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How do you find the why?

How Do You Find the Why?

For decades now, researchers have been working on better ways to measure, record and analyze how customers behave. And we’ve all started to get quite good at it. With passive behavioral measurement, implicit tools, mobile ethnography, years of tracking data behind us, and continual improvements in survey design, our industry is now strong at measuring the what.

There’s a little echo in the back of our heads, though. What if the what is not enough? For a few years now, people have been asking: can we find the why behind the what? It’s useful to know what your customers are doing, but if you can uncover why they are doing it, you have much more influence.

Some people ask this question as a way of exploring cause-and-effect, while others look at it through the lens of vision. Either way, knowledge of the deeper reasons behind human behavior unlocks a lot of power.

But finding the why is a hard problem. Econometricians might use techniques like ANOVA or difference-in-difference methods, but these require vast quantities of data and can only reveal one variable at a time, typically through large regression studies. Qualitative methods can provide insight more easily – but with small sample sizes and limited reliability, you never know what insights you might get.

Is there a way to get a better picture of the why – faster, reliably and repeatably? It turns out there is. Stories reveal the why, more easily than any other research method.

Stories are classically based on a particular narrative structure: a character has a goal, encounters obstacles in pursuing the goal, learns something, and eventually is able to achieve their goal while undergoing growth as a person. Each step in this structure is based on cause and effect, and thus reveals something about how the author sees the fundamental ‘why’ of the world. By listening to our customers’ stories we can discover the same thing about them: what is their why?

This might be as grand as the purpose they see for their whole life, or as practical as why they changed their cereal brand. Either way, it reveals one of the underlying reasons that explains why they do what they do…and just as importantly, what could change it.

After all, the purpose of research is not just to study the world, but to change it…as a famous person almost said. Knowing the why allows us to change whatever conditions give rise to the outcomes we are getting. If you want more people to buy your product, find out why they aren’t buying it today. Or if you have found that a new TV ad doesn’t test well, find out why – and you might be able to improve it.

The why also provides important clues to another crucial question: where next? Trackers and surveys can uncover what has happened in the past, up to today (or more often, up to the end of the previous quarter). They don’t tell you about tomorrow. However, if you know what caused today’s customer behavior, you’ll be in a position to predict what is coming. Are the same causes still in place? Or are they shifting?

To investigate the why, you can get respondents to volunteer their own stories about your category and brand. Prompt them to open up, and listen for the words ‘because’, ‘therefore’, ‘so’ or phrases like ‘and that’s why…’. These words tell you the rationale your customers ascribe to changes in their world.

By building up a set of reasons, in the form of “x causes y” and “y leads to z”, you’ll be able to create a deep collection of insights showing how your customers mentally navigate your category. It can be shown graphically in a visual chart to identify clusters and patterns, or analyzed quantitatively. This in turn tells you which customer stories will connect with different segments of customer, and how to guide people towards your brand rather than your competitors.

You can set out to comprehensively explore the why that pervades your whole category, or just add a bit of why to an existing study. Either way, you’ll get a whole lot more value out of your research when you move from recording what people did in the past, to exploring why things will be different in the future.


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