Marketers In The Comfort Zone

By Jeff Hirsch

In the companion piece to this article, Respondents In The Comfort Zone, I suggested that we set aside the corporate politics and other internal constraints that might distract us from the pure pursuit of consumer insight.

But when are we ever able to do that? The Comfort Zones of the front and back rooms in research facilities are two different things entirely as there are so many more reasons to feel uncomfortable sitting in the back. Since we don’t always make the best decisions under duress, it is important to acknowledge the hurdles to “back room comfort” and develop strategies to deal with them.

Albert Einstein said, “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”  To his point, all relevant, unbiased, honest feedback should be highly valued, but it’s often dismissed as “bad” or “flawed” if it doesn’t adhere to our hopes and expectations.  It’s not just the ad agency art director who paces the back room, dismissing the “stupid consumers who don’t get my work.” All of us in the back room have been guilty of this at some point in time.

We should not excuse this defensiveness, but we are only human, after all.  It is easy to understand how any of us with skin in the game might bristle when the feedback doesn’t come back the way they’d like it to.

How ironic that so many of us in marketing crave control, the one thing we’ll never have in this business.  But the trade-offs and compromises we need to make on a regular basis – especially when the focus on key issues and decision making is intensified during in the qualitative research process – can’t help but heighten our stress levels.

The risks and unknowns of marketing make it stressful by its very nature. These are heightened during the qualitative research process, as we put our ideas in front of consumers and hope for the best. So we may never get to that same level of “you’ve listened to me” bliss experienced by respondents, but there are some things we can do to remove a good deal of stress from the process.

  • Leverage the power of Co-Creation and Communication. Comfort is enhanced exponentially with the active, prior participation of all those who attend the research.  Involving key players directly ensures that expectations are well managed, builds goodwill, creates a sense of collaboration, and mitigates the effect of conflicting corporate and personal agendas.

In addition to making sure that the team fully understands the process, give them a hand in creating marketing materials, concepts or other stimulus to be used in the research. With a sense of ownership, they are far more likely to be positive, constructive and relatively stress-free participants rather than critics or naysayers.

  • Eliminate the back room.  Clients are right there with us as active participants, not observers, when we book research in non-traditional venues. Some greet that prospect with apprehension, but once the conversation begins, they inevitably find the experience of talking to their consumers face to face to be far more rich and rewarding than simply watching from behind a mirror.

Moreover, the Comfort Zone is far more accessible when we are in the moment, deeply engaged in a task. How uncomfortable is it to sit with a group of people – often with conflicting agendas – in a dark, confined space, keeping your voice down and being relatively still for hours at a stretch?

  • If you can’t eliminate the back room, manage it. Clients should not outnumber respondents if they are all to be in the same room, so when more than three or four want to attend the research, it requires that we book traditional research facilities with back rooms or set clients up in an adjoining room with a video feed.  In these cases, applying some front room discipline to the back room can have some very positive effects.

Appointing a “back room discussion leader” and developing an outline for note taking and discussion helps keep everyone focused and mitigates the possibility of back room discussions going off on unproductive tangents.

There are a lot of moving parts to the marketing process, and many forces that are completely out of our control.  But we are empowered to listen, to take consumer feedback, “positive” or “negative,” put all defensiveness aside and apply it in the most constructive manner possible.  The ultimate Comfort Zone for all of us marketers is success in the marketplace.  Getting there can be very messy, but fostering cooperation, collaboration and mutual trust throughout the entire research process will speed us on our way.

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