© 2020 The Livingston Group for Qualitative Research

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  • Dr. Sharon Livingston

Better Customer Insight in Real Time


Few marketing challenges are tougher than identifying and influencing what drives customers’ attitudes and behavior. Traditionally, executives have relied on a combination of quantitative data from surveys (such as those that track customer satisfaction and brand image) and qualitative insights from focus groups and interviews. Unfortunately, both kinds of research suffer from a fundamental flaw: They rely on customers’ memories, which decay rapidly. Consumers frequently recall a company’s communications inaccurately; it’s not uncommon for people to claim they’ve seen a company’s TV ad at a time when the firm was not advertising. And even genuine memories are often biased by context: If a customer has made a major purchase, she’s more likely to remember her experience of the transaction positively in order to feel good about the purchase. Internet-based research tools suffer less from these problems because they can capture customer experiences almost immediately, before memory fades or becomes biased, but they can be used only with online interactions, which account for just 15% of customers’ encounters with companies and their brands. The only traditional technique that really allows companies to record the complete range of customer experiences is ethnographic research, in which researchers shadow individual consumers and watch their behavior. This approach, however, is both labor-intensive and expensive, and it’s also potentially misleading: It’s hard to untangle the individual customer’s quirks from general customer behavior. Worse, the ethnographic approach introduces another bias: The customer will probably have an unconscious desire to please the researcher, who is physically present, which will affect her reactions. Corporations, therefore, face a dilemma. They must either rely on imperfect and biased memories or risk spending a ton of money on directly observing potentially unrepresentative behavior. Either way, the insights and data on which they base their marketing decisions are inherently faulty.

Marketers have long sought a research method that can capture customer reactions immediately, does not intrude into those reactions, minimizes bias, and can affordably be applied to customers in relatively large numbers. We believe that real-time experience tracking (RET), a new research tool, rises to this challenge.