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Researchers learn more from what people do than say

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In an age of instant online surveys, e-mail polls and Web-based research, some marketers are finding there is no substitute for studying the actual behavior of customers to gain marketing insight.

While behavioral research has been used as a market research tool for decades, particularly by consumer marketers, b-to-b marketers are now embracing it as a way to study the purchasing decision process and behaviors of business executives.

"There is a difference between what people say they do and what they actually do," said Emma Gilding, managing director of in:site, a think tank that was formed by Omnicom Diversified Agency Services last September to provide its 170 agencies with ethnographic research services. Ethnography is a branch of anthropology that studies human cultures and behavior.

Gilding, a cultural anthropologist, came to Omnicom DAS from Ogilvy & Mather, where she was executive director of Discovery Group, the first ethnographic group within an agency, she said.

"With traditional research, we tend to ask people questions and then we go off and build strategies based on their answers," Gilding said. However, she said, "Only about 80% of what we intend is done verbally, and the rest is nonverbal."

As part of the agency's research services for clients, Gilding and her team of sociologists and anthropologists spend a lot of time with customers (from a day to several months), following them around and observing their behavior. A large chunk of her time is spent on work for Doremus, the b-to-b agency of Omnicom Group.

For one banking client, which Gilding declined to name, the in:site group went on site and spent about a month observing behaviors of employees to gain insight into how they communicated.

"We worked in the mail room, the cafeteria; sat in offices; went to meetings; and shadowed everyone for three to four weeks to look at the way information was moving from group to group," Gilding said. "We found that intercompetition was affecting communications with clients."

To record client behavior, in:site often brings in a documentary filmmaker, who is also trained as a field researcher.

"We look for common patterns, common reactions, differences between what [people] say they do and what they actually do, which is profound. Then we edit a film that explains the model of behavior," Gilding said.

The agency then creates advertising, corporate communications and marketing based on the findings.

Perceptive Sciences is another market research firm that specializes in behavioral research. CEO Jamie Rhodes also said there is a discrepancy between what people think they do and what they actually do, which leads to problems with traditional market research methods.

"Focus groups are overused and improperly used," Rhodes said. "People are unable to tell you what they're thinking or feeling, either because they can't express it, they don't know or there is a group effect."

So Perceptive Sciences has a team of cognitive psychologists—hired mostly from universities and research labs—that study customer behaviors by observing subjects in laboratory environments.

"We will take a set of hypothetical products, representing competitors or variations of a product the client is developing, and in an indirect way ask people to communicate how they are ranking and rating them," Rhodes said. "What people like and what they are willing to spend money on are two different things."

For example, Perceptive Sciences recently did a research project for a cellphone manufacturer, which Rhodes declined to name. The company was developing a cellphone for business users that had multimedia features. "In focus groups, business users said they wanted music and games on their cellphones," Rhodes said.

The client came to Perceptive Sciences to get more in-depth research. The research firm set up a shopping environment like those found in a retail store, with cellphones containing a variety of features laid out on counters. Business users tested the phones and were asked a series of indirect questions to find out which ones they really wanted to buy.

"We found out that business users didn't care at all about having music or games on their cellphones," Rhodes said. "If they cared about music, they had an iPod. They wanted good, reliable communications."

Diebold, a banking equipment manufacturer, recently engaged Perceptive Sciences to do a research study for an ATM product now in development. The first phase of the project will be a comparative research study, in which Perceptive Sciences and Diebold will go to banks with competing machines and observe customers' behavior to see how they perform transactions.

During the second phase, which will be done in conjunction with one of Diebold's banking customers, the research team will observe customers conducting transactions on the ATM in development. The behavioral research will be supplemented with interviews.

"We like the hands-on aspect," said David Barker, principal strategist for design and brand integrity at Diebold. "We like to see customers using a device. From that, along with interviewing them, we can gain richer user information than just asking a roomful of people a bunch of questions." M

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