When’s the last time your doctor asked you, “Do you think that’s a strain, a sprain, or a fracture?”  Or how about, “Is the most effective way to treat this with pain meds or surgery?”  Or maybe “Would you like to have a colonoscopy?”  (Talk about a question that requires good probing…)

Doctors don’t ask questions such as this for one simple reason:  you don’t know enough to answer them.  Your answers will be useless at best; misleading at worst.  Those questions don’t get asked because your answers won’t really matter.

Yet in the insights world, clients (internal or external) frequently expect that we’ll ask research participants questions just like this.  Consumers can provide valuable feedback on many things…but in research, it’s also critical to understand when they can’t provide relevant insights.

During the process of planning for an upcoming study on charitable donors, Grey Matter Research asked well over a thousand people in the charitable world (charity executives, fundraising and marketing agencies, etc.) for their input on what topics would be valuable for us to explore in the research.  We got some terrific ideas from the people who responded.  But what really stood out was the number of experienced decision-makers who wanted us to ask how, and how often, donors want to receive marketing communications and advertising.

In other words, how do you want me to market to you, what do you want me to say, and how frequently do you want me to say it?  Now, without question channel, message, and frequency are all critically important strategies.  But should we depend on what consumers want, or on what’s most effective in reaching them?  And are these questions we should be directly asking consumers?  Isn’t that rather like a doctor asking you to diagnose and treat yourself?

Lest you assume this kind of thinking is relegated to the charitable world, it’s the type of question I’ve been asked by many in the for-profit world as well.  Do our customers want us to advertise on billboards, in magazines, or on television?  Do they think broadcast or print advertising will communicate this message more effectively?  How do they want to learn about our new product line?  My favorite is always, “Why aren’t you asking them whether this new campaign will make them more likely to buy our product?  That’s the whole point of advertising!”  The expectation is that, in order to get the answers to these questions, we’ll just ask respondents in qualitative or quantitative research what they want, and they’ll be able to give us meaningful answers.

Re-reading what I just wrote, it’s appalling how truly silly that sounds.  Yet this type of expectation comes up again and again and again – and I’ve seen plenty of research purporting to answer these sorts of questions.  “New study:  consumers say they’re more likely to buy products that sponsor the Olympics.”  “Consumers want to receive less direct mail.”  “Customers report e-mail marketing is more effective than social media marketing.”  I’m sure you’ve seen headlines like this as well.

If only what customers want and what will most effectively reach them were always the same thing.  If only consumers could realistically inform us that they never pay attention to the outdoor advertising they pass, but the ads they see on the CNN website actually manage to work their way into their consciousness.  If only consumers really knew where the sweet spot is between “I never think of Company X because I rarely hear from them” and “I get so many e-mails from Company X I blocked them in my spam filter.”

Make no mistake, research can be highly valuable in helping smart marketers make these decisions.  Good qualitative research can help you understand how consumers perceive an advertisement, how it makes them feel, and what they’re really understanding from it – but it can’t predict how many more widgets the ad will sell.  Researching people’s lifestyles helps you know what media to use in reaching them, but asking them directly whether they want to read your ad in a magazine isn’t an effective research strategy.  Properly conducted, pricing studies can inform your go-to-market strategy, but they don’t include simply asking customers, “How much do you want to pay for this?”

Going back to the colonoscopy example given earlier (because, of course, who wouldn’t want to continue thinking about that?), researchers and marketers need to be like doctors.  You don’t walk into your doctor’s office and hear, “What would you like today – an MRI, a pap smear, or a stress test?  We’re having a two-for-one special on throat cultures!”

Instead, your doctor gathers the information she realistically can from you by asking questions you can reasonably answer, then makes an intelligent diagnosis given all the relevant information.  Sometimes, she gathers data in ways that don’t include direct questions, such as x-rays or blood tests.  But the questions help her know where to start.

Rather than asking, “Is your wrist fractured, dislocated, or sprained,” she asks, “Does it hurt when I press here?” and “Can you wiggle your fingers without pain?”  Your answers will help provide her the information she needs once she uses her experience to interpret and apply them.  She knows there are plenty of questions you simply cannot answer, so she doesn’t ask those.

No one would want to rely on a doctor who asked questions patients can’t reasonably answer and then depended on those answers to develop her treatment plan.  Then why do marketers want to ask consumers questions they can’t reasonably answer and then depend on those answers to develop their marketing plan?


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