentioned and highlighted in Jobs's description of the new device - Apple knows through its market research that exercise is one of the key drivers for Nano usage, and they optimized the device accordingly. Jobs himself said it over and over - we listened to our customers. If you think that meant Jobs got a few cranky emails and decided to change a billion dollar product line out of sheer whim, well, you'd be the exact opposite of right.

Even the Apple TV refresh was billed as a product of listening to its customers and their desire to simplify the experience and do away with another "brick" next to the TV. That the old Apple TV wasn't successful could easily be intuited by sales. Why it was unsuccessful, however, comes only from asking the right questions.

Finally, If you've shopped in an Apple Store lately, you'll probably have noticed two things - the experience was terrible (I don't think doing away with an obvious place to obtain and pay for your products was a research-driven decision) and you probably got a follow-up survey about your Apple Store experience. I've gotten 4 or 5 of these surveys now, following Apple Store visits, and I've dutifully filled out every one. The next time you have a subpar experience in an Apple Store and you don't fill out your follow-up survey, you become that guy. You know, the one who complains about the government, but never votes. That guy. Anyway, I'm hopeful that changes are "in store" there, as well.

So, as romantic as the "golden gut" notion is, it just doesn't hold up in practice. In fact, the Interwebs are littered with companies that were visionary, wildly creative and challenged the status quo to make something truly great - and failed. Our love of case study-worthy examples like Apple has a baked-in survivor bias that fails to recognize it isn't only Apple's creative design and user experience wizardry that has vaulted them to their current status - it's marrying those sensibilities with an ability to ask the right questions, and decipher the answers.