Self-ethnography – literally putting the tools of our trade into the hands of consumers and encouraging them to document their own lives – is a growing part of what we do. It has been enabled to a large degree by the growth of smartphones in the mainstream, and the growing tendency for people to document their lives and the world around them.
It’s taking research into completely new territory: from push to pull.
Over the past decade the research industry has been asking the question: how can we make something that is essentially undesirable (i.e. research) a little more bearable? So everyone got very excited about gamification and Flash-based drag-and-drop exercises in online surveys.
But we’ve started to notice that far from sugar-coating a bitter pill, self-ethnography techniques can make research desirable, beneficial and even cathartic for people. And the end result is deeper and more powerful insights.
Back in the final years of the millennium, when IT professionals were worrying about Y2K, market researchers were worrying about insight. Their clients were starting to demand it, the trade press was writing about it, the word even started to appear on business cards.
Everyone agreed that it was a Very Good Thing, without really having a clear idea of what it was, or how to define it. A bit like Goji berries or hybrid electric vehicles.
Researchers being researchers, we entered a definition phase, accompanied by deep introspection. There were conferences (I confess to speaking at a couple, on this very subject), there were debates, there were endless articles.
But at the end of it all, I thought we knew what insight was.
And yet a dozen years later, the question is still being asked. What is insight? How does insight differ from research? Can we achieve more impact in the boardroom if we change our job title to Insight Director?
How can it be that this is still happening?
Are there really still practising researchers who aren’t sure what insight is? If so, it may be time to look for another job.
In the words of the late Teddy Pendergrass: If you don’t know me by now, you will never, ever, ever know me.
A couple of weeks ago I got involved in a bit of a Tweet-off with Ray Poynter. Ray argued (and I’m paraphrasing him slightly here) that our business was to uncover insights and that our clients would generally be indebted to us for our provision of these insights.
I, on the other hand, argued that insights are not much use unless they make a real difference to the client’s business and that storytelling is one of the key skills that can ensure this happens.
Ray responded with a blog post and, later, with a new discussion topic in the NewMR group on Linked in. In writing this short article, I suppose I’m taking our Tweet-off into something of a Blog-off, but I think its important to be clear what is meant by storytelling and why this is important. As Ray says, it’s hard to do that in 140 characters on Twitter.
Some people have tried to argue that the provision of insight is more important than storytelling. This is a bit like arguing that ingredients are more important than cooking. Sure enough, you can take the ingredients and chuck them in a pot and hope for the best. And you might get lucky. But as a client-side researcher for quite a few years, I sat through at least a hundred research debriefs, and sadly the majority of them were very badly cooked indeed.