As a veteran of academic conferences, I was excited to attend my first market research conference at the Quirks 2018 event in Irvine, CA. My experience was illuminating, teaching me more about my own role, and the roles of the other players in the market research ecosystem of clients, products, and services.
Being uninitiated in the world of industry-centered conferences, one aspect of this conference that stood out was the co-mingling of information-sharing with the marketing and selling of products and services. Commoditizing research and research tools in this way can lead to a problematic shift in perspective in which approaches and solutions become disconnected from the questions and problems they purport to solve.
It makes sense to stress capabilities over limitations. When trying to earn a place in a client’s budget, it seems logical to want to promote a product or service as more versatile and therefore more valuable. All around the conference, products and services were often sold based on their versatility, on all the problems for which they were the solution. As I talked to exhibitors at the event, each seemed to promise me more in-depth insights with more participants on faster timelines: more bang for my buck. But when it comes to research, that tactic is highly misleading.
The truth is that research approaches or tools are limited in the kinds of questions they can answer and the kinds of insights they can provide. Knowing what a research approach or tool cannot do can be just as important as knowing what it can. In-depth ethnography can provide intimate insights into consumers’ lives, but it can’t quantify those insights into reliable statistics like a quantitative survey can. A large-scale survey can provide reliable statistics, but it cannot explore individual nuances like qualitative research can.
Proper research starts with questions, not answers. There’s a saying that I like to remind myself of when designing a research approach: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” As market researchers, we need to be careful to make sure that the approaches we take are born of the questions we are trying to answer for our clients, and not the other way around. Otherwise, we risk limiting our research impact for our clients with one-size-fits-all solutions that actually fit no one.