Do we need to rethink market research debriefs?

Editor’s note: Edward Appleton is a client-side senior consumer insights manager based in Europe.

Are debriefs actually detrimental to insights? This is a question grounded in experience, not one designed simply to provoke debate.

A few months ago, I debriefed a multi-country study to a broad group of stakeholders. An interesting discussion was sparked and some actions agreed upon, including a deep-dive on selected topics. Fast-forward to last week’s meeting: a much smaller circle of participants, a narrower focus, fewer issues.

What happened? I was surprised. The room (in this case a virtual one) was full of viewpoints that hadn’t been expressed previously and differing data sets had been prepared that threw light on the same issue from a different angle.

It was a fruitful discussion and one that got me thinking. If the second meeting hadn’t happened, would potential barriers to actionability have been articulated and discussed? Would much, in fact, have remained below the surface?

How often is this true for “the debrief,” I wonder? Is a large, formal meeting the right way to encourage open, frank discussion about something or is it actually like poison to insights?

Here’s my take:

1. Insights thrive in one-on-one situations.

Insights have the potential to create waves organizationally – and require us as professionals to be bold and on occasion outspoken. It’s our remit. The same dynamic isn’t true for many other parts of the organization.

If the insight message is about change of any kind, then one-on-ones are almost certainly likely to be more effective than large meetings, including a research debrief.

This is a resource challenge that we need to rise to.

2. The “before” and “after” are critical moments in sharing and developing insights.

Perhaps we need a flow of smaller, informal meetings, using technology wherever possible to manage cost, rather than just aiming for one formal debrief.

The context of a formal debrief presentation no doubt has its advantages: focus; all key stakeholders present; saves time and money. However, there is to me a downside that this format brings with it: Speaking out in front of many others, sometimes in a language foreign to you, requires confidence, not to say courage.

Sustainable buy-in invariably emerges through collaboration and dialogue – an iterative process.

3. Insights gather weight through a synthesis process.

Piecing together various data sets – some of which may well be contradictory – and coming up with a cogent storyline is something that needs time and invariably works better when more than one perspective is brought to bear.

On that note: when was the last time when you created the actionability slides jointly with your key stakeholders?

However much you may try to do all this testing and reshaping prior to a formal recommendation and presentation, it’s difficult to build in all existing knowledge, especially if senior management is extremely busy. Add to this the fact that we exist in an environment of rapid change. Today’s insight can be challenged by a competitive innovation that looks to disrupt the market.

I don’t think the answer to the above is simply to replace a debrief with a workshop. I think we need to rethink how we go about the process of informing decision makers about insights – more frequently, less formally.

4. Debriefs can encourage conservative thinking.

Larger meetings are not usually great places to find out how tolerant of mistakes or different viewpoints an organization or department is. This can lead to debriefs pitching on the side of caution – avoid errors at all cost; do or say nothing controversial.

Good research to me means doing two things well: minimizing risk and helping identify the upsides. If we err to the former, we do ourselves a disservice. We need to get more comfortable about making bold recommendations with less-than-perfect vision.

5. Relationships nurture insights.

Powerful insights invariably emerge in a dialogue based on mutual respect and trust. If you know someone well, you move in synch with their style, their way of speaking; you interpret quicker, waste less time, trust them more. This is true both for client-side and agency relationships.

Relationship-building isn’t easy. It takes time and requires ongoing effort, not to say investment. It’s something both agencies and client MRs need to actively place a value on, as it’s an intangible that can easily be lost sight of.

* * *

In the hope that this blog is a form of sharing, I’d make a case for going beyond storytelling, visualization, infographics or whatever else we have in our debrief toolkit. Insights become powerful and are more likely to be acted upon through an ongoing dialogue with people you feel comfortable with, often in one-on-ones. One single presentation will seldom be enough. The project may be over formally but business challenges constantly change.

So, do we need to rethink the MR debrief? I’d say yes. Curious, as ever, as to others’ views.

This entry was posted in Market Research Best Practices, Research Industry Trends, The Business of Research. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Do we need to rethink market research debriefs?

  1. Kate Davids says:

    This does raise some interesting questions. I wouldn’t want to get rid of the visual presentation all the way, though. I don’t think a fancy or appealing presentation or video is necessary to transmit insights, but part of the benefit of a debrief presentation is that it can be shared around an organization, so that people who were not in the presentation can also learn from it (and potentially consider the agency for a new project). However, this doesn’t need to be something presented in a debrief setting. This new deliverable could be created by both client and agency together for the dissemination of the findings throughout the organization. The end result is that the research isn’t just a tool for key stakeholders to come up with insights and innovations, but that the research itself can be used as the focal point of conversation within the organization, even after the agency has come and gone.

  2. Rob Daves says:

    I see dozens of articles and notes from research leaders each day on Quirk’s, Linked In, AAPORnet, etc. Most range from just top-of-mind thoughts to blatant self-promotions. Mr. Appleton’s piece resonated with me because I’ve had the same “ah-ha!” moments for each of the five key points at various times in my career. An example: It’s crucial for the moderator to debrief the team “behind the glass” after focus groups. The points drive home the need for an ongoing relationship between researchers and decision makers, and the perils of not having research be a part of the leadership team.
    Rob Daves, Daves & Associates Research, Minneapolis

  3. Thanks Edward for good insights on the debriefing process. Having been on the client side, and now being a supplier/consultant, my biggest fear is that our summaries get heard only by the research manager, and then get stuck on a shelf. I know of a case where the research manager had to wait three months to present the findings of a study – that is a clear call for the more and smaller meetings as you indicate. A related issue is, ‘how long or deep should the summary report be?’ I tend towards longer, because I believe that if the client is going to spend thousands of dollars, the least they SHOULD do is spend 20 minutes or so reading through the findings, and some salient verbatims. If they just read the executive summary, they really do not get to know their customers (plural), which are more diverse and complex than just “Men 18 – 34″.

  4. As much as the content of a debriefing, you’re raising a really great question about the demeanor or bias that exists when people are presenting their information. I like to remind participants that sometimes, research does not reveal absolutes… but a range of possibilities. And that instead of helping give us all the right answers, great research can help us ask all the right questions. (Neither of these outcomes represent failure, do they?)

    Sometimes, a research (or a presenter) fails to recognize the line between what they know… and what they THINK they know. I love your points #2 and #3 above for precisely that reason. Research is often done in somewhat of a laboratory environment… and must be considerate of the street-level realities faced in the category it is trying to serve.

  5. I believe that marketing is about making decisions whose impact are felt in the unknowable future. As such, the key thing from any study is the impact it has on the “belief repository”…beliefs, often unstated, that affect the next round of decisions. Not too much can change fast or the marketing team will need group therapy! However, if there is a key finding or two that rocks the repository, that makes for great value coming from a great study. That is what the debrief should focus on…what is that overarching learning about the brand, the consumer, the research approach that can form a consensus.

  6. 1.- En una sesion de grupo es importante que se fomente una discusion abierta con respeto mutuo y confianza.
    2.- Los retos empresariales cambian constantemente; por lo que los debriefs se deben hacer constantemente.
    3.- Para penetrar en el mercado requerimos llegar a las reuniones con un sentido innovador.
    4.- Es mejor realizar una sesión de grupo con menos participantes; ya que asi se puede rescatar mucho más información; mucho mejor estructura; y se puede llegar a una conclusión de estudio.

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