Editor’s note: Tom McGee is vice president of Doyle Research Associates, Chicago.
Nine-year-old Amanda was having a hard time containing herself. She was asked to jot down a couple of ideas for new types of ketchup. But rather than just put her ideas on paper, this ambitious young lady spent hours in the kitchen at home concocting a special recipe. She was just itching to share her new creation with the rest of the group - “Just wait until everybody checks out my new colored ketchup.”
When asked to compile a “day-in-the-life” photo journal of the family pet, Mr. Chips, Linda’s initial reaction was, “They gotta be kidding.” But two days later this 38-year-old woman had everyone in the house and a group of friends helping her author and compile an incredibly detailed and insightful look into her and her pet’s life. “It became an obsession. I can’t believe how much fun this has been for everyone in the house. It’s brought us all together,” she says. Not to mention the insight the client gained about the bond that exists between pets and their owners.
Grace, a full-time mom of three kids, was more than a bit self-conscious, “People must think I’m nuts, walking through the aisles of Dominick’s taking pictures of frozen food!” But the photographs would be a critical part of the collage Grace was creating for the focus group she was participating in the next week.
If you’re wondering what these three people have in common, they’re just doing their homework as part of the market research projects they are engaged in.
Though not news in the marketing research and advertising communities, giving research participants homework assignments prior to scheduled interviews is a valuable and surprisingly underutilized technique in the research toolbox.
The idea of assigning homework to research participants is rooted in the need to mine information about consumers’ behaviors, attitudes, and lifestyles, and marketers have come to value the wealth of learning that can be gained from it. While one of the golden rules of traditional marketing research is to mask the intent or subject of the research in order to avoid biasing respondents’ answers, assigning homework will often break this rule. The degree to which respondents will be sensitized to the topic is directly related to the objectives of the homework. Regardless of how much is revealed to participants beforehand, in our firm’s experience, the payoff is well worth it.
The most obvious and tangible benefits of homework are:
- It provides for independent thought and allows participants to express themselves in their own unique way.
- It allows time for respondents to think through the issues. It never ceases to amaze how much time and effort respondents will put in when given adequate time and a topic that is relevant to them. In most instances, consumers appreciate the opportunity to express themselves, and to know that companies truly value their opinions.
- Participants increase their commitment to your project. They’ve agreed to assist, now they feel obligated to deliver. It moves them beyond the financial incentive for participating.
- Participants are anxious to share. This is particularly true when working with kids. They’ve invested the time and effort, and now they want the world to see and hear what they’ve done.
While the nature and scope of respondent homework is dictated by the research objectives, we have employed methodologies and covered issues such as:
- having teen-aged boys assess the in-store environments of competitive teen apparel retailers, with an eye toward reinventing the client’s stores;
- asking owners of mini-vans and SUVs to create renderings of the ideal interior for these vehicle (ever wonder where some of those ideas you see in auto show concept cars come from?);
- as part of a campaign to encourage healthier lifestyles among young girls, kids were asked to develop a character/mascot for the program and write a story detailing how that mascot could motivate girls to eat healthy and engage in physical activity (the girls’ input was used to develop the spokescharacter eventually featured in the campaign);
- tweens were asked to compile diaries and journals of their lives, to dig deep and really share their emotions so the client could truly understand what it’s like to be a kid today (the kids’ contributions were the basis for a new tween-oriented sitcom now featured on a kids’ cable network);
- participants used an online bulletin board as a group journal, detailing their experiences with a new product that was being fine-tuned for market introduction.
We have also found that promising respondents that their assignments will be returned to them upon project completion really enhances the time and effort they put into their work. For example, mothers of young children - some first-time moms and some with several kids at home - were asked to create collages illustrating their hopes and fears in their role as parent. The promise to return the artwork resulted in respondents using the opportunity to create pieces they were extremely proud to share with the focus group members, knowing the work would become family keepsakes. The client, a magazine publisher, got stores of information and emotionally rich topics for future issues.
Depth of learning
By setting consumers free to record, capture, and express their feelings, emotions, experiences, and observations, marketers acquire a richness and depth of learning. This is not to suggest that homework is the cure-all or even appropriate for all research issues. Indeed, while it can be sexy and fun, if not properly designed or relevant to the issues at hand, such assignments can be of minimal value. However, when applied in the right circumstances and used in conjunction with other research and marketing efforts, it can provide invaluable insight.