Research: Knowing what we don’t know

Published: 24 May 2018

There is often a difference between what we tell people and how we actually act, commonly known as the ‘say-do gap’.

Asking people to describe their behaviour visually may provide more accurate findings than written responses. We tried this recently, using an interactive fuzzy felt exercise to gather rich data about people’s travel habits.

Market research has come a long way since Arthur Nielson set up his eponymous company in 1923, although in many ways the essentials remain the same. But is that about to change?

From businesses to charities, political parties to regulators, schools to universities, organisations invest considerable resource in understanding their customers’, stakeholders’ and the wider public’s views on different issues. This tends to take the form of a quantitative survey or a qualitative focus group, in each case asking people questions about a specific topic of relevance.

These techniques can provide valuable insights into how people think and feel. In the last few months, at Linstock we’ve worked with clients to use evidence garnered from research such as this to highlight how people feel about the idea of using their home to provide income in retirement and which policies would help global businesses increase the proportion of senior management roles held by women.

But what about research to find out how people act, or what they will do in the future? Asking people directly about their behaviour through surveys or focus groups doesn’t always generate accurate insights. There is often a difference between what we tell people and how we actually act, commonly known as the ‘say-do gap’.

We’re perhaps most familiar with this concept when it comes to voting in elections – for instance, shy Tories turning out in force is often highlighted as the major reason pollsters’ predictions of the 1992 and 2015 elections were so far out from the final results. But the same can be true in all sorts of areas of life. Many consumers say they are willing to pay more for sustainably produced goods, and yet Fairtrade food and ethical fashion brands still lag far behind their cheaper peers. And we all have that friend who says they’re not interested in celebrity gossip but still knows everything about the Kardashians.

So how can we find out how people really feel and how this will affect their behaviour? Well, according to the Bank of England’s chief economist, Andy Haldane, leisure activities may hold the answer. He recently suggested monitoring people’s taste in books, TV and games to help us better understand economic trends, noting that researchers are already using data on Spotify downloads to provide an indicator of people’s sentiment and therefore their likelihood to spend.

Similarly, asking people to describe their behaviour visually may provide more accurate findings than written responses. We tried this recently for a local authority client that is exploring why people drive rather than using more active and sustainable transport modes, using an interactive fuzzy felt exercise to gather rich data about people’s travel habits that hadn’t come through in online surveys.

At Linstock we believe that evidence is central to developing effective communications strategies and producing strong content. And we should embrace the new research tools and techniques available that can provide a much deeper understanding of how people are likely to behave. However, the fundamentals haven’t changed. Before embarking on a project, think carefully about what you want to find out, consider the advantages and disadvantages of the various research methodologies available and choose the one(s) that will provide the most accurate results.

Jo Nussbaum

Associate Director

 

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