Sunday, 24 July 2011

Appearance is everything

A huge amount of research has been done into the way people process information. This has looked at the way we learn, how we apply existing knowledge to experiences, even how you can have a guy in a bear suit run straight through the middle of a video without people noticing him.

One thing that has come out of all this research that I find interesting, is information about how we assess and deal with the people around us. A significant proportion of our response to people is based on appearance, with people constantly making assumptions based on someone's look or actions.

I've had a great deal of experience of this phenomenon personally. As someone who stands over 6 foot, and weighs around 100kg, I'm fairly solidly built. During my uni days, you could add any combination of dark hair, lack of shaving and ratty clothing to that list. As a result, I could guarantee that the empty seat next to me on the train would be the last one filled. It became a running joke for me with my parents, particularly once I started working in an office job, and could compare this response, to the one when I swapped the jeans for a suit.

Another example came up recently when I was talking to some relatives about one of my cousins. During his teens, he went through a goth phase. This was more than ten years ago, and he's moved on to other things now, but they recently found out that the daughter of a family living down the road would cross the street if he was coming towards her. We're talking here about someone who had known him before this phase, but still responded in this way to the changes appearance.

This sort of response is very interesting to me (Psych major at uni), and amusing to play with (juvenile mentality), but also has a serious side. How does this apply to working life, and more importantly how do we alter our appearance to portray ourselves in particular ways to the people we deal with. This can relate to any setting, from our social interactions with friends, to the way in which you present yourself in a work setting towards your colleagues, managers and clients.

As a general rule of thumb, people will seek to adopt a specific style, usually aiming to match the general look of the group with which they are interacting, seeking social acceptance through homogeneity. Classic examples of this are the 'what are you wearing tonight' phone calls/conversations that start happening at about 5pm every Friday or Saturday night and the 'blue shirt brigades' wandering around the financial districts of any major city...

While this can again be amusng to observe, it has serious applications in market research. In the past, I have in one week, gone from a presentation to a client wanting advice on future business directions (suit and tie), through a casual debrief with an advertising agency wanting feedback on their new tv campaign (shirt and slacks, no tie), all the way down to interviews with homeless kids about how they ended up on the streets (t-shirt and jeans).

While this is taking the most extreme examples, it perfectly demonstrates the diversity of situations that might be faced. I can guarantee that if I turned up to talk to the street kids in a suit and tie, there is no chance they would have been as willing to share their stories, and if I turned up to the client presentation in jeans, that they would place severe question marks on any recommendations I might have made!

In summary, while content can overcome appearance, the two operating in unison can definitely serve to strengthen a message or connection. Keep this in mind, and always think carefully about who you're dealing with and how you want to be seen!

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Supplier to trusted adviser

It's been a couple of weeks since I last posted. They've been a bit up and down, with some family issues and a generally high level of tiredness. I've tried writing, but have either struggled to even get words down, or have  got to the end and decided I shouldn't subject anyone else to that drivel! Today however, for the first time in a while, I was able to sit down on the bus and have it flow, which was a really nice feeling!

Anyways, what I was thinking about this morning was a brief we had come in from a client. They are looking to do a new project, exploring similar issues to a current project, but with a different segment of their customer base. When we started going through it, we've realised that the brief suggests taking the existing design and replicating this, with little consideration of its applicability to this other segment.

The reality is that it's not, with the online survey used for segment 1 needing to be replaced with CATI for segment 2. This was based on the relative strengths  of online and CATI, which are interesting (and evolving) in themselves, but that's something I'll explore at a different time.

What it also got me thinking about though, is how clients and agencies should be working together to conduct research. In a perfect world, it would be a collaborative process where we would be discussing their business with them, would identify an issue, and would then sit down together and talk about what they need to resolve it, and the best way to uncover this information.

In reality, they usually write a brief to specify that they want an online survey of n=200 turnip purchasers, split by those who use them for soup, turnip crumble and a source of clothing dye. The result of this being dictated in this fashion however, is that it's all too easy to accept this as the design and considering the research on a very functional level - "How can we make this work?" Instead of this, the first step should be to step back, and question all aspects of the brief in the context of existing client knowledge, to determine what they really want and how this can best be obtained.

My issue with this approach, is that it looks to me that although they come to us for 'insight', there is still in their minds a clear divide between 'us' and 'them'. They are the buyers of research, and our role is to give them what they ask for.

This is not a new issue, with a lot of articles out there talking about this phenomenon and discussing potential approaches that can be adopted. The language used here is around the challenge of becoming a "trusted advisor" to your clients. In lay terms, this means that you're in the room when they realise they have a problem, you go off and explore it in more detail, and then you're involved in the conversations around how they do or don't implement your recommendations (and potential complications).

This also isn't an issue faced solely by research agencies. I was having lunch a couple of weeks back with a good friend who sells cloud products to large businesses. He used the exact same language describing where he wants to be in terms of his relationship to his clients.

What I do think though is that this move to change our positioning 'supplier' to 'adviser' is one of the big issues facing research. As many aspects of research become increasingly commoditised, agencies need to be able to offer something beyond the data, need to demonstrate the value of our thinking and not just accept that what the client says they want is what they really need.

In short, challenge them, question their needs and force them to think about the real value that we can deliver to their business!