Bob Roitblat: 9 Ways Traditional Market Research Fails Innovation And What To Do About It

From Guest Blogger Bob Roitblat:

“We should discard the old, unquestioned assumption that demographics is always the best way to segment markets.”  —Daniel Yankelovich, New Criteria for Market Segmentation, Harvard Business Review, March-April 1964, page 89.

Bob Roitblat-1Traditional market research techniques focus on data, metrics, purchase intent and attribute preferences—i.e., on logical analysis. These provide only a fraction of the available knowledge and insight necessary for effective innovation for several reasons: 

1. Data mining is only effective at uncovering insights into your current customers’ current buying habits. It tells you nothing about people who never were customers or who eventually might be.

2. What customers say in surveys and focus groups often contradicts what they actually think and feel, and how they will ultimately act.

3. Asking customers what they need from your products and services tends to elicit predictable yet inadequate answers such as “less expensive,” “easier to use,” or “more features.”

4. Surveys and focus groups tend to uncover explicit needs and not implicit or latent needs. These needs are most important to driving innovation.

5. Customers are often unable to fully articulate their own needs, at least not in much useful detail.

6. Focus groups produce opinions, but not how to derive meaning from them.

7. People don’t always know why they do certain things, so interviewing them doesn’t reveal their thought process.

8. Consumers often adapt their behavior to compensate for product inadequacies, or cobble together solutions for which no good alternatives exist. Since few people realize they are compensating, they are unable to explain what is missing or what might be improved.

9. Human behavior is influenced by many factors, most of which aren’t conscious or rational, and, therefore, can’t be quantified. 

As UCLA professor Theodore Porter wrote in the preface to his 1995 book, Trust in Numbers (Princeton University Press), “quantification is a technology of distance.” 

Rather than being distant from customers and prospects, for successful innovation, we need to be closer to them. 

Empathy is more important than numbers when it comes to delivering successful innovation. 

Empathy, defined as “identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives,” is the language of proximity. Empathy is what gets us closer to customers and helps us uncover their important yet unarticulated needs.

Empathy enables us to get close enough to individual customers or very specific market sub-segments to understand them in the context of the emotional world in which they live. It allows us to inhabit the customers’ minds and hearts in order to thoroughly understand their attitudes and aspirations, what works well for them, what doesn’t work so well, and where their pain and frustrations are within the context of their particular situation.

A deep understanding of customers and their needs, worries and motivations also enables us to find common, often unspoken, drivers of behavior shared by otherwise diverse, traditionally identified market segments.

Innovation starts with empathy for the people we want our ideas to matter to.

Empathy starts with observation; observing the customer up close and over time to uncover their unvoiced, often unrecognized needs.

What customers and prospects do speaks volumes compared to what they say or even hint at. Watch the gyrations your customers go through in real settings when trying to achieve their objectives: what are they frustrated with? What are they wasting time on? What are they struggling to obtain, understand or perform? What do they find easy and delightful?

The empathy gained through observation uncovers the greatest opportunities for innovation.

SAMC Guest Bloggers  

We have a select number of guest bloggers whom we have invited to share their insights with our readers. They bring different perspectives on the challenges of change, innovation and opening new market space. Please enjoy their viewpoints and share them with others.

On The Brink podcast with Bob 

Take a listen to my On The Brink podcast with Bob in which he shares with us how to develop a goal-focused mentality and the competitive skills we need to become great leaders whom people admire and follow. Using his experience as the CEO of Mainsail Consulting Group, combined with years as a competitive sailor, Bob powerfully draws parallels between building and leading a winning yacht racing team and building and leading a winning business. Listen, learn and share!


From Observation to Innovation,


Andi Simon, Ph.D.
Corporate Anthropologist | President
Simon Associates Management Consultants

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