Mark Earls gave a fascinating AQR webinar recently, entitled ‘What Kind(a) Thing?’. It prefaces themes in his new book, ‘Copy Copy, Copy’ and is an invocation to us researchers to look at the bigger picture (context and behaviour), to cut to the chase and to be more analytical and less method-obsessed.
I couldn't agree more. But I was rather surprised and flattered to find that I was mentioned. In fact, a whole Syndrome had been named after me.
It came after the meerkats and just before Grant McCracken. I was honoured by the association - even if the key point related more to comical mammals than to the renowned cultural commentator.
“If you think a behaviour is … shaped by what goes on between an individual’s ears, then the traditional tools of market research, in particular asking people about themselves … are entirely appropriate … However, if you find that the behaviour in the market is shaped by … what goes on between people, then the traditional methods are not necessarily the best tools”
At first glance it is hard to disagree with this syllogism. Mark’s thesis is that others’ behaviour greatly affects an individual’s behaviour, far more than that individual realises or may care to admit.
This is (a) true, IMHO and (b) an important correction for ‘traditional’ marketing thinking and research, which has relied far too heavily and exclusively on reported behaviour, often not well gathered.
I’d say that very few people nowadays think that, in any given market, a behaviour is ‘shaped (I take this to mean determined, rather than influenced) by what goes on between an individual’s ears’.
But the trick is in the second part of the construct. If you accept that ‘behaviour in (a) market is shaped by what goes on between people’, does that mean that ‘traditional (research) methods’ are not necessarily the best tools?
If ‘traditional methods’ mean only talking to people and taking what they say at face value, then yes, this is less than optimal. And more a function of short-form research, I'd say (but I am biased).
If on the other hand, if these methods include talking to people (as networked, social creatures) in such a way as to help them be better witnesses to their behaviour, as well as using observation, previous studies, big data, little data and other sources, then I’d say that ‘traditional methods’ are quite reasonable tools.
But this is where the Syndrome comes in. Mark knows that I would say what I have just said. And that talking to people is an act, that group dynamics and what people do before and after a long-form research interaction are part of our data set.
The KMc Syndrome, Mark says, is the idea that an experienced researcher’s research technique is not ultimately what matters, but rather their interpretation, their ‘ability to judge people and our attempts to change them’.
I am of course flattered by this – but not fooled by it. It's nice to think I may have good judgement when it comes to assessing attempts to change behaviour, but this does not come out of thin air. It comes from studying as much available evidence as possible, including having conversations with people and applying past experience - and talking to other people and thinking a lot.
So this is the conundrum. (There may be more than one.) My ability to judge people (and their future behaviour) is informed by my interactions with them, which includes both what I observe going on between them and what I hear may be going on between their ears – ie from the workings of their external and internal networks, both of which I have only partial access to.
This is because what goes on between an individual’s ears is itself shaped by what goes on between that individual and other people, and vice versa.
All of which makes Mark’s original question, ‘what kind(a) thing?’ a good one as it invites us to ask, for any given product or market, so what does shape the behaviour we are trying to change?
But rather than rule out a set of methods just because they have been widely and sometimes badly used, we should use any method we can, but use it wisely and well. And copy those who do that.