The Center for Strategy Research, Inc. Vol 4 Issue 6   June 2008


This month’s edition of Research with a Twist takes a look at the recent trend towards research which focuses on “What,” rather than “Why.” We’ll explore the difference, and why it matters for the work you do.

As always, please click here to send us your thoughts and comments.

Julie Brown

Mark Palmerino
Executive Vice President

Lots of What, But Little Why

As did many of you, I attended the Marketing Research Association’s annual conference earlier this month in New York City. It was an energetic, information-filled event, and as I expected, I returned home to Boston with plenty to think about.

One theme that presented itself in different ways throughout the three-day event was this: “Lots of what, but little why.”

From one speaker’s observation that “87% of market research dollars are now spent on quantitative rather than qualitative research,” to another’s chiding of the audience that “If you want fast, cheap research you shouldn’t be surprised at the quality of insights you get,” the message was clear:

We spend too much time, money and effort collecting data and not enough understanding what it really means — Lots of what, but little why. We couldn’t agree more.

Why “Why” Matters

None of us conducts business research for the fun of it. We may enjoy the process, but the purpose is to satisfy a business need: To understand which products will work for a particular audience; to develop effective marketing messages; to fine-tune your customer service. Whether it’s one of these reasons or any of a thousand others, business research is carried out with the goal of making better, smarter, business decisions.

The problem, however, is that knowing What, is not the same as knowing Why. In practice, the former isn’t nearly as useful.

Consider this example…

Suppose your research finds that 80% of teenagers prefer text messaging over e-mail. That’s a What.

It doesn’t tell you whether they prefer text because it takes less time, because it makes them feel cool or because it’s perceived as more private. If you use this factoid to introduce an e-mail security product (under the assumption that privacy is at the heart of the trend), you’re simply rolling the dice.

Digging deeper to discover the underlying Why behind the explosion of teenage chat, on the other hand, provides practical insights that can guide everything from the products you launch, to the features you develop, to the media you use for getting the word out.

Why “What” Gets so Much Attention

In our experience, there are three reasons for the heavy emphasis on What research:

  1. People don’t understand the power of getting to Why. Statistics by themselves are one-dimensional pieces of information; you can’t see beyond them to make strategic decisions. And while there’s a certain comfort to be found in the easily graphed, statistical significance of the quantitative research that typically underlies What-based data, as demonstrated in the teenage texting example above, precise answers to inadequate questions are of little help.

  2. People are uncomfortable getting to Why. Getting to Why requires an ability and willingness to play in the squishy realm of open-ended questioning. It’s less tidy than its “check the box,” closed-ended research cousin, and necessitates a much higher skill level in interviewing techniques, data coding, data analysis and results presentation. And, some of those skills are difficult to find, and not inexpensive when you do find them.

  3. People think Why research is more costly. And on a per head basis, it can be. But simply asking “How much does it cost?” is the wrong place to start. Instead, any research project should begin by clarifying what needs knowing. From there, the goal should be to develop the most efficient, most cost effective approach possible. It’s penny-wise and pound-foolish to “save money” by conducting research that’s of little practical value.

In our view, recent questions regarding the value of market research — raised at this conference and others — can be traced back to a shift towards “fast, cheap and automated” and the superficial results that these approaches deliver. It’s time we got back to investing in Why, so that we can all make better business decisions.

— Julie

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Thoughts on getting to Why.

  1. Start with the Why in mind. From the very beginning, try to understand as much as possible about the research that will be done. Although you may not be the subject matter expert, you need to learn enough to build in actionable understanding at the end.

  2. Conduct qualitative research as part or all of your study. Open-ended questions give respondents the freedom to explain what’s behind their answers. Even if you plan to create a large-scale, quantitative study, by conducting qualitative research first, you can develop a more comprehensive, more representative list of options for survey-takers to choose from.

  3. Draw inferences from the data you collect. Let’s say a particular life insurance product rates a 7 on a 10-point scale in terms of likelihood of purchasing the product. That may be a fact, but by itself, it’s of limited practical use. But what if you dig deeper and find that the interest in this particular product increases with age? Now you’ve got the “hint of a why,” and a place to look for more insight.

  4. Don’t be afraid of less than 95% confidence. If 20% of respondents write comments in response to open-ended questions in a predominantly closed-ended survey, maybe half of them will be useful. And while you can’t project these comments over the entire population, you may be able to triangulate to other important questions that should now be asked. Reality is messy, and we shouldn’t let the rigidity of our tools limit what we see.


Lots of What, But Little Why

Mixology (Putting research into practice)

Twist and Shout

About Us

There is a new CEO in town. In a meeting recently, we learned of the development of the position of “Chief Energy Officer,” the individual in an organization whose responsibilities focus on managing increasing energy costs. It made us wonder:

  1. Has your company appointed a CEO? If yes, what is that person doing to manage energy costs? If not, what is your company doing to manage energy costs?

  2. Who is the CEO in your family? What is your family doing to manage energy costs?

Email your responses to: Every tenth contributor before the end of July will win a beautiful, CSR-embossed martini glass for your summer sipping pleasure!

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

— Friedrich Nietzsche

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The Center for Strategy Research, Inc. (CSR) is a research firm. We combine open-ended questioning with our proprietary technology to create quantifiable data.

Understanding What People Really Think

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