Friday, September 12, 2008

No Easy Answers

Scared off by the costs and delays of traditional research, marketers desperately troll the web for consumer feedback. But even with volumes of data, the answers may still elude them.

There’s a lot of information on the web. There are also a lot of consumers. But information about these consumers? How they feel about your product, and what else they’d like to see from your brand? That’s a little trickier.

Since the advent of the message board, the web has provided truckloads of information about how consumers perceive brands, products, and the marketing that surrounds them. But just as often as not, this information can steer marketers down blind alleys. And no matter how much data you glean from traffic reports, message boards, or even surveys, it can only supplement, not replace, a good marketer’s judgment.
Here are a few of the most popular online research tactics out there, from the very cheap and very fast to the expensive and elaborate. As always, I opine about what’s worth the cost and how it should (and should not) be used.

Skim and theorize:The technique: You (or perhaps an intern) scan the message boards, blogs, and social network sites to understand what consumers are saying about your brand; you may even posit a new product idea, brand extension, or product modification and watch the reaction. Favorite locations are technorati, consumer oriented blogs, Facebook, or your own site’s e-mails and message boards.
Advantages/drawbacks: Fast (can be done in a day) and cheap (meaning, free) ; however, in most cases you get what you pay for – a cursory glance at the consumer polity, dominated by the most vocal , involved, and tech savvy (which can be good or bad).
Good for: Keeping the pulse, fishing for new ideas, bringing up yellow flags before they turn red. This type of research should be done regularly, but is just not robust enough to form the basis for any big decisions.

Skim and Analyze
The technique: see above, but with a high priced agency behind it. Outfits like MotiveQuest will actually monitor millions of online conversations on blogs, message boards, etc. and boil the findings down for you. Mini Cooper recently did this and found that Mini owners were uniquely engaged with each other, pointing to the potential for social network marketing on the brand.
Advantages/Drawbacks: much more comprehensive than “skim and theorize”, and more likely to draw generalizable, and actionable insights. However, at this point we are talking about the same type of money and time commitment you might spend on more traditional techniques, like quantitative studies or focus groups.
Good for: big brands (like…Mini) with enormous marketing budgets – and who are willing to monitor their audiences online, offline and everywhere else to make sure their spending all those dollars the right way.

The Omniture Omnibus
The technique: Deep analysis of traffic reports (which can be provided by Omniture or one of many other providers) can tell you where your consumers are coming from, where they’re going, and where they linger on your site.
Advantages/drawbacks: once again, the price is right - most of this information is probably already available via your standard data reporting package. But this technique can quickly become too much of a good thing. So much data is available, you need to be very clear on your objectives before diving in. Fishing expeditions usually yield more questions than answers. And, the answers you do get tell you the what but not the why: OK, so no one stays on your “games” page for more than one minute – but what, exactly, is the wrong with it?
Good for: an initial diagnosis of issues and for generation of hypotheses – that should be validated or refuted by more detailed research vs. more traffic reports.

Zoom zoom zoomerang –the online survey
The technique: In less than a day and for less than $100, you can build and launch an online survey on just about any topic, and get hundreds, or even thousands of responses.
Advantages/disadvantages: the value of a zoomerang depends on the level of resources you’re starting with. If you have an extensive database that you can send the survey to, and a crack researcher that can write the survey (and eliminate bias), Zoomerand and it’s ilk are a good deal. However, if you don’t, these providers can usually provide all that – for a price that can rise into five figures pretty quickly.
Good for: companies that have the resources to do this cheaply. If you don’t, Zoomerang is fine for smaller decisions – I once worked for a company who used it to get employee feedback on their new performance evaluation system. But I wouldn’t bang out my next brand positioning from it.

Online Focus Groups
The technique: Usually based on chat, these are like big WebEx meetings where many (often hundreds) of users log in and respond to your questions, ads, positioning statements, etc.
Advantages/Disadvantages: great for recruiting, especially low incidence populations; faster and cheaper than traditional focus groups. And users are less likely to influence each other. But that’s not necessarily a good thing. Sometimes the interaction that happens in a roomful of eight or ten consumers really does lead to a key insight. And even if it doesn’t, sometime body language tells you a lot more than their words.
Good for: marketers that need fast feedback from hard to recruit types – like plastic surgeons, Moms of special needs kids, etc. And those that can’t be bothered with things like body language and subtle consumer signals.

So, now that I’ve highlighted at least some of the drawbacks in all of the above, should we all go back to the traditional, expensive, and offline techniques? Of course not. My real point is that consumers will never deliver the answers on a silver platter. Just feedback that experienced, smart marketers can use, along with judgment, business conditions, and a million other variables, to make the big decisions that justify our big paychecks.