Doug Garnett’s Blog


Reading the Fossil Record: Why Mobile Retail Tracking Can’t Replace Focus Group Research

There was a post on Retail Wire this morning that pondered whether retailers will need traditional research once mobile tracking is “in place”. The question is interesting because it reveals a very common flaw in how people think about research.

Developing conclusions from mobile data is the equivalent of scientists reading the fossil record. When I was a kid, scientists had been observing the fossil record for hundreds of years. So, they really thought they knew what the truth was. Dinosaurs were reptiles, they had reptilian skin, they were cold blooded, lived isolated lives, and modern day lizards are their direct descendants.

Fast forward to 2011. I’m no paleontologist. But it’s my understanding that fossil prognosticators now believe that some (many) dinosaurs had feathers, that some (many) were herd animals, they were pretty fast moving, that some lived in family based units, and that birds essentially evolved from dinosaurs.

The original scientists weren’t bad at their jobs. In fact, they were brilliant. The problem was in the observed data. They created solid, grand theories from the observed facts they knew.

The Key to Observed Behavior is What You Can’t Observe. Paleontologists erred in their theories because there were thousands and millions of fossil truths they couldn’t see – they hadn’t yet been discovered or analyzed.

Mobile data puts us in a similar spot. Ethnographic observers are in a similar bind as are direct marketers who rely purely on response. No matter how hard we work, observational research misses more data about human consumers than it captures. And without that data we mis-lead ourselves into error.

What’s fascinating is that as we create grand unified retail theories from this data, behavioral data becomes a type of departmental Rorshach test. Your company is likely to project onto the research the things that help individual careers. Or, it may project the results of your latest session with a highly paid consultant. What’s least likely is that it finds actionable consumer truths.

Wise companies will continue to rely first and foremost on data that helps us see motivation because motivation is the key to changing profit in big ways. Of modern research, its not just mobile that lacks insight into motivation. True “ethnographic research” is purely observational and is quite weak at discovering things that drive sales. (Perhaps that’s why so many firms claim to do ethnographic research but really do in-home one-on-one interviews).

To get to motivation, you have to use qualitative research of some form. It has to be executed by professionals. And it has to be interpreted with all the best care to avoid similar theoretical jumps to the errors noted above. But somehow, I find the challenges in qualitative data much more evident where the errors in things like mobile data are dramatically more insidious.

At the same time, I’m not suggesting we ignore the mobile opportunity! Mobile data offers opportunity for some fun and interesting bits of learning about store organization. But mobile data is limited and, even considering only in-store behavior, I’d probably get considerably more value from Paco Underhill-style teams of in-store observers.

Copyright 2011 – Doug Garnett

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