The mother of invention

Editor's note: Based in Colorado Springs, Colo., Clint Jenkin is vice president of research for Barna Group, a Ventura, Calif., research firm.

In the movie Apollo 13, astronaut Jim Lovell – played by Tom Hanks, who won an Oscar for the role – recounts a story of a nighttime aircraft carrier landing as a Navy pilot. He can’t find the aircraft carrier and he’s running out of fuel. Just when he is about to ditch in the ocean his cockpit lights short out. It seems that nothing else can go wrong but then the darkness in his plane allows him to see a faint phosphorescent glow in the water from algae churned up by the giant boat. This glow guides him back to his ship. (The fact that he could then successfully land on a boat at night with no instruments is your first clue that this guy is one heck of a pilot.)

Market research may not be quite as exciting as night carrier landings or surviving a massive system failure in outer space, but still, sometimes what we think is just another problem can actually force us into creative, innovative solutions.

I spent the last six years as the research director for a large faith-based non-profit organization. I had two full-time analysts and nearly free reign to do pretty much any research I wanted. It was a great gig but there was a catch: We had almost no money to spend on our research.

I used to think that despite this lack of project budget we’d been able to cobble together an innovative line of research for my organization. However, toward the end of my tenure I realized that it was precisely because I had such a meager budget that my research team had been forced to explore new and innovative approaches to gathering the information our internal clients needed.

Our organization was not immune to the economic downturn of 2008 that hit non-profits hard; our research team went from 12 to three in a matter of months. At the same time, a restructuring landed us in one of the least-relevant parts of the organization – a division that was mainly focused on keeping costs down and heads above water. But the restructuring also provided an opportunity: Many department heads were in the process of redefining their strategies. This environment is a corporate researcher’s dream – internal clients who openly admit that they need more information to guide their strategic decisions. The catch was that they didn’t have any money to spend and about 90 percent of my budget was consumed by the mundane task of keeping me and my analysts employed. Instead of relying on money to spend, I had to design research that took advantage of my other resources: my analysts’ time and experience.

Insight for not a lot of budget

So I needed a project that would have broad application to various departments around the organization and would also provide a great deal of insight for not a lot of budget. It was time for ethnography. I have a doctorate in social psychology and one of my analysts had just finished a master’s in counseling, so we were well-equipped for observational research. Over the next few months we kept our smaller projects afloat while focusing the last of our remaining budget and almost all of our time on rediscovering our target audience.

We contracted with a third party (shout-out to Sharon at Dynamic Research in Atlanta) to recruit 12 households around the country and to handle some of the participant management duties but everything else we did in-house. We had our participants complete a 30-day journal and shoot some home videos (on cameras we supplied). After we received those materials, we called each household for an in-depth interview with the adults and then we selected two households for a seven-day home visit. I flew across the country to spend seven days with a family in Georgia – showing up each morning, staying until they all went to bed. My female analyst, the one with a master’s in counseling, spent a week with a single mom in our study.

The result was a gold mine of insight for our department heads. Because we had such broad observations of each household, we could step into their point of view and represent them well in meetings and strategy sessions. That project was successful because it was a convergence of our resources (lots of time and researchers with advanced degrees in psychology) and the needs of our organization; together these factors pushed us down a very bold, innovative research path for such a traditionalist organization.

Execute mode

Fast-forward a couple of years. Our various departments have established their new strategies and are now in execute mode. Our research budget has grown a little but not much – and most departments don’t have anything to kick in if they need a custom project. We needed a cost-effective way to talk to our audience about new ideas and new projects, without having to spend the time and money to recruit participants every time we have a question. In other words, we needed a research community.

And the cheapest way to do a community is to do it yourself. I had had some turnover among my analysts but I had hired a former schoolteacher – just the person to manage a bunch of discussions and activities. So we bought an online platform and started reading all the whitepapers on how to engage consumers online. We recruited from our own database of over two million constituents; most of our research questions could be adequately answered with current consumers, so this was a real cost-saver. We also set up social incentives so that we didn’t need to pay them outright for their participation.

The Insight Lab, as we branded it internally, was a runaway success. Suddenly all those one-off questions that never were important enough to spend money on could be answered within a few days. We actually had to convince our internal clients to use it for run-of-the-mill questions, because they had been conditioned for years that only the “big questions” were worthy of research. Now we could give them an answer to almost any R&D-type question within two or three days.

Once again, our inability to commit financial resources to a lot of custom projects pushed us toward a creative solution that turned out to be much more effective and efficient than hiring out a bunch of individual surveys or discussion sessions. It was successful because we had the analyst skills to do it in-house, we had a database to recruit from at no cost and because it filled a specific need for decision-makers within our organization.

Hard to measure

Corporate researchers get to watch the informational needs of their organizations evolve. Ours had gone from questions about strategy to questions about execution and now we had questions about results. Like many non-profits, we had a very socially-oriented mission that is hard to measure but we also had a mandate from our executive leadership to find a way to measure the impact of our programs and content.

After a lot of painstaking input from the department heads, we managed to craft a survey that we could send to those in our active database (over two million records) to understand how we may or may not have impacted their lives in the last 12 months. There was just one problem: This survey was long. It was ugly. I was embarrassed to have written it. We couldn’t break it into multiple parts because our statistical framework required everyone to answer each question. And we couldn’t incentivize it because – you guessed it – we had no money to spend on it and we needed about 4,000 responses per year.

Fortunately the Quirk’s e-newsletter came to the rescue in a very informative two-part article by Jon Puleston1 on survey gamification. We didn’t have the resources to build out a full interactive game but we could at least develop a narrative to draw the respondents in and (hopefully) keep them interested. Most of our questions dealt with recent personal experiences so we decided to convert our extremely mundane survey into a virtual press conference. Now instead of page after page of “check all that apply,” our respondents would be greeted by Erin, their host, who would welcome them to the green room and ask a few personal questions before taking them to meet the reporters. Each persona in the survey was represented by a photograph of an attractive man or woman with a big smile, who introduced himself or herself by first name (and even gave a fictional paper that he or she worked for, like The Herald or The Standard) and started asking questions. Erin would pop back in from time to time to say press conference-y things like, “Next question … how about over there on the left?” It wasn’t fancy but it kept our dropout rate in the single digits. The whole thing was done on our in-house survey platform.

Only trust more traditional methods

The main idea here isn’t that certain kinds of research are cheaper. Ethnographies and online communities would have been prohibitively expensive if we didn’t already have most of the in-house resources to execute them. But many corporate research departments (and marketing departments) underestimate the quality of research they could do internally, either because they don’t take full stock of what they have available in terms of staff skills or access to potential research participants or because they only trust more traditional methods of research. But oftentimes there are great, innovative research opportunities that align with the resources available at the moment. In our case, the soft skills of our analysts, our ability to spend a lot of time on qualitative analysis and our large database of potential participants became more important than our lack of project dollars.

There is room for the research vendor in this process, too. As budgets for traditional market research projects shrink, full-service firms can and should help organizations identify the research assets they have available to acquire and analyze the information they need and then assist them in designing research projects that capitalize on these resources. Of course, from a vendor’s perspective there is a great deal of incentive to downplay or ignore the resources a client might have available. There is a definite risk to receiving an RFP and responding, “Well, I think you can do most of this yourself and save the money.” But research firms can’t be true thought-partners unless they are also willing to help their clients save money through innovative solutions that capitalize on in-house resources.

Resistant to innovative approaches

Last spring, when I was still working for the non-profit, I attended a conference with research executives from Fortune 500 companies – pharmaceutical companies, CPG manufacturers and retailers, all the big players. Many of these researchers lamented that their companies were resistant to new and innovative approaches to market research; their internal clients just didn’t trust them. Some of these research directors would conduct redundant projects – one traditional project and one innovative project – so that their organizations would start to trust new techniques. But even if the money is available, there usually isn’t time to commission redundant projects. It was precisely their large budgets and ability to hire out whatever research they needed that constrained those organizations and their research teams.

My small research team never even had the option of using traditional techniques for many of our projects. Sitting in our metaphorical cockpit, watching our fuel gauge tip toward empty and our lights flicker out, we had to stare out the window and figure out how to find those all-important insights in an ocean of uncertainty.


1 Puleston, Jon. “Gamification 101 – from theory to practice – part I.” Quirk’s e-newsletter, January 23, 2012. “Gamification 101 – from theory to practice – part II.” Quirk’s e-newsletter, February 13, 2012.