Reading the title you might think this is a self-help article on relationships. In a way it is, but rather than the relationships you typically think about (romantic, family, friendship) this is about the relationship with your respondents. Much like our personal relationships, our connection with those that participate in research can be improved by increasing intimacy. Intimacy produces greater trust, understanding, and knowledge of another person’s experiences, perceptions and perspectives. It’s what allows us to truly get to know another person or group of people. And isn’t that what we are after as researchers? If we are going to build intimacy we have to build rapport with the people we are asking to take part in our research projects.
The concept of intimacy is receiving increased attention in market research. Recently, large companies such as General Mills and Intel have expressed their commitment to building more intimate relationships and achieving a better understanding of consumers’ stories as essential aspects of their research approach. Additionally, a recent study on the desires of CMOs cites the crucial need to build and maintain intimacy with customers. Our blog has also recently opined about the importance of intimacy in a Big Data world.
With intimacy becoming the new buzz word in the industry, I believe it is important to step back and think about not only the opportunities we have to promote closer relationships, but also the barriers in front of us by way of past and current practices. That is the thing with buzzwords: they sound great as ideas, but too often reality makes turning those ideas into action difficult. If we are to achieve greater intimacy in our research and with our consumers, then we need to start by thinking about what changes and new innovations are necessary.
One of the first things I noticed when I started working in the field of online market research is the lack of a relationship we have with our respondents. We bid with sample vendors to supply respondents. They are sent through an exercise once and usually never engaged again. We take no time to get to know them. Even if we wanted to build more long-term relationships with respondents it is difficult due to the high turnover rates on most panels. Not to mention, we also treat people as a commodity for which we can get the lowest price per complete. In turn, we have many respondents who are only engaged via the incentive they get for completing a survey. This can result in bad data (e.g. straight-lining, bad open ends, etc.) and does little to create intimacy. I have to ask: Is this the best way to engage and build relationships with respondents? Can we find intimacy in a purely commoditized relationship? While incentives will always be a part of the deal with respondents, can we deepen our relationship by creating more of a community feel and reciprocity that goes beyond dollars, cents, and panel points?
Coming from a background in Cultural Anthropology, the impersonal relationship plaguing online market research is definitely a new experience. As an anthropologist, the backbone to any research started and finished with building strong relationships with the people participating, or better yet, collaborating in my research. On day one of grad school developing rapport was stressed as one of the most important aspects of successful, quality research. And by rapport I mean building a close relationship through developing trust, communication and emotional connections. I found that once people realized you are truly interested in learning about their experiences, opinions, and lives they open up and begin to share on a much deeper level. While monetary incentives were used, they were not the basis of the relationship that developed. Now I realize that online market research and ethnographic fieldwork are two very different animals; however, if our industry wants to move to more intimate relationships with consumers in research, we can learn a lot from the latter to do just that.
When conducting fieldwork the connections I created were on a personal level. I thought of these people more like friends and family and not research subjects (and I think they felt similarly towards me). This type of relationship allowed me to learn about the lives of people in, my case, Belize, but also for them to learn about my life back home and my experience living in their community. It was a two-way street where the exchange of knowledge went in both directions. This might be a larger point for another time, but through building greater rapport and more long-term research collaborations (as I think is best to think about the research process), the act of conducting research can be an important touch point. If the groundwork is laid properly people begin to feel some sort of belonging and thus intimacy is created beyond the research process. It just may be the case where conducting more thoughtful research can lead to stronger relationships between brand and consumer as people feel more connected to the companies they truly engage with.
Now for the difficult part, how do we actualize more intimate research in an environment that currently is structured to promote the opposite? Is it possible to develop true rapport in an online environment? What would it look like? How do we make respondents feel more like collaborators? Are there new ways to keep participants engaged, engaged for longer periods of time, and increase the ease of re-contacting them? As an industry, answering questions such as these are crucial for developing deeper, more long-term relationships.
While changes in how we sample need to be made by research and panel companies, if we are going to move to greater intimacy, we can also think of designing new research projects that intend to engage participants in a more collaborative relationship. This will ultimately involve conducting more qualitative research since it is the approach best suited to develop rapport. We should also ask – how would trackers look if we qualitatively gauged changing perceptions/attitudes with the same set of participants over a whole year? How could the R&D phase improve if we had future consumers collaborating in the entire process? Can we work together with research participants in the creation of concepts instead of showing them a set of previously developed options? Can we find new ways to connect on a more emotional level?
To wrap things up, if we want to cultivate greater intimacy with our research participants and consumers we have think of new and innovative ways to create more human relationships with them. This is essentially what rapport is all about – connecting on a personal level with someone in order to deepen relationships and develop a mutual respect and understanding. In my mind, you can’t separate intimacy and rapport; they’re two sides of the same coin. If greater intimacy is the goal, then rapport is path to that goal.