The Market Research Society Conference 2011 – a roundup

Nerds, lolcats and memes; facial coding, implicit association tests and the beauty of Sheffield. Survey gamification, nudging and home-made toasters.

The programme for this year’s MRS conference was as broad as ever and a week after the event the themes are still resonating. As well as hosting the Infographics Showcase, the team from Brass were there to take in the sessions, alongside Richard our visualiser. Picking up the theme of translating data into something more visually compelling Richard’s task was to draw the conference. A selection of his work is shared below.

My highlights

The session on behavioural economics Enough Talk. Where’s the payback? chaired by the ever entertaining Nick Southgate aimed to demonstrate how companies had incorporated the theory of behaviour change into their practice (see the recent institute for Government report here for an overview). The initial debate covered the familiar territory of how people are influenced by their gut reactions (system 1 thinking) rather than being rational beings who coldly weigh up actions (system 2 thinking).

Richard Wright’s case study focussed on Unilever’s attempt to change habits in categories we buy repeatedly without thinking. He focussed on a campaign produced to encourage twice a day tooth brushing in Asia where brushing once a day is the norm. Measuring the effectiveness of the campaign was difficult – outcomes like gum disease were too long term, self-reporting is unreliable and observation impractical. Instead the company used toothbrushes with inbuilt sensors that measured when and for how long they were used, giving an immediate, unobtrusive and inexpensive measure of behaviour change.

A lively debate followed. Nick made the point that market research is obsessed with asking why, whereas behavioural economics just sets up experiments and sees what happens. People can’t (or won’t) articulate their motivations in his view – so why ask? Several challenges from piqued researchers followed – in short isn’t behavioural economics just research when you boil it down?

Let’s face it – marketers understood issues like incentives and defaults before anyone had heard the term behavioural economics. Arguments about who owns what territory miss the point. The benefit of the debate around ‘BE’ is that a robust framework of human action is now being established to guide thought and deed. It’s hard not be excited about that.

Ethics of researching children

Barbie Clarke discussed how online techniques present a challenge both in keeping kids safe and maintaining their trust in a session on the ethics of researching children. Depending on where your interests lie the line between research and marketing can be very thin. I didn’t go to the session but our visualiser did, and I just had to include the image:


Businesses and customer empathy

Day one closed with a bold session on from Charles Leadbeater called The future in one diagram. Analysing organisations based on how empathetic and system-focussed they are, he described how businesses lose their bond of customer empathy as they grow. With scale comes a feeling of distance, coldness and neglect. The questions he posed were – is it possible to do intimacy at scale? Don’t attempts to generate empathy misfire? How do we create better social and systematic organisations?

My interpretation of Leadbeater’s argument  is that human connection motivates us but we still want consistency, reliability and ubiquity from organisations. If pushed, we take the latter not the former i.e. we’d rather have a coldly efficient NHS if it heals us, we’d rather shop at a multiple that is open all hours and stocks 127 brands of cereal. Leadbeater gave few convincing examples of the ideal organisation (the city of Barcelona, Grameen bank) – suggesting that efficiency and empathy are in practical terms, mutually exclusive.

Nerd subculture

Tom Ewing and Nick Gadsby chaired an entertaining session on the merits of Nerd culture on day two.  Nerd subcultures on any topic are defined by the canon (source material), creativity (participating in the source material) and conflicts that give the arena energy (between fans and between hostile non-fans).

The point of all this? Tom made the point that fandom (communities) gaming (engagement) and memes (co-creation) have their parallels in the world of research.  Set the right tasks, passionate amateurs – not experts – are sometimes the best people to create solutions. Tom described nerd culture as a creative hot zone like fashion or street culture. Nerds develop many of the ideas that end up in the mainstream. Memes (the idea equivalent of a gene) can spread and subtly change as a virus be serious (e.g. religion) or just another lolcat. Delivered with genuine enthusiasm the workshop was provided great entertainment, not least for those of us who got to see their boss ‘volunteered’ to play Dungeons and Dragons in front the audience.

The Infographics Showcase

All the while visitors to the Infographics Showcase were voting on their favourite entries. We wanted to provide a platform for the industry to present great examples of data communication to get people thinking and to inspire us all.

We were delighted to have received entries from marketing and research agencies, clients and even a university. The gallery proved to be a great place to come and gain visual inspiration. Voting showed the delegates’ favourite was The colour of research by Keen as Mustard, a colour map of the top 30 UK research agencies’ brands identifying the ‘gap’ in the market. Honourable mentions go to Truth and Insight Research Group.

The showcase was a great success, thanks for your feedback. We’ll see you all next year – recent news suggests that the number of potential entrants may be much larger in 2012.


About Simon Shaw

I'm a Director at an insight consultancy. I'm interested in marketing, market research & consumer psychology. The views expressed are not necessarily those of my employer.
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