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Mar 5

I’m Sorry, I Don’t Know.

I don't know2If only we all weren’t driven to please, to appear logical, smart and rational. If only we accepted that our memory fails us more than it doesn’t, that many of our decisions are made before we are aware of making them and we have little ability to know how we would react to a future event. If only we recognized that we have trouble accurately recalling the past, knowing all that motivates us and predicting our actions in the future. If we knew all of these things, then perhaps we would answer more market research questions with a simple, “I’m sorry, I don’t know.”

“I don’t know why I bought it (or didn’t buy it). I don’t remember where I heard about it first or which part of your marketing communications influenced me the most (or didn’t influence me at all). I don’t really know what products I am buying instead of yours and I can’t envision a future different than today, so I don’t know what changes would make me want to buy your products more.”

But those aren’t the answers companies normally receive when conducting market research. Questions are asked, answers are given, plans are made and actions are taken. And the market research industry is a big one. According to, the global market research industry was $40.3B in 2013. That’s a lot of questions, answers, plans and actions.

In hopes of finding sure bets and low risk paths to big rewards, asking customers what they want, what influences their decisions and what could be done better and then designing communications and solutions based on that feedback seems the right thing to do. It is true that today, more than ever, understanding customers and building solutions inspired by them is the only path to sustainable growth. The problem? It is also true that while market research remains a critical component to discovery, on its own it can’t tell you all that you’ll need to know. As Steve Jobs famously noted, “… People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”

This doesn’t mean that market research isn’t valuable, simply that it shouldn’t be used to answer the unanswerable questions. We know that people can’t tell you what they don’t know, can’t recall and can’t predict. If the questions are asked, answers will likely be given. But those answers may not bring you any closer to the truth and could lead you away from it. Existing methodologies must be reviewed and perhaps new methodologies created to reflect what we now know about decision-making, memory forming and prediction capabilities.

While that review might indicate some change is necessary, what won’t change is that market research can’t provide answers. That is, answers upon which actions should be taken. Instead, it generates data. Data that must be put in context, integrated with other data points and interpreted for meaning. Data from market research, like all other data points, serves as just a few pixels in a continuously growing and evolving picture of the customer, the market and the future. More important than any individual market research or data gathering and analytics activity, is how the organization sets expectations for, integrates and interprets its data as well as how the organization shares, manages and acts on the insights. Every single day.

What should you do next? Answer a few questions. What information is necessary to answer your most critical customer, market and business questions? Do your current market research and data capture and analytics activities give you the information to answer those questions? And three, how well does your organization manage, integrate, interpret, share and act upon those findings?

Will you need to make some changes? I’m sorry, I don’t know.

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