Get ’em talking

Editor's note: Susan Fader is qualitative researcher, strategist and moderator at Fader and Associates, a New York research firm. 

person speakingWho doesn’t love a good story? A well-constructed story entertains, is memorable and delivers a message. Fairy tales are rife with all the reasons why children should behave themselves and listen to their parents; hero stories provide a foundation for what values we should aspire to; and myths try to explain the unknown and/or rationalize behavior. 

In the world of market research, storytelling plays an important role but how it is used tends to be narrowly focused. Market research storytelling generally falls into two different categories – stories as output and stories as input. Currently most market researchers focus on using stories as output, as part of the deliverable function of distilling and sharing what was learned during the research process. If research participants are asked to share stories, a primary lens of evaluation and interpretation of the story’s value is whether that story can be featured as part of the reporting as a way to help “sell” a message. The focus is on creating or selecting stories from research based on what will best convey the research insights, and many of those stories are consciously curated to convey specific messages. 

Narrative economics provides a very different and enlightening way for market researchers to think about and utilize stories as a way to better understand how different demographics think about things and why they make the decisions they do. 

For the market researcher, narrative economics can build on behavioral economics. Classical economic theory is based on the assumption that people make rational decisions. Behavioral economics identified that people make irrational decisions that are not always in their best interests. For the market researcher, narrative economics may begin to put a different spin on how behavioral economics is viewed and the role storytelling plays in research methodology.

Robert Shiller, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and father of narrative economics, recognizes that a decision may appear irrational if you don’t contextualize the events happening around it. In other words, in the world of market research, I believe behavioral economics represents an outsider’s (the market researcher’s) perspective on whether the person being studied is making a rational choice or decision, whereas narrative economics is the insider’s (the person who is being studied) perspective on whether the choice or decision is rational to them.

The narratives or stories of those being studied, the people with whom they associate and events within their circle of peers can provide insight into behavior, perspectives, decision-making and personal choice. Stories in the world of narrative economics do not have to be masterfully told. Shiller explains that narrative economics is “the study of the spread and dynamics of popular narratives, the stories, particularly those of human interest and emotion, and how these change through time, to understand economic fluctuations.”

Context and background 

Narrative economics uses narratives to provide context and background. The narratives can be tied to a specific event, they can be short justifications for an action or belief and they also can be a long story describing many things over a long period of time. 

For Shiller the definition of stories or narratives is broad. Some are stories that give an insider view of the target demographics. Others are stories that capture outside events that are impacting those demographics’ worldview. 

You can get insight into your specific demographics through stories or snippets of information that the people you are researching share with you during the research study. Another way to get this insight is to read personal narratives by people who are in your target groups but who may not be participants in your research study – e.g., poor/lower middle-class Rust Belt whites in the world of J.D. Vance’s book “Hillbilly Elegy” or Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” where Coates as a black father is preparing his teenage son for the world in which he lives. Both books provide personal perceptions of what these demographics see as the realities of the world where they live. Insights can also be provided even when an outsider tells the story, such as Anne Fadiman’s “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down – A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors and the Collision of Two Cultures,” which is now required reading in many medical schools because it showed that a vastly different cultural approach that clashes with American medical practices can sometimes be more effective. You don’t have to just read – you can also listen to podcasts, which are a great source for getting the worldview of almost any specific demographics you may be interested in.

The market researcher should also go to the sources that are shaping their demographics’ worldview. For example, if your target includes many Trump voters and you personally get your news from NPR and social media sources that only agree with your perspective of reality and don’t also watch Fox commentators or follow Trump supporters on social media, you will see Trump voters’ behavior as irrational, versus their view of their behavior being rational per a narrative economics framework. You don’t have to agree with someone else’s perspective but as a market researcher you need to try to see and understand the world in the way that others may see it. 

A template for a market research application of narrative economics is Shiller’s example of how using narrative economics helped answer the question of why the stock market crash of 1929 snowballed into the Great Depression, especially in light of other (even more serious) economic downturns that did not cause such cascading economic problems over such a long period of time.

Shiller turned to historical narratives – newspaper articles, diaries, stories, books, newsreels – about what people were thinking and saying the decade or so prior to the crash. 1918 was a very traumatic year. It was the end of World War I, which killed millions, overthrew century old monarchies, redrew the map of Europe and created countless refugees. In 1918 a global pandemic – the Spanish Flu – also began and in three waves through 1920 killed between 50-100 million people worldwide. What made the magnitude of these deaths even more terrifying was that influenza outbreaks usually kill the very young or the very old, but with the Spanish Flu the mortality rate was disproportionately high for young adults. 

The Roaring ‘20s began with U.S. women getting the right to vote, followed quickly by hemlines retreating, corsets being discarded and what to traditionalists felt like the movement toward loose morals and an overthrow of societal norms. Shiller uncovered that starting around this time the “establishment” – people holding political, economic and religious power – did not want change and warned against this shift, described the need to revert to prior social norms and cautioned that if people continued on this path more bad things would happen. 

In other words, when the stock market crash of 1929 happened, many people in power initially thought this was a good thing in that it “proved” that they had been right about society needing to reform. Therefore, to show that what they had been saying and warning about was right, many in power initially talked about the crash in positive terms and did little to mitigate the beginning of the economic crash, which then allowed the economic downturn to snowball. Thus while their behavior was irrational in terms of how they should have behaved when the crash began, narrative economics explains why it was a “rational” choice for them to make at the time.

Understand a person’s perspective

So how can a market researcher use the lessons of narrative economics during the actual research study, with the focus on eliciting stories as input to provide a better way to understand a person’s perspective versus trying to gather stories that can be used in the final reporting? Also, how can research methodologies be designed to encourage narratives and stories during the research process? 

A challenge to gathering these stories as input during the research study is that many people, especially in the age of short attention spans, are not natural storytellers and don’t even know how to tell a story. In addition, in order to design market research studies we have to make baseline assumptions. But what if our baseline assumptions are wrong? Well, narrative economics also helps to double-check that.

To help people tell a story, even if it is really short, you have to give people a framework and a little time (generally just a couple of minutes) to think and gather their thoughts. While participant storytelling throughout the research study is important, it plays a key role upfront, usually right after the introductory part of the study, before anything else is discussed or introduced.

Storytelling as input can help transport the research participant to the state of mind you need them to be in. Seeking to identify how a client should revamp a reward offering of a specific retail card, we conducted a study with elite users of the card. People in the focus group were given a sheet of paper with seven thought bubbles on it and told that they had to go that store because they had to buy an outfit for an event for the following weekend. The participants were instructed to write down seven distinctly different things that were going through their head based on this. Very quickly, as people were writing, without even talking, I could differentiate through body language those who liked shopping (smiling) and those who didn’t (grimacing, even beginning to perspire!). When it came time for each person to tell his or her story, I asked them to turn the sheet to the blank side and just talk. The exercise had organized their thoughts and helped each to tell a story and the stories matched what I had observed and also uncovered many pain points that a rewards program could mitigate. All this before we even showed them a list of possible rewards. 

Storytelling upfront, as an input exercise, can also help the person participating in the research better understand his or her own behavior while helping the market researcher better understand how to communicate. For example, in a hernia mesh study with general surgeons who did a minimum of eight different types of surgery, including a minimum number of hernia surgeries, the client had been viewing this general surgeon demographic as homogeneous, but through quick storytelling exercise, we found that there were two demographics who needed radically different messaging – those who liked surgeries that were rote and mechanical with a specific repetitive way to do it and those who preferred surgeries that allowed them to be creative. So how did we do it? Very simple. We gave them a sheet of paper with a little red heart in the middle and asked them, without discussion, to write down all the surgeries they performed, with the relationship to the heart reflecting how much they liked or did not like them. Then they circled the three they liked best and the three they liked least and identified what each group had in common. The exercise elicited a number of comments such as “OMG, so that is why I hate hernia surgery,” as well as “Wow, I never really thought about why I liked some surgeries more than others.”

Sometimes, what they leave out of a story is incredibly insightful. In a study with heavy users of fabric softener, instead of asking them to tell us a story about what they liked and did not like about fabric softener, we asked them to quickly, without discussion, write down the three things they liked best about doing laundry (the world where laundry resides) and the three things they liked least. Amazingly, when telling their stories, a number of these heavy users of fabric softener did not bring up using fabric softener as something they liked about doing laundry (or even didn’t like). If we had not used storytelling as input immediately after the introduction and instead had begun asking them about their views on fabric softener, we would have had a very different discussion and takeaway from the research.

Assumptions might be off 

Allowing participant storytelling as input can also uncover that your baseline assumptions and research objectives might be off. For a study on contraceptives – this one was an implantable one – the client thought they had an efficacy messaging problem and commissioned a positioning study where various positioning/benefit statements would be explored. Using the storytelling exercise upfront also reinforced why it is important to sometimes do in-person studies and also resist the urge to say, “We already know that, so let’s not waste time and ask,” when asking people to share stories. Prior to showing them positioning statements, I asked each physician – who was a prescriber of the implantable contraceptive – to share with me what they say to patients about each of the contraceptive options they offer. We discovered that rather than a problem with efficacious messaging, the company had a problem with implanting. When talking about implanting, most physicians never said where they implanted but the body language of some of them, who motioned toward their rear-ends, uncovered that many didn’t know it needed to be implanted in the arm to be most efficacious. Talking about the difficulty of implanting uncovered that some physicians were implanting into the muscle instead of subcutaneously. So what was needed was actually specific implanting messaging.

Get insight

In ancient Greece, a newcomer to a meal, as part of the invitation, was expected to share a story. The story was meant to entertain but more importantly it was meant to help the host get insight into who this newcomer was – their beliefs and perspectives. Market researchers should model this idea with an understanding of narrative economics and begin to see participants in a research study as newcomers, allowing them the opportunity to share stories at the beginning of the research process, even when these stories may never be shared as deliverables in the final reporting.