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How to Build Confidence in Innovative Research Results

How to Build Confidence in Innovative Research Results

I was in the boardroom with the CEO of our new client, debriefing a project we had just finished. Our contact (the head of insight) was there, along with the heads of product development and marketing, and two of my Irrational Agency colleagues. We had just delivered a project based on a newly designed behavioral-science-based methodology and I was demonstrating what consumers wanted from the company's new product range.

Then came one of the worst moments I have ever had in a research debrief. The CEO turned to me and declared: "I just can't trust these results. I don't believe what you're saying." I felt a dark knot forming in the core of my stomach. A flood of thoughts rushed through my head: had I made our contact look bad? Had we wasted the client's money, and our time? We certainly weren't about to win any more business from them.

Of course, there are always client stakeholders who don't really want to listen to research, who are convinced they know best. But this felt different. This was a failure on our part to demonstrate why our methodology was accurate and robust; a failure to communicate the findings persuasively; a failure to build confidence and faith in the process and in our agency. And it told me we had to find a new path.

This is a peril for every innovative research project. Maybe it's not so bad if you're repeating the same tracking study or the same customer satisfaction survey from last quarter. The default assumption is that the data is correct, and any unexpected results are showing a genuine change in customer attitudes rather than a research mistake. But when a client is trying out a new method for the first time (as they often are, when it's a narrative research or behavioural science method), the methodology is on trial as much as the results.

And the risk isn't only to my hurt feelings. If stakeholders don't trust the research, they won't act on it. The research budget will be wasted and the business will make worse decisions without guidance.

Since that depressing day, my colleagues and I have developed a new approach to building confidence in the research results from innovative methodologies. Here's what we do now:

Robust understanding of research stakeholders

Our team is now led by senior researchers with 20+ years of experience talking with stakeholders. There is simply no substitute for that intuitive understanding of what clients need to know, the language they speak, and their expectations. Our managing director, Steph, has led teams of 50 researchers across two continents and has delivered to multinationals at the boardroom level.

A repeatable, solid set of tools

Instead of inventing a bespoke methodology for every project, we now put together a project from a few jigsaw pieces: the well-tested tools we have used with dozens of clients before. With years of experience in each tool we know how to use them best and how to answer the questions that clients ask. The approach is still innovative, but it's not a bleeding-edge experiment every time we meet a new client.

Our System 3 approach is at the heart of this: it's a way of uncovering the unconscious narratives that guide real behaviour. This is a unique tool but it has been used repeatedly now by clients like Primark, Clorox, Pepsico and Sainsbury's – all sophisticated research buyers who know what they are looking for.

Our other methods, Behavioral Conjoint, Simulated RCT and Implicit Ranking are equally well-tested with demonstrable market validity.

Conducting public research results to share in advance

Client confidentiality used to make it difficult to share examples of past research, to show the reliability of an approach. But we now publish our own quarterly trends report, Hidden Stories, allowing stakeholders to see a detailed example of what they will get before commissioning a project. Indeed several stakeholders rely on the insights from this report to guide their business, even if they haven't yet carried out ad hoc research.

Advanced science – but in the background not the foreground

We base everything we do on science that is validated by hundreds of researchers worldwide, across psychology economics and neuroscience. But that doesn't sit up front. The business question is the priority: the science is only there to demonstrate the credibility and reliability of the methods used to answer it.

Balance the expected and the unexpected

Everyone wants to discover something new in a research project – otherwise why bother? But if everything is new, it is hard for them to connect the insights to what they already know, and they may not believe what they hear. After all, how likely is it that one project would overturn all the accumulated knowledge of a brand team about their category and product?

We bring stakeholders on a journey through the new discoveries behavioural science offers, showing how it sheds light on things they already know but might never have considered. Then we demonstrate how it confirms existing insight, and finally introduce the new discoveries and details that it opens up.

Show that behavioural science methods are more trustworthy than traditional research

Conventional research has some well-known flaws, such as consistent overclaiming of purchase likelihood, and respondents' tendency to agree with conventional wisdom. By showing how behavioural science makes these answers more accurate, we demonstrate how this research can be relied on better than the old approach.

Data and consistency checks

If something does go wrong in a research method, there is usually some kind of early warning. If the data doesn't make sense, you can spot this either in the individual respondents' behaviour, or with statistical checks. We have introduced a checking process in our qualitative research, and at three different stages of our quantitative surveys: so there's always time to notice if something is wrong. In most cases everything is fine, but when you're innovating, you need to be alert to this possibility and know how to correct it.

A heritage of smart clients

Clients such as Coca-Cola, IHG, Vodafone and Sanofi-Aventis have come back time and again to use Irrational Agency's behavioural science methods. They have been tested against market reality and proven their worth. The insight teams in these companies know what they're doing and wouldn't buy anything that wasn't solid.

Did we ruin someone's career with bad research? No.

Turns out I needn't have been quite so worried in that meeting. The head of insight moved on to a better role soon after, for unrelated reasons (it turns out there may have been other negatives about working for that specific brand!) And although the CEO didn't come back to us with a new commission, we were able to show our original contact a new approach to building confidence in research. Since moving on she has referred us to at least two new clients. So at least I didn't disappoint her too much!

Now when our results are referenced by the CMO of a national brand, or we stand up with a client at the ESOMAR conference to talk about what we discovered together, there is no lack of confidence – in the client, in our research, or in the audience's mind. Behavioural science, after all, is about discovering the truth, even when it's not obvious. And truth is something you can rely on.

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