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Do We Really Need to Know Why?

25 April

dataScott McDonald, Senior Vice President of Market Research at Condé Nast, (coincidentally, my brother) recently gave a talk to the Marketing Science Institute (MSI) entitled “Social, Technological and Economic Forces Affecting Market Research Over the Next Decade.” [The Deck. Scroll down for video.]

One of the more controversial predictions was that within the next decade, there will be MORE focus on behavior and LESS focus on motivation in market research studies.

This prediction was not delivered as an endorsement. Scott is not suggesting it is a GOOD thing for marketers to ignore motivation. He explained:

“I don’t see how managers can build brands or develop strategies without some notion of why people behave the way that they do.  However when so much of our behavior is trackable, there is less need to ask people to recall how they behaved.

So if behavior is being tracked, distilled by algorithms, and funneled directly to managers’ desktop dashboards, then a lot of the basic indicators of brand health and performance are being captured without recourse to tracking surveys and the traditional tools of market research.  So the center of gravity of the MR function shifts — less routine reporting, less description, but we need better ways of digging under the surface of the data to try to discover reasons.

There are voices out there that directly question the need for asking the “whys”.  This is most common in the pure realms of Big Data marketing (e.g. Google, Amazon) where the focus is on increasing traffic or conversion/sales and where the paradigm is highly experimental (trading this element for that).  Some there explicitly argue against the need for a broad theory of action – or really for any account of motivation.  This view has been around in direct marketing circles for a very long time, but it now is taking root in broader sectors of the economy.”

For a qualitative researcher like me this is not good news if the prediction comes true.

What do you think? Will our increased ability to observe behavior eclipse the need to have one-on-one conversations with consumers? Can observed behavioral data replace the need to listen to first hand accounts from consumers about what motivates them? Should I start looking for another profession?

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