As businesses try and navigate a post-lockdown "normal" there are still many unknowns to overcome. Will the ongoing vaccine programme allow all sectors of the economy to restart in the same way or with the same confidence? Are customers, clients and consumers willing to go back to how they previously purchased products and services? Has the rapid growth in virtual services changed buying habits inexorably? How many organisations will want to return to 9-to-5 office working? With so many uncertainties its going to be difficult for anyone trying to make longer-term business plans or secure new investment. While some businesseswill be tempted to adopt a 'wait-and-see' approach others may try to rely on the 'gut instinct' of senior managers. The problem with the former is it may be too passive for the modern digital era, while the latter relies on the hope of past experience being a reliable barometer of future behaviour. As an alternative to these I would like to suggest a third way which is based around the notion of curiousity and having a desire to use data as the basis of decision-making.
This article is stimulated by a recent newspaper feature by Tim Harford (Times, 1.5.21) - "The three things you'll need to make sense of a changing world" - where he defines curiosity as "being open to surprises and willing to admit to gaps in your knowledge". If we are honesst most of us tend to be dismissive or wary of new information that challenges our existing preconceptions or beliefs, but curious people tend to be more open-minded, finding the new facts intriguing rather than threatening. I believe this sense of curiosity is one of the reasons successful entrepreneurs are able to identify new markets and bring fresh thinking to existing markets. In short, not willing to accept the status quo within your industry or being afraid to challenge orthodoxies or groupthink should be seen as a strength.
I would further argue that central to any concept of curiousity is a willingness to engage with numbers, from published statistics (secondary data) or primary data from from commissioned surveys, panels or interviews. For Tim Harford numbers are "like radar, ultrasound, or the humble telescope, .... showing us things that are otherwise invisible". Tracking what customers, target audience, stakeholders or employees are thinking on a regular basis is going to help identify changing opinions or 'mood swings' that can be fed into business planning. Never is the need for "fresh data" going to be more important than in the post-Covid era.
Case study: The Railways
Prior to the pandemic ticket revenues from UK passenger journeys was in the region of £10 billion per annum. This revenue quickly evaporated during 2020 lockdown and the ongoing impact on commuter journeys means passenger numbers are still less than half their pre-pandemic figures. Plenty of the season-ticket commuters who paid premiium fares, supporting the wider network, have become flexible workers who travel into the office less frequently. The radical change means rail operators are now having to radically rethink pre-Covid fare structures and ticketing in order to meet "new norms", such as new, flexible season tickets, shared season tickets and pay-as-you go fares.
Statistics, lies and damned lies!
For many organisations the thought of trawling through reams of statistics or conducting market reserarch is totally bewildering - where to start, what to focus on and what do the results mean? Having worked in market research for many years, it still surprises me how many businesses overlook or ignore the power of numbers (data). For example, there are many free sources of statistics, such as the Office for National Statistics, and industry-wide market reports from the likes of Mintel which can offer valuable insights for those facing tought business planning choices.
However, it is also worth remembering how easy it is for statistics or data tables to be "misread" or misused. Each day there are countless stories across the media where findings from a survey have been quoted or taken out of context for the sake of a good headline. And it is not only journalists that can misuse statistics, politicians will often redefined a "target" metric, such as unemployment, in order to manipulate the figure to show something is/is not working. Likewise it is not unknown for business managers to cherry-pick or highlight those survey results they like or paint their company in a good light, while discreetly hiding other less flattering resultss. So, while it is important to acknowledge the role statistics and data can play in the search for planning inspiration and guidance, they should always be treated with respect and in totality.
"Every day, most of us will read or watch something in the news that is based on statistics in some way. Sometimes it'll be obvious - 'X' people develop cancer every year' - and sometiems less obvious - 'How smartphones destroyed a generation'. Statistics are an immensesly powerful tool for understanding the world: the best tool we have. But in the wrong hands, they can be dangerous". (Tom & David Chivers, 'How to read numbers", 2021)
Case study: Wedding Costs
Last year a leading newspaper incorrectly stated that the average UK wedding cost £30,000! But further investigation of the source report from with the figure was taken found that this figure was based on the assumption a couple would purchase every wedding-related service available (which most couples do not. In fact, the report stated the the 'true' figure was closer to £17,000 - not £30,000. Either the journalist simply misread the report's key findings, or decided the higher value made for a better headline and news story. Either way it gave a false impression as to the extent of wedding-day costs and the sector's potential market value.
So, if you are curious enough to want to conduct or commission your own research it is important to ensure that the information collected is done so in a reliable and meaningful way. Remembering the old adage "rubbish in, rubbish out", data quality is a critical requirement. If you are conducting research for the first time, a really useful starting point is Neil Cary's book "DIY Online Surveys" , where he neatly summarises the potential pitfalls and do's and don'ts, including a series of helpful checklists for survey planning, sample selection, questionnaire design and data analysis.
Over the coming months many businesses coming out of lockdown will benefit from conducting research as part of their need to satisfy a curiosity for investigating key issues. Providing new information and fresh data is going to be a useful guide for those needing to take major decisions for re-calibrating business practices and norms. Now could be an opportune time to taking the plunge and commissioning your own research, but do remember the need for high standards of data collection and the need to put results in their full context. If you would like further information on commissioning your own business survey please don't hesitate to contact us.
This blog was written by Robert Rayner (MA Marketing), founder of The Market Research Service and formerly of Wedding ConneXions and Accord Marketing & Research.