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Top 5 holiday shopping trends

Editor’s note: Lance B. Eliot is global vice president of information technology at market research firm Interactions, San Diego.

Holiday shoppingThis year, an estimated $630.5 billion holiday shopping bonanza is projected to occur during the holidays, according to the National Retail Federation.

When you consider nearly 80 percent of holiday shoppers we surveyed stated they plan to get gifts both in-store and online, spending will be plentiful this season. But a key question for retailers remains: How will they capitalize on the spending pie? The results will depend on the retailers’ response to the top trends Interactions identified this holiday season:

Trend #1: Great customer service gives way to smaller discounts

More and more retailers are doing away with the heavy discounting seen during the recession and are offering improved customer service and experiences to obtain sales. These retailers are banking on the customer experience to get the consumer to spend even when the discount is less. A lousy experience in a store – almost no matter what the discount – will have shoppers going elsewhere.

To enhance the shopping experience that results in sales, retailers won’t have to look far. Interactions’ Retail Perceptions survey, The Holiday Shopper: Trends to Expect This Season, found that when buying gifts this season, 48 percent of holiday shoppers said they will use pre-determined shopping lists. However, 86 percent of those are open to purchasing gifts not on their lists. This means that retailers that can create experiences that engage consumers will have an opportunity to influence shoppers.

Trend #2: More store stay closed on Thanksgiving

Retailers are finding that the strain to be open on Thanksgiving is not the best strategy. More retailers are opting to follow the example set by Costco, Nordstrom, Dillards, TJX Stores, Pier 1, Home Depot, Lowes, Staples, GameStop, all of which have said “no” to being open on Thanksgiving. In the past couple of years, retailers have noticed Thanksgiving Day sales are eroding the Black Friday sales. The pushback to stay closed on Thanksgiving could also have to do with consumer sentiment where some consumers dislike the practice of having Thanksgiving Day sales.

Trend #3: Trusted, reliable brands will attract the most shoppers

Consumers are worried about where holiday products come from and how they were made. Brands that are trusted by shoppers will get the lion’s share of the holiday dollars. Providing a trustworthy experience also means providing protection from security breaches. As Interactions’ Retail Perception survey points out, 10 percent of holiday shoppers say they will only make purchases from retailers they trust. Consumers trust retailers that they know prioritize the security of their personal information. By valuing the security of customers while continuing to connect with them through in-store experiences, retailers foster customer relationships that build both their trust and their business.

Trend #4: Mobile shopping will be more prevalent

Mobile shopping keeps growing and growing. This holiday season, 49 percent of holiday shoppers surveyed by Interactions said they will use a mobile device to make purchases, it is expected to reach new heights. Retailers looking to draw in as many customers this season should be m-commerce or e-commerce ready.

Notwithstanding, keeping consumers safe is paramount at all times – particularly during the high spending season when hackers are ready to attack. Interactions found that 10 percent of holiday shoppers say they will only make purchases from retailers they trust. Consumers trust retailers that they know prioritize the security of their personal information. For retailers, staying relevant in the minds of shoppers means giving them what they want, when they want it and providing a seamless shopper experience in the process. Retailers gearing for a happy holiday season filled with shoppers will be smart to keep mobile payments top of mind.

Trend #5: Post-holiday shopping will ensue

December 26 has been predicted to be the second busiest shopping day of the year. Shoppers that didn’t get what they wanted will head out in droves and make that final purchase.

Overall, sales for this holiday will be a boon. The National Retail Federation (NRF) is expecting November and December sales to rise 3.7 percent over 2014 levels, which is significantly higher than the 2.5 percent year-over-year average seen over the last decade.

Complacent retailers that think the cash register is going to ring simply because they have their doors open are blindly wishing for a good holiday season.

Smart retailers that will be getting the biggest piece of the holiday pie are those that offer high-quality merchandise, have splendid customer service and engage shoppers in being seasonally delighted as they open their wallets during the shopping experience.


Posted in Advertising Research, Behavioral Research, Brand and Image Research, Consumer Research, Customer Satisfaction, Market Research Findings, Retailing, Shopper Insights | Comment

Understanding how word-of-mouth marketing builds brands

Editor’s note: Jeri Smith is president and CEO of Communicus Inc., a Tucson, Ariz., research firm.

Word of mouth As consumers increasingly opt out of traditional advertising, the role of word of mouth in building brands continues to expand. In the last-century, classic version of word of mouth conjured up images of housewives trading stain-removal tips over the back fence. Today, many marketers think of word of mouth as something that is largely online, and can be created via the development of share-worthy videos or by convincing influencers to blog about their brand. In fact, the truth lies somewhere in between.

The vast majority of situations in which consumers gain information or impressions about brands via word of mouth occur offline, and are most likely to be within the family, among friends, or acquaintances. Recent research by Contagious Consultancy found that only 7percent of word of mouth occurs online, and, is generally peer-to-peer reviews, not brand-generated content.

However, the fact that advertisers don’t generate or control most word of mouth doesn’t mean that researchers shouldn’t try to understand the phenomenon. There are a number of ways in which word of mouth builds brands – each of which suggests ways in which advertisers might encourage the dynamic and harness the power of consumers talking to other consumers about brands.

Advertising builds chatter but boosts purchasing across the entire category

One CPG advertiser discovered that those who had seen their ads, even those who knew what brand was being advertised, talked to friends and family about the category, not the brand. Some who saw the ads for the brand were motivated to buy the brand, those who they talked to were motivated to buy within the category – but not necessarily to select the advertised brand.

Lesson learned: The advertising featured usage suggestions that clearly generated behavioral shifts. However, the advertiser learned that the usage suggestions needed to be ones for which only this brand would fill the bill. Otherwise, while those who engaged with the spots also gained communications about the brand superiority, this level of messaging wasn’t passed along to those with whom they shared the ideas – and these consumers had no reason to select this brand when implementing the usage suggestions.

Using advertising and word of mouth to unseat the king of cool

When Samsung introduced its Galaxy smartphones, they were up against the Apple iPhone. Advertising wouldn’t be enough to convince iPhone users that the Galaxy was cooler than their current device. The brand needed to figure out a way to harness word of mouth.

The advertising effort contained a number of aspects, with the most successful combination being ads that romanced the coolness of the Samsung Galaxy along with ads that focused on weaknesses of the iPhone – gently ridiculing the behaviors that these weaknesses had produced. For example, a ”wall huggers” commercial showed iPhone users sitting on the floor in airports and other awkward places charging their phones. According to our research, this second type of commercial was very effective in getting people to talk trash about iPhones, and to build perceptions of the Galaxy as the next big thing – resulting in consideration among both the talkers and the listeners.

Lesson learned: Badmouthing the competitor can work if done right. The effectiveness of the Galaxy effort can be enhanced by focusing on chatter-worthy scenarios that consumers can relate to – and can poke fun at themselves about.

Advertising that gets people talking about product features

The iPhone maintains its cool by introducing new versions with new features. Of course, the brand is historically a master of PR and advertising. Interestingly, our research shows that the advertising does a better job in getting people to talk about the iPhone than it does in directly building brand perceptions. In this case, advertising engagement generates word of mouth, word of mouth builds brand perceptions; and enhanced brand perceptions build desire for the product.

Lesson learned: Creating ads that will get people talking about the advertising can, in some cases, be more effective than advertising intended to build the brand directly. For iPhone, which relies on a combination of feature innovations and social acceptance, the word of mouth factor is critical.

The Super Bowl advertising phenomenon

Super Bowl advertisers have in recent years become masters at generating word of mouth about their commercials. Over half conduct some sort of pre-release promotion, with advertising supported contests and other consumer activations having joined the YouTube commercial pre-release as common phenomena. While many of these tactics are successful in getting people to talk about the commercial, the focus on the entertainment value of the experience often overwhelms the brand-related message. One of the most noteworthy examples were the Budweiser Puppy commercials from 2014 and 2015. Budweiser was declared by many to be the ‘winner’ among Super Bowl advertisers on the basis of the commercial views, shares and comments that it generated. However, the Puppy commercials failed to sell beer, as Anheuser Busch recently acknowledged in its announcement that the Puppies are being retired.

In contrast, advertisers whose commercials and activation programs center on the brand benefits can be more successful in generating buzz that actually produces result for the brand. A case in point is McDonald’s with the 2015 Pay with Lovin’ promotion and Super Bowl commercial that launched the brand’s new campaign. The intention was to project a warmer, more caring image for the brand to build affinity with customers and to counteract negative publicity. This effort, which was a well-integrated campaign that used a number of traditional and non-traditional media types, generated high levels of awareness and created buzz. It also motivated consumers to talk about how the chain was embracing higher order values that people everywhere would talk about and respect the brand for highlighting.

Lesson learned: With Super Bowl initiatives, it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying too hard to generate buzz by being entertaining, which often doesn’t result in meaningful marketplace results for the brand. Advertisers who craft campaigns that get people talking about the brand and its benefits are far more likely to succeed in the end game that really counts – the one that results ends at the cash register with increased sales.

The first step in harnessing the power of word of mouth is to understand that most word of mouth actually occurs consumer-to-consumer – the old fashioned way. Next, advertisers who study different ways that word of mouth can work are able to modify their advertising strategies amplify this naturally occurring phenomenon to the benefit of their brands.


Posted in Advertising Research, Brand and Image Research, Business and Product Development, Consumer Psychology, Consumer Research, Market Research Findings, Retailing, Shopper Insights | Comment

Clinical commissioning groups and MR

Editor’s note: Huw Davies is qualitative services manager at U.K.-based research firm Gillian Kenny Associates. This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared here under the title, “Why are CCGs important for medical market research?”

Clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) were established following the introduction of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act in the U.K., replacing primary care trusts (PCTs) as the organizations responsible for the delivery of a large percentage of health care services for the population in their local area. Led by general practitioners and supported by a range of other health care professionals, CCGs work closely with a range of other public and private bodies, including local authorities and the voluntary sector, to plan, commission and deliver services.

How have CCGs evolved since their inception?

pharmaceutical productsThe most significant change since their inception is the involvement of CCGs in the co-commissioning primary care services. Previously undertaken solely by NHS England, 64 CCGs have now committed to a new joint commissioning arrangement that will see frontline medical practitioners having more of a say in the nature of the primary care services they can purchase and deliver. Around 70 percent of all CCGs throughout England are now involved in primary care planning in some capacity, and also deal with a range of other issues such as individual funding requests (for particular treatments or pharmaceutical products).

By and large, many CCGs still look the same as they did when they were initially conceived. Only three CCGs have merged since 2013 – although given the financial challenges facing the NHS it is widely anticipated that the number of CCGs either merging, or choosing to share functions, will grow significantly. Many CCGs share back office support via commissioning support units (CSUs), and 29 sites around the country have been selected as Vanguard pilots looking to implement new models of care that improves the coordination of local health and social care services 

What can CCG members contribute to medical market research?

For functions relating to pharmaceutical purchasing and/or prescribing habits, there are a number of key positions who would be in a good space to provide a definitive viewpoint from a CCG perspective on such matters. Depending on how CCGs have chosen to organize themselves, the most appropriate contacts would be a selection of clinical leaders, medical directors, commissioning directors, medicine optimization and medicines management personnel who are involved in prescribing or medicine review groups. This group of professionals typically has the greatest influence on local drug/pharmaceutical policy that meets the needs of the local population. CSUs are also important contacts for health care market research: they are responsible for providing the health care intelligence and advice that underpins a large amount of the procurement, policy and commissioning activity of different CCGs within their area.

CCG members are generally better informed than health care professionals who work in frontline practice on particular pharmaceutical developments and policy initiatives because they have a population health overview of what is required to serve the wider population of their area rather than the particular needs of a single practice or practicing general practitioner. CCG members are also generally more aware of local and national initiatives that affect local pharmaceutical policy, such as the drive to prescribe cheaper, generic drugs to help the NHS make more efficiency savings as part of the Five Year Forward View. CCG members generally also have a more detailed knowledge around internal policies (such as individual funding requests) and evidence-based decision making when it comes to procuring particular pharmaceutical products.

How easily accessible are CCG contacts for medical market research?

Many medical market researchers looking to establish contacts within CCGs can often find organizations are difficult to reach. While this may be a historical challenge in engaging NHS staff, it has been made much more acute in recent years by the financial pressures that many CCGs are under and they have less and less time to dedicate to such activities.

Financial pressures have resulted in a number of change initiatives (such as cost improvement plans), an increased workload and an ever increasing stream of information that health care professionals have little time to adequately digest. As such, making the right contact and building a relationship of trust can take some time but is crucial. As all CCG business and decision making must be made available to the public for scrutiny, the appropriate contacts, policies and research interest areas should all be accessible via the Web page of each CCG – or their press officer/communications and engagement office – for medical market researchers looking to form relationships with such respondents.


Posted in Health Care Research, Research Industry Trends | Comment

Pairing nostalgia and instant gratification this holiday season

Editor’s note: Heather Hall is managing principal within Acxiom’s integrated marketing strategy group, Westlake, Ohio. This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared here under the title, “I’ll see your nostalgia and raise you instant gratification.”

When I was little, my favorite time of year was the stretch between the end of October and January. There are the obvious milestones – Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas, as well as watermark events like the first snow. Going to vote with my parents was always a big deal, and made me feel so cool, even though I was too little to really understand what was going on.

And of course, my hands down favorite, the arrival of the Sears’ Holiday Big Book.

Now, I may be dating myself by admitting this but the Sears’ Holiday Big Book kept me company on many a cold night in late November and early December. I’d stretch out on the floor in our family room in my pajamas with a ball point pen, circling all the things I longed for. I’d thumb to the middle of the book, pausing to laugh at the pictures of kids in their underwear (side note, I knew someone who convinced his little brother he’d been ordered from the Big Book, and if he wasn’t good, he’d go back for a newer model), before digging into the pages and pages of toys. The order is still there in my head: baby toys; Barbie and other dolls; Hot Wheels and Legos; then the musical toys and bikes. As a kid I would blow through that thing, circling with abandon, never stopping to think about what Santa could or couldn’t afford.

Sadly, the Big Book went the way of the dinosaurs in 2007. There are variations from Sears and some of their competitors but it will never rival the raw magnitude of that two-to-three-inch ream of paper rich with technicolor dreams. My husband and I have both tried multiple times to explain the joy and glory of the Big Book to our son but we always fall short. It’s not due to our inability to articulate what the Big Book was but in our son’s inability to comprehend the concept of waiting for anything when it relates to content.

AmazonThis is the child who has grown up in a digital world. If he’s curious, he can pull up the Internet and Google an answer. If he wants something, he can find the item on Amazon and (with our permission) use one of the various gift cards he’s received for a birthday or holiday to purchase on item. Very simply, he has no concept of waiting, and therefore can’t appreciate the anticipation that comes with the arrival and slow perusal of the annual Big Book. I like to tease him that the art of dreaming as his parents knew it is lost on him.

That statement hit an entirely separate level of realization recently. To set the scene: it was a Saturday morning, and we were running low on paper towels and avocados, so we made a run to Costco. Indian summer was in full force in Northern Ohio, and our flip flops echoed as the smacked against the concrete of our local warehouse store. We were reveling in the chill of the air flowing through the aisle ways, and then we were smacked in the face with it.

Decorations. Wrapping paper. Greeting cards. Gift baskets and boxes.

It was late September, and the Halloween supplies were already picked over and ceding way to Christmas.

No wonder my child can’t appreciate the Big Book.

The reality is that, with the evolution of immediately available products and inexpensive, always-on digital marketing, there’s no need to wait. Chains focusing on Halloween start e-mailing in early summer, and we’re seeing compression on companies to get out there bigger, better and faster. It’s why Black Friday circulars leak intentionally, well before they go to print. It’s why some retailers have decided to start their promotions and markdowns a full week before Thanksgiving. When products become commodities, anticipation is sacrificed to sales and the mad rush at consumers begins.

This is why my child will never have the ability to understand and appreciate our nostalgia over the Big Book. It’s why my husband doesn’t shop until Christmas Eve, where he knows he’s going to get the best deals and – baring the hot items – will be able to go after what he thinks we’d enjoy most, even if we didn’t even realize the items existed until two days before.

Anticipation has given way to always-on and commoditization, and it’s forcing us as marketers to think differently about our consumer base and use our channels of communication to promote and incentive based on the intersection of our goals and their needs. Let’s call it the business version of aligning my nostalgia and my child’s expectation of always-on.

  1. More importantly, it’s accepting that the world has changed, and using the constant flow of data to get smarter, to understand why things happened and to use that insight to plan and execute in a way that, while it won’t replicate the excitement of the Big Book, will trigger the modern approximation of circling the item in a catalog that drives to a transaction. Create the proxy interaction: Market to me as the proxy, and give me ways to play off my nostalgia to engage my child. Create tools so that my son can tag what he’s interested in so that it can be extended to grandparents or his uncle. It’s next generation multi-level marketing at scale.
  2. Learn before: There are things that you can know about me before you ever interact. Proximity to a physical location, presence of children, likelihood to buy, product affinities – use that to create a meaningful dialogue that will speak to me. In a digital world you can customize in ways that a traditional print catalog never allowed for, like showing Legos, musical instruments, video games and ski gear. Imagine how many conceptual circles you’d get if you served up things that didn’t include Barbie Dolls to our household.
  3. Learn after: What worked? What didn’t work? The classic direct marketing paradigm doesn’t go away – it just evolves in the way you measure. Test cells are just as relevant today as they were in the seventies.


It’s all doable but it requires just a bit of planning and adjustment. Hey, just consider it the grown-up version of Big Book anticipation!

Posted in Advertising Research, Consumer Research, Customer Satisfaction, Retailing, Shopper Insights | Comment

Avoiding common pitfalls in concept testing

Editor’s note: Nitin Sharma is CEO of Gold Research, San Antonio, Texas. This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared here under the title, “Common pitfalls in concept testing and how to avoid them.”

Concept testing is often a key step in new product development. If not done right, it can produce useless or (even worse) misleading results. Here are the most common pitfalls associated with this type of research and how to avoid them.

Pitfalls1.       Inadequate concept specification.

Problem: Researchers often test ideas which are not fully specified. When this happens, respondents have trouble answering purchase intent or other overall interest questions. Alternatively, respondents may interpret what’s meant to be the same concept in many different ways, so their answers aren’t comparable.

Solution: Think like a respondent – what would they need to know about the concept in order to make a simulated purchase decision? If you (or your client) can’t provide this information, then the concept may not be ready for testing.

2.       Missing or bad pricing.

Problem: A special case of inadequate specification is missing or bad pricing. Asking purchase intent when price is unknown isn’t really meaningful, while asking purchase intent when price is unrealistically high or low yields distorted results.

Solution: Conduct some form of pricing research if you (or your client) can’t provide reasonable prices. Alternatively, use the concept test for other purposes (prioritizing a list of options, assessing characteristics or perceptions, etc.).

3.       Surveying the wrong population.

Problem: Most new products or services are intended for a certain target population. If your sample is too broadly defined, your results will be distorted by the inclusion of opinions from people who you’re not interested in. If your sample is too narrowly defined, your results will be distorted by the exclusion of opinions from people who you are (or should be) interested in.

Solution: Take the time up front to define your target audience in terms of demographics, category behavior or other characteristics. This definition can then be implemented through sample specifications and/or screening questions. Quotas or weighting may also be needed.

4.       Ignoring key drivers.

Problem: The main objective of most concept tests is to assess purchase intent. To save money and minimize respondent burden, many researchers stop there. However, this information is of limited value if you don’t know why intent is high or low. In fact, understanding a concept’s strengths and weaknesses is sometimes more useful than estimating overall interest.

Solution: Include questions about concept characteristics. These may be broad or specific, and may be functional or emotional. Then use an appropriate analytical technique to determine the relative importance (impact on overall interest) of these characteristics.

5.       Wrong methodology.

Problem: Many researchers select their data collection method for concept tests based solely on cost and timing considerations, which usually favor the Internet. However, this may not be the right choice. For example, graphics may not show correctly or effectively, especially on mobile devices. In addition, some target audiences (very young, very old, low income or limited education, etc.) may be hard to reach online or are uncomfortable with online surveys.

Solution: Try to choose the methodology which yields the most valid and reliable results, even if it isn’t the fastest or cheapest. Saving time and/or money doesn’t do you any good if it comes at the expense of data quality. Consider using mixed modes or having paper backups if collecting data in person.

6.       Inadequate sample sizes.

Problem: Cost considerations force many researchers to go with the smallest sample size that will provide a reasonable level of precision at the aggregate level. However, small samples often won’t support potentially important breakouts by key respondent characteristics. You may also want to limit some questions to certain sub-samples, such as people with a minimum level of interest in the concept, and here again small base sizes can be problematic.

Solution: Focus on the smallest sub-sample for which you want to be able to make statistically meaningful inferences, and let that drive your total sample size. You can sometimes justify the cost of a larger sample by adding questions which address other related business issues or alternatively by including your concept test as part of another survey.


Posted in Concept Research, Consumer Research, Market Research Best Practices, Online Surveys and Research, Survey Development | Comment

Jamie Oliver takes on sugar

Editor’s note: Lauren Bandy is senior nutrition analyst at market research firm Euromonitor International, London. This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared here under the title, “Sugar and soft drinks get a taste of the Jamie Oliver effect.”

SugarThe food and drink industry is no stranger to celebrity. Many brands rely on celebrities to endorse products and feature in adverts because well, in short, celebrity sells. However, they can also be powerful campaigners. Jamie Oliver, the TV chef and healthy food ambassador, has moved on from school meals – which he successfully helped to reform after publicly exposing their poor quality the early 2000s – and turned his attention to sugar. In front of the Health Select Committee, he’s followed a raft of public health groups in proposing the government introduce a 20 percent on sugar-sweetened beverages and suggested that the amount of sugar in a product be expressed on the label in terms of numbers of teaspoons, giving the public the “clear, sharp information” they need to make a healthier choice.

The overall point that Jamie Oliver is trying to make – that something needs to be done to curb the U.K.’s excessive consumption of sugar in order to control overweight and obesity and diet related disease – is a valid one. The U.K. Government recommends that people aged 11 years and older consume no more than 30g of added sugars a day, yet data from Euromonitor International shows that the average U.K. consumer purchases 93g of sugars, or 23 teaspoons, from packaged food and soft drinks, with 21g, or five teaspoons, coming from soft drinks alone.

But is the answer to tax soft drinks? The industry argues not, as it targets one product category when others contribute to sugar consumption too. And they do have a point, given that the average U.K. consumer purchases 22g of sugar a day from bakery products (including cakes, biscuits and breakfast cereals), 17g from confectionery and 14g from dairy. Evidence from countries that have imposed a tax, including France and Mexico, suggests that raising the price of sugar sweetened beverages – you can buy two-liters of own label supermarket cola which contains 150g of sugar for as little as 50 pence in the U.K. – does reduce consumption. Whether this single action significantly reduces diet related disease is yet to be seen.

Amount of sugar purchased by the average U.K. consumer by category, expressed in teaspoons

Amount of sugar purchased by the average U.K. consumer by category, expressed in teaspoons

What about putting teaspoons on the label? Anecdotally, it’s simple to say that expressing the amount of sugar in a product in terms of teaspoons is easier to understand and would no doubt deliver a shock factor. However, do consumers know how many teaspoons of sugar they’re supposed to consume a day? Is it really easier than understanding grams? Would labeling in teaspoons really lead to reduced consumption of soft drinks and sugar? And would this in turn lead to a reduction in diet related disease? These are questions that first need answering with some sort of scientific evidence. While Jamie Oliver might be a bit premature in suggesting the teaspoon label as a viable improvement to current labeling, he’s certainly not the first to suggest a tax on sugar sweetened beverages; campaign groups, public health researchers and medical professionals have all done the same in the last few years. The difference, of course, is that celebrity sells.

Posted in Brand and Image Research, Consumer Research, Market Research in the News, Shopper Insights | Comment

Us vs. them: The MR vendor/client standoff

Editor’s note: John Dick is president and CEO of CivicScience, a Pittsburgh-based research firm. This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared here under the title, “Being ‘a vendor’ sucks. But so does being ‘a client.’”

StandoffI’m writing this on a delayed Southwest Airlines flight, after four slogging days at TMRE in Orlando, hoping to keep a promise to my kids that I’d see them before they go to bed. Somehow there’s no Wi-Fi on this plane, which means the follow up e-mails I planned to send will have to wait until late tonight, when all I’ll want to do is chug a glass of wine and pass out. Oh, and I’m sitting in middle-seat purgatory because I gave up my aisle spot so a dad and his son to sit together. So, yes, like hundreds of other people leaving the conference – I’m burned out.

The conference itself was great for us. We made a lot of new friends, learned about some exciting new research and heard flattering feedback about our own work, both from clients and non-clients. We even landed some new business.

But the event stands out for one big reason: I’ve never attended an industry conference where the dynamic between client-side attendees and “vendors” or “suppliers” was so palpably antagonistic. There’s always some degree of “us versus them” at every conference. But the sense of urgency, near-desperation and frustration among our fellow vendors – and the sense of encroachment and frustration among the clients – felt different this time.

The vendor and client cold war

It started a couple weeks before the event, when vendors began bombarding client-side attendees with unsolicited e-mails, phone calls and even texts. Hell, even I was getting a handful of these spammy e-mails every day and I’m a nobody. I can’t imagine what it was like for people from companies like ESPN or Under Armour or Subway.

Once the actual conference convened, the client-accosting really took off. The awkward ritual of staring at a complete stranger’s mid-section, trying to see a brand name on their small-font nametag, makes everyone uncomfortable. If you were spotted adorning one of those brand names, God help you.

Client-side folks have only a few defenses. They can avoid the exhibit hall altogether. They can be dismissive or rude to everyone who corners them. Or, I noticed a new tactic, where they inserted business cards into their lanyards to block the name of the company they worked for. Clever.

I should stop here and make it 100 percent clear that I don’t fault the conference organizers for any of this. There was nothing about the schedule, content, attendee list or physical layout that was out of the ordinary or problematic. All-in-all, it was a well-executed event.

It’s the economy, stupid

The root causes of this vendor/client angst, I think, are more environmental, more macro. The market research “economy” is just brutal right now. All I heard over three days of sessions were stories of clients’ shrinking budgets, shrinking teams, greater demands and fears of marginalization. Most mass-market U.S. brands aren’t exactly growing by leaps and bounds. I can think of only a few of our clients who didn’t go through some kind of down-sizing or reorganization in recent years.

At the same time, the pace of innovation and start-up activity on the supplier side is frantic. Barriers to entry are almost non-existent in areas like survey sampling and other competitive fields. New techniques like neuroscience, text analytics and all things big data have spawned a new wave of players.  You can buy client e-mail lists dirt cheap and use automated services to call their phones every five minutes until they answer.

All of this has created a market environment where a larger number of hard-to-differentiate suppliers are vying for stagnant or evaporating pools of money, from clients who are too stretched and too busy. It’s hard to blame clients for feeling, as one of my contacts said, “like chum,” and for looking at vendors like pesky insects they have to swat away. When 100 people call or e-mail them every day or corner them at a conference, clients have little choice but to block everyone – even the awesome ones like us. ;)

The vendor archetype

But it’s not fair to judge the vendors (at least not most of them) in this environment either. If you’re a client-side veteran, particularly if you’ve never been on the vendor-side in your career, you’ve probably not dwelled much on this. So, here’s some food for thought:

At a conference like TMRE, you’re largely going to run into two types of people who have to schlep around the exhibit hall: entrepreneurs and salespeople.

Entrepreneurs have usually taken some kind of huge risk to start their business. They left a cushy job and big salary, borrowed money from a bank, family and friends, gone months without a paycheck, mortgaged their home, forced their spouses to hold down a thankless desk job to cover bills and health care, leant money to their company to meet payroll, begged for investments from smug venture capitalists, taken investments from smug venture capitalists, convinced other people to take pay-cuts to join them or – in some cases, like mine – all of the above.

Salespeople may not have taken all of these risks but their jobs are often no less stressful. The typical salesperson at a company like ours can attribute as much as half of their salary to commissions. A couple wins or loses determine whether they can send their daughter to the summer camp she loves or afford a plane ticket for a friend’s funeral. A salesperson’s job is to sell, that’s it, regardless of the market or economic climate. As sales CRM systems and marketing automation becomes more ubiquitous, it is actually making it harder, not easier, for good, tactful salespeople to sell.

For entrepreneurs and salespeople, few sales tactics are beneath them when times get tough. Dropping five grand to sit at an exhibit booth for three days, while watching people try to avoid eye contact with you, is nobody’s dream job. Rejection sucks. Every time I send someone a follow-up e-mail after a first attempt is ignored, I swallow a tiny bit of my pride. No self-respecting person enjoys being a pest.

But, it also sometimes works. And that’s the rub. We landed a new client at TMRE in 72 hours. We have several marquee clients that I can trace to one conference or another. But I often wonder whether the damage we do to our brand by being associated with the cattle herd of booth-dwellers and cold-callers outweighs the occasional wins. In the current market climate, though, it’s a hard choice to make. Payroll and VC investors don’t wait.

Don’t envy the clients, either

Is any of this the client’s problem? Absolutely not. Just because someone chose a risky career path or gambled their salary on the upside potential of a commission does not mean you have to buy their product or reply to invasive, inconsiderate cold-calls that have no value. Just realize that most entrepreneurs and salespeople are not bad human beings.

I’ve never been on the client side but I can imagine them sneaking away together at conferences, mocking and lamenting the badgering they face from suppliers. One client person at TMRE told a room full of people a “funny” story: To play a prank on a colleague, they take stacks of his business cards to conferences and drop them in the fish bowls at every vendor booth. In the days and weeks following the event, he gets dozens of calls and e-mails from vendors who assume he’s genuinely interested. It’s a pretty funny prank – unless you’re a commission-dependent salesperson or payroll-desperate entrepreneur who could be spending that time and energy elsewhere. My kids would call that bullying.

And, yet, the behavior of many vendor-side people is even more deplorable. We forget that clients are under equally enormous pressure, maybe an a**hole boss or several, and an organization that is constantly expecting them to do more with less. Five consecutive meeting requests sent to the same person is simply rude. E-mailing their boss when they don’t reply is super-rude. Not doing any homework about their company or role before pitching them a service that is completely irrelevant to them is lazy, stupid and rude. Lying and saying you were referred to them, when you weren’t, is, well, lying. As much as it sucks to be a vendor, it sucks as bad or worse to be a client who’s constantly harassed by vendors.

What the hell do we do about it?

And, so, the current environment basically sucks for everyone. There don’t seem to be many easy answers, although we could start by treating each other with a minimal degree of empathy. That requires communication. And that’s why I saw an amazing ray of hope at the end of TMRE.

The last session I attended was conducted by Nancy Cox and Kelsy Saulsbury, the research gurus from Hallmark. They’re not clients of ours but I admire their work (Ask them about their “Industry Alert” publication that goes out to the entire company. A true best-practice.). The ostensible goal of their session was to give suppliers guidance in how to better reach out to, pitch and negotiate with clients. It turned into something so much more than that.

The first few slides of their presentation aimed at outlining some dos and don’ts for suppliers to heed when dealing with clients. They offered a few useful tips that I copiously jotted into my notebook. But they also used images – presumably from Hallmark cards – as metaphors for how they sometimes view suppliers. One was a picture of two giant cats waiting to pounce outside of someone’s home. Another showed a blown up building. They told stories about how their peers hide at conferences.

And then the fun began, the first pause for Q&A elicited pointed questions and comments from the suppliers in attendance. One dude in particular (A fellow Pittsburgher, I learned later. Rock on!), boldly expressed what other vendors at the conference were feeling – frustration, dismay, even offense. It was more than a little uncomfortable for the rest of us in the audience. But it was brilliant, necessary, well within the boundaries of professionalism and sparked a powerful conversation.

An equal number of clients and vendors then shared ideas on how the dynamics could improve for both sides. I suggested that maybe clients could find a clearer way to communicate what types of solutions they’re interested in, so that only those kinds of vendors would reach out. Suppliers that violate that process would be penalized in some way. Clients in the room agreed that they would try harder to communicate the results and rationale of RFP decisions to non-winning respondents. There was much more.

In all, it turned into what was perhaps the most passionate and value-added conference session I’ve ever attended. I was half expecting a giant group hug at the end – fitting to have been inspired by none other than Hallmark. The only drag was that the session wasn’t held on the main stage, with the full slate of conference-goers in attendance. Everyone needed to see it.

Hopefully Cox and Saulsbury inspired an ongoing dialog across the industry. Market research clients need a vibrant vendor community – that’s where most innovation (and conference proceeds) comes from. Good vendors need their peers to follow rules of decorum and respect when dealing with clients, so that we’re not all victimized by negative vendor stereotypes. And all vendors need successful clients with growing budgets – so they can hire more of us.

Let’s keep talking.


Posted in Innovation in Market Research, Market Research Best Practices, Research Blogs and Communities, Research Communities, Research Industry Trends, State of the Research Industry, The Business of Research, Training/Research Education | 5 Comments

Consumer-generated content strategies for the holiday season

Editor’s note: Rachael Genson is the North American PR manager at Bazaarvoice, Austin, Texas. This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared here under the title, “3 consumer-generated content strategies for holiday shopping success.”

Online ShoppingIt’s no secret that consumers trust the opinions of like-minded shoppers, and often look to product reviews and other forms of consumer-generated content to inform the decision-making process. This content becomes even more helpful during the holiday season when shoppers are not buying for themselves, relying more heavily on the experiences of others to select the perfect gift. In fact, Black Friday and Cyber Monday are the most review-trafficked days of the year, beating the November daily average review page views by 77 percent and 84 percent, respectively, in 2013. Furthermore, our data shows that Black Friday 2014 saw 1.6 billion review impressions, a 93 percent increase from the year previous.

With the holiday season right around the corner, brands and retailers are busy brainstorming the best ways to get a leg up with shoppers and drive increased traffic to their site, and consumer-generated content could be just the thing to push a brand’s site over the edge. Here are some tips for the upcoming holiday rush:

Collect enough content. Having a high volume of reviews on site is always important, especially given the short shelf-life of a review – anywhere from 30-to-90 days depending on the industry. However, generating an ongoing stream of fresh consumer content becomes all the more crucial during holidays when people are often buying for another person. If you find products on your site are lacking in review volume, there are a few proven ways to build up consumer-generated content before the holiday rush: send post interaction e-mails to recent customers requesting reviews; institute a product sampling campaign for newly launched, low-volume products; or create an incentivized contest through social media to grow visual content volume.

Make your site holiday ready. To set your site up for success, make review content more prominent during these heavily shopped days by displaying “top rated” gift lists directly on the homepage. If your site currently does not incorporate consumer-generated content, now is the time to collect that content for your products, especially those expected to be big holiday sellers. If you have low review volume, spend the next month encouraging additional consumer engagement to help ensure your predicted holiday bestsellers have a good volume of content as the season heats up. By putting consumer-generated content directly on the company Web site, you’re not only increasing visibility online but attracting new site visitors and converting those individuals into returning customers.

Create a holiday SEO strategy. During the holidays, brands are working overtime to drive new and returning traffic to their site. Increase the opportunities for consumers to find your Web site by aligning your SEO strategy with Google’s five algorithm themes – content quality, markup structure and efficiency, Web site reputation, freshness of content and user experience – to help your page appear higher in search results. Customer-written content keeps Web pages fresh and full of product-specific content – two of the five factors that benefit SEO – and according to The Bazaarvoice Conversation Index Volume 8, having just eight reviews on a product page can help improve search traffic and ranking. In fact, adding reviews to a product page typically results in a 15-25 percent increase in search traffic.

Whether you implement one or all of these strategies, be cognizant of the effect they had on your holiday purchases. It could be a sign of your consumers’ appetite for more regular interaction with the opinions and content of other, like-minded shoppers. But more than that, a strong consumer-generated content strategy during the holiday season could be just the jump-start your business needs to get ahead of the competition in 2016.


Posted in Advertising Research, Brand and Image Research, Business and Product Development, Consumer Research, Social Media and Marketing Research | Comment

Learning from CVS Health’s shift away from tobacco

Editor’s note: Bryan Pearson is president, LoyaltyOne at Alliance Data, Canada. This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared here under the title, “What banning tobacco has meant for CVS.”  

It has been more than a year since CVS Health banned the sale of tobacco at its stores, and retail marketers can learn much from this risky shift. But sales tell only part of the story – the bigger challenge involved aligning the brand to its values with a clear strategic direction.

CVS store frontCVS stopped selling nicotine products at its 7,600 stores on Sept. 3, 2014. The surprising move won the praise of health advocates and the White House but had many loyalty marketers wondering: Was the nation’s No. 2 pharmacy chain abandoning a sizable segment of its loyal customer base? A review of its public records reveals the answer, and what we can learn from the shift.

First, it is worth considering the importance of CVS’ loyalty program, ExtraCare, launched 14 years ago. It is one of the largest such initiatives in the country, with more than 70 million members at the time it cut tobacco sales.

With an estimated 44 million Americans smoking in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it was likely CVS’ decision would affect some of its loyalty members.

CVS, however, was resolute in its decision, saying the move was in sync with broader efforts to evolve from a traditional drugstore chain to a health care merchant.

“Now more than ever, pharmacies are on the front line of health care, becoming more involved in chronic disease management to help patients with high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes,” Mike DeAngelis, CVS spokesman, told loyalty publication COLLOQUY at the time. “All of these conditions are made worse by smoking, and cigarettes have no place in a setting where health care is delivered.”

A year later, CVS has reinforced its health focus in many ways, from changing the company name from CVS Caremark to CVS Health to agreeing to acquire Omnicare, a move that will expand its presence in the senior health care market. Its sales performance, meanwhile, did not suffered, based on a review of public records and reports.

At the time of its decision, CVS projected the elimination of tobacco products would cost the company about $2 billion in 2014 sales (the estimated total of its tobacco sales). Instead, sales rose, to $139.4 billion from almost $126.8 billion in 2013. In 2015 sales continue to climb: Net revenue for the first six months of this year advanced by more than $6 billion, to $73.5 billion from $67.3 billion.

This is not to imply that the removal of tobacco had a direct correlation with increased sales. Store expansions, promotions and other efforts very well could be credited for the gain. In fact, I am sure CVS realized the risk involved in making such a big decision – one that could affect sales volume and customers. However, that risk can be more than offset if it is part of a holistic practice of aligning a brand to its values with a clear strategic direction, which we will explore next.

The pressure is on

The decision by CVS put pressure on other retailers to follow suit and eliminate tobacco sales but so far none of the major merchants has done so. Target had quit selling cigarettes in 2006 but Walmart, Walgreens and others have not followed suit. They may, in fact, have benefited from CVS’ cessation.

CVS and Target, meanwhile, have since become retail partners, as Target has agreed to sell its pharmacy business to CVS. As I wrote in June, the two merchants have much to gain from their alignment, expected to be complete in 2016. Shifting the pharmacy brand from Target to CVS improves the opportunity to attract more customers and foot traffic through Target stores, while unloading what was for Target a well-regulated distraction.

It also enables the two retailers to benefit from sharing the data derived from each one’s loyalty programs that have not been abandoned by smokers.

What can retail marketers learn from CVS’ shift away from tobacco? I note three important features of the decision:

  • It was a partnership: Among CVS business partners and clients are health plan providers and physicians. Many of these physicians have been trying to get their patients off of tobacco, while health care providers are interested in ensuring their members take their medications and improve their health, Chief Financial Officer Dave Denton told analysts in June 2014. By removing tobacco products from its aisles, CVS is supporting its clients, a commitment that will likely pay off in dividends.
  • It was part of something bigger: Once CVS decided to stop selling tobacco products it aligned the entire company behind its commitment to the mission of healthy living. I suspect that many of its high-value, target customers are similarly focused on healthy lifestyles, and if so, CVS is in essence tailoring its offerings to the preferences of its customers.
  • It relied on data: CVS knew it stood to lose $2 billion a year in tobacco sales but it clearly also knew what its best customers value and aspire to. The company’s ExtraCare and MyWeeklyAd customized coupon programs are designed to help CVS connect directly with customers, CVS wrote in its annual report. This means it has a clear line of sight to what influences their purchase decisions – for example, the basket size and frequency among smoking and non-smoking customers.


With tobacco off of its shelves, CVS is reporting higher sales and profits and signing substantial partnerships with major retail partners. Few people complain they are worse off after quitting smoking, and the same may very well apply to CVS.


Posted in Brand and Image Research, Business and Product Development, Consumer Research, Customer Satisfaction, Shopper Insights | 1 Comment

Using max-diff for online product design testing

Editor’s note: Jon Griffin is account manager at marketing research and analytics firm Optimization Group, Grand Rapids, Mich. This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared here under the title, “Online product design testing – a new application for max-diff.”

Online testing of marketing concepts is now an established practice. Numerous methodologies are used to test copy points, features and benefits. One methodology, max-diff, is becoming one of the most useful and straight-forward tools available today. The key characteristic of a max-diff design is that it forces respondents to choose between alternatives, which may be very similar and have a very similar appeal. Forcing respondents to choose the most preferred and least preferred item from a set of alternatives results in a greater ability to analytically discriminate between the alternatives than is possible using traditional monadic rating questions.

Typically, max-diff research relies on descriptive elements (such as features and copy points) to define the most motivating marketing messages. Now, marketers and researchers are utilizing the max-diff approach with product visuals, including product concepts, packaging, logos and more. With max-diff, respondents are exposed to a set of images and are asked to select the best (most appealing, most important, etc.) and worst (least appealing, least important, etc.). Respondents typically complete several scenarios where each scenario contains a different subset of images. The scenarios are carefully created using an experimental design that ensures that each item is shown an equal number of times and in different order.

Here’s an example of how this works for product packaging. Respondents are shown a series of four packaging concepts at a time, and are asked to indicate which package they most prefer and which they least prefer.

Griffin Figure 1

It’s a straight forward exercise that allows the respondent to assess alternatives quickly and react in a very intuitive manner. They don’t need to overthink details or explain their choices … they simply react.

The results from this max-diff exercise provides a score for each of the alternative images placed on a 0 to 100 point scale, indicating the likelihood that a particular style would be selected as “preferred.” In other words, each element “score” is the probability that the element is most preferred out of all of the elements that were tested.

So, why use max-diff for packaging and product concept testing instead of standard rating scales? Because research has shown that max-diff scores demonstrate greater discrimination among items and between respondents on the items. The max-diff question is simple to understand, so respondents from children to adults with a variety of educational and cultural backgrounds can provide reliable data. Since respondents make choices rather than expressing strength of preference using some numeric scale, there is no opportunity for scale use bias. Sometimes a simple approach can be the most powerful.


Posted in Advertising Research, Brand and Image Research, Business and Product Development, Consumer Research, Name Development Research, New Product Research, Online Surveys and Research, Packaging Research | Comment