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Everyone has a Story with a Typewriter

Tapping into Narrative Research and Storyhearing

When it comes to understanding consumer behavior, researchers have tapped into a variety of different methods over the years. One approach that has gained popularity in recent times is narrative research. This involves listening to people's stories and looking for insights into their behavior. But why is narrative research such an important tool for behavioral scientists? And what can you learn from storyhearing?

The Role of the Story 

Ask any human to recount their favorite story and most likely they will start with a telling of the character, their background story, the setting for the protagonist with a hope or dream. Looming in the next part is how the dream is dashed. The plot will thicken and take a twist or turn (or two). Just when the protagonist seems most unlikely to succeed, the conflict is resolved and the hero gains something new in the resolution. While this is just one of many story arcs, humans easily understand their world through stories - no matter what version is used. But what does the role of the story have to do with narrative research and storyhearing? 

As methods for understanding consumer behavior, both narrative research and storyhearing are powerful tools as it allows the participant to play the part of the protagonist and reveal their own journey, in their own words, in their own settings, with their own conflicts and twists and turns and ultimately write their own ending. These individualized stories deliver a singular perspective and listening to them can be incredibly enlightening, but ultimately time consuming. If consumers are given the opportunity to tell their personalized stories, how can this data be collected or understood at scale?

Narrative Research: Qualitative or Quantitative? 

While narrative research has been around for some time in humanities and social sciences disciplines, its use in market research is relatively new. Despite this, it's quickly gaining traction as an essential tool in helping researchers understand the complexities of human behavior. Narrative Research may seem like it only lends itself to a qualitative setting, but it is actually important in both types of research. Qualitative research may help you understand how different individuals feel about various concepts or brands, but quantitative research will help you understand how many people fall into each category. 

In terms of the story, while each is terrifically individual with its own characters, plots, subplots and outcomes, the patterns, common themes, similarities in resolution can also tell us something of the consumer experience at a greater scale. In this way, narrative research as a qualitative method can reveal specifics, but by adding quantitative tools to those same stories, brands can also tap into a deeper understanding of the masses by identifying recurring themes, arising conflicts and most common resolutions. One great example of how qualitative and quantitative add different things to a brand's understanding is the notion of value in retail shopper research. What does value mean, really? For some people, it’s all about price, while for others, it may mean a bigger pack or better quality. Qualitative research can help brands understand what all the various different meanings of value are–for example, for some, value ultimately comes from an emotional place–and develop personas based on these feelings. By pairing qualitative and quantitative methods, these personas can be explored to quantify the size of each segment and hone in the brand's focus.

Qualitative methods are great for getting at the emotions and meanings that people attach to their stories. They allow researchers to explore in-depth why people feel the way they do about certain topics or products. In contrast, quantitative methods can help measure the strength of those feelings and track how they change over time or in different contexts. Together, these two approaches provide a more complete understanding of customer behavior and what brands can do to influence these stories.

Stories Aren't Always Simple

In understanding consumer behavior, these hidden narratives are the most important tool in the behavioral science shed on the journey to honing in on how customers feel about different product lines, services, or features and where they experience cognitive dissonance.

Imagine taking a flight, for example. You are aware of the carbon impact of taking flights. You know that this is something problematic in regards to climate change, but many of us have not seen our family members for much of the last few years. So, your love for your family and your desire to see them are conflicting with your desire to protect the future of the planet and potentially even the future of the same family that you want to see. This is a classic struggle.

Internal conflicts like this make up a big part of the stories that we tell. We experience these dilemmas constantly, and narrative research can help researchers tease out the different emotions and beliefs that are at play in these situations. By understanding all of the mixed feelings customers have about flying - from carbon emissions, to desire to go where they’re going, to potential travel alternatives, to costs - narrative research can pinpoint the main touchpoints where people may feel cognitive dissonance. Brands can focus here on marketing and development to suggest solutions to resolve these feelings.

Storyhearing and System 3 Decision Making

One of the main benefits of narrative research is that it can help researchers understand the emotional side of consumer behavior. Storytelling is a powerful way to communicate and connect with people on an emotional level. Many people listen to stories in order to respond to the person talking or bring up their own relevant story. But as researchers, our job is to really hear these stories, not just listen to them–only by doing that can brands get down to the unconscious layers of how their audience feels about products and services, and past their consciously formulated opinions. This can be especially useful for businesses who want to create emotionally resonant marketing campaigns.

Every story that we know, including the fairy tales that we learned as a kid, has a sequence of cause-and-effect steps. X happens, then because of that Y happens, and therefore Z happens. Every event in the story is inevitable as a consequence of the previous step. A story is a way of reflecting the whole chain of cause-and-effect relationships. Throughout our entire lives, we've been unconsciously learning the different cause-and-effect relationships in the world and, subsequently, how stories work.

As we grow up, we have more complicated stories and processes to go through. We learn to drive a car - there's the cause-and-effect of you pushing different pedals and the car going faster or slower which combines with the cause-and-effect of turning the wheel to move in different directions. We go into the store, we buy a pack of chips or a kind of soda, and we find out the consequence of that purchase: "Yes, I do like this flavor of potato chips. And no, I don't like this soda." Unconsciously, your brain adds another layer of belief and story (cause-and-effect) on top of that. So, when you go into the same store the next time, your brain instantly summons up all of the stories, right from the very basic, "Well, I need some sugar to survive", to "I saw the advertising for this brand and it had this person who is really aspirational, or it made me feel this certain way", which causes you to make a purchase decision about any given snack or beverage.

All of our learning of cause-and-effect and storytelling leads to us being able to make decisions. You’ve likely heard of System 1 and System 2 thinking - however, these stories help us build up and make decisions using System 3 thinking. System 3 is all about feelings and using past and present information to create possible future outcomes for ourselves. Decisions are made not on gut reaction or logical thinking, but on how things make us feel or how we expect they will make us feel.

All of these stories are hidden stories that narrative research can help researchers truly hear what consumers are telling them. By hearing these stories you can really see how many layers of causes and effects your customers built up in relation to your brand. This ultimately helps better understand the unconscious behavior and emotional undercurrents in people's System 3 decision making. Taking things one step further, brands can then use that knowledge to make strategic decisions in marketing and design products and services.

This is where researchers can go beyond the basics of research and truly start understanding how to change narratives for better business impact. Storyhearing and truly understanding consumer stories provide the tools to tip the scales into different outcomes for brands. Start tapping into the power of narrative research. When coupled with empathy for the consumer, better products and services are created that can go a long way to a happier ending for both the consumer and the brand. Get a head start and take a look at our extensive 30-page guide to behavioral market research. Click to download.

 Guide to Behavioral Market Research



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