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5 lessons learned from running a multigenerational panel

Article ID:
April 2014, page 60
Mary McIlrath

Article Abstract

A research-on-research look at what happens when you create and manage a community of Millennial, Gen X and Boomer participants.

Fit your methods to their needs

Editor's note: Mary McIlrath is senior vice president at C+R Research, Chicago.

Online panels and communities have enjoyed a run of popularity in the marketing research industry. But the air may have gone out of the balloon, and our romantic vision of consumers who come together, self-guided, to dissect, praise, constructively criticize and rebuild brands has become quaint. The truth is, most consumers are simply less passionate than brand managers.

In this post-community environment, how can brand teams leverage the potential power of communities to achieve their business goals? Five lessons we’ve learned from a recent multigenerational panel may help.

1. There is no one-size-fits-all.

Every business goal deserves its own custom approach. Sometimes the best approach is a large-scale online community with frequent touchpoints and the ability for respondents to generate their own conversations. Other times, an intimate in-person panel that meets quarterly to review progress on business objectives is more appropriate. And every approach in between. It’s important to evaluate the business objectives thoroughly before engaging in what is usually a large research spend, to ensure that the approach will be efficient and effective. Choosing a vendor or an online platform is secondary to determining the right solution and approach to the objectives.

Similarly, when the target spans generations, multiple methodological approaches are likely necessary to maximize the quality of insights derived from the community of respondents. Millennials and Boomers in particular, while providing feedback on the same business objectives, may be best approached via different methodologies.

2. Participants are in charge.

C+R Research recently conducted an eight-week, six-phase pop-up panel as a research-on-research endeavor into brand loyalty across Millennial, Gen X and Boomer generations. The methods included: quantitative attitude and usage surveys; qualitative mobile shopping missions; quantitative mobile shopping diaries; qualitative collages; qualitative consumer-generated commercials; and in-person qualitative “game shows.”

Participation rates across the six phases varied by generation. For example, Gen Xers were more comfortable than Boomers and even Millennials in completing the mobile shopping missions. Millennials had higher rates of submitting commercials, not surprising given their greater likelihood to be used to being filmed frequently. The two most traditional methods, the quantitative A&U and the qualitative collages, garnered the highest response rates across generations. This suggests that many respondents are still most comfortable and familiar with traditional marketing research techniques but open to newer methods that pique their individual curiosity. Not one of the newer methods was the best fit for every respondent. Our lesson learned is that it’s important to offer a variety of ways to give opinions so that every participant can find the best fit for him- or herself.

3. Mobile laughs first but not last.

Mobile is one of the biggest buzzwords in marketing research today. Every reputable online community and platform software provider has a mobile application. Increasingly, respondents engage in quantitative surveys and qualitative discussions via their mobile devices. In particular, ethnic minorities and younger generations prefer to participate using smartphones or tablets versus computers.

As marketing researchers, we constantly strive to optimize our instructions and questionnaires to include the fewest number of words for easy and convenient reading on mobile devices. We also engage software to allow drag-and-drop, ranking and collage tasks that are easily completed using mobile devices.

That said, mobile is not for every respondent. Many participants execute their responses to us while at work on a desktop computer. Others do not own smartphones or are simply uncomfortable using an app at all or responding via text, photo or video while in public (e.g., while shopping).

Respondents who are less comfortable with mobile are still consumers, shoppers, brand champions and important voices to be heard by product and service providers. In our recent study, the consumers who were least likely to participate in mobile activities were still open to traditional quantitative surveys, online qualitative discussions and in-person qualitative interviews.

The lesson is that while marketing researchers are forging ahead with mobile applications for research, mobile is not a panacea. “Mobile-first” is a great idea if it means simplifying and streamlining questionnaires; respondents on any device appreciate a less-is-more approach to being questioned. However, “mobile only” does not accommodate every respondent; other avenues of submitting opinions are crucial to achieving a thorough understanding of consumer and shopper feedback.

4. In-person engagement is worth its weight in gold.

The most thrilling part of our recent research-on-research study was the in-person qualitative game show we called Name The Price! We constructed a decorative and glittery set in our offices with multiple cameras, a host and three generations of contestants: Millennials, Gen Xers and Boomers. Sure, this could have been accomplished in traditional focus groups but we wanted to make it a little more fun.

The rules of the game were simple: In each of the three rounds, the contestants guessed the price of several products across categories. The contestant closest to the actual price of each product, without going over, won 10 points. At the conclusion of the game, the contestant with the highest number of points won a basket full of the types of products we’d been discussing.

The beauty of the game emerged from the qualitative discussions between the price-guessing rounds, when the contestants explained their affinities for some products and their emotional attachments to the equities of the brands. Of note, all of the respondents from all of the generations performed very poorly in predicting the price of most products – things they admitted they buy frequently but don’t really know the cost of. Thus their true motivations for brand loyalty emerged: self-actualization through perceived environmentally-sustainable purchases; nostalgia for cultural or childhood memories; and social influences.

Approaching this discussion in a playful and in-person manner yielded a rich conversation and helped us as researchers build empathy for the drivers of consumers’ and shoppers’ brand equity perceptions and purchase drivers. Moreover, the interplay between respondents yielded powerful insights into differences between the generations. Specifically:

  • Millennials questioned our pricing of most of the products. They tended to believe that their guesses were more correct than the prices we researched in-store and online. They bonded over their challenging of us as researchers – so how powerful would their bond be against a perceived injustice from a corporation?
  • Boomers were surprisingly savvy: They knew Grumpy Cat and one even said she’s obsessed with Pinterest and has used it to start making homemade laundry detergent. Another was a “green” enthusiast with the same motivations one might expect from a younger generation.
  • Gen Xers, not surprisingly, expressed a mixture of responses reflective of both of the generations on each side of them. They were surprised by some of the prices they mis-guessed but did not accuse us of being wrong. They were on social media and liked environmentally-friendly and organic products but still kept frozen pizza around constantly for their children. Their life stage seemed to define them more than their birth year.

5. Brand loyalty varies by generation and category.

At the end of our eight-week pop-up panel with six phases, we uncovered some interesting results.

Across generations, consumers have about two favorite brands of coffee, cleaning products and frozen foods – most have at least one that they name top-of mind. However, true loyalty, measured as the “only brand they buy,” only sees minor differences across categories and generations. There is a myth that Millennials are less brand loyal than other generations but in these categories it’s simply not the case.

Boomers are more loyal to the cleaning products they use versus other generations, buying multiple products within a brand that they trust. Their years of experience with cleaning have taught them what works effectively, while Millennials are more likely to rely on the brands they saw their parents using as children.

Of interest in the cleaning category, Millennials tend to make more frequent purchases and to use convenient cleaners like Swiffers and cleaning wipes compared to the older generations. Given that Millennials are less likely to own their own homes compared to older generations, it makes sense that they will be living in smaller spaces with less need to do deep cleaning. Homes with children or homes that entertain family and friends more often are more likely to need deep cleaning products.

A long-term approach

For clients who are thinking about launching a longitudinal panel or community, it is important to consider: the business objectives to be addressed over the life of the community first, before the method; the target respondents and how they will prefer to interact with the community; the possibilities for and role of an in-person component to the community; and the need for mobile and its role and influence in the overall community. In addition, it’s helpful to design a long-term approach and to choose a provider partner who can help meet the business goals of the brand in a way that will let the consumers and shoppers set the rules for how they interact, to achieve the most natural and actionable feedback for the brand team. 

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