Group Speak

By: Troy Nottingham
April 26, 2016

Sometimes You Can’t Ask The Question You Want To Know The Answer To

There are some things that people do without even being aware they are doing them. Once we were working on a project for a major furniture retailer who was trying to determine the ideal flow and layout for their retail stores. Should there be more vignettes? Should there be a sofa-only section? To help address this issue and questions like these, we went shopping with people in multiple furniture retail locations – each with a different layout. One of the things we observed was that some retail stores set up vignettes on either side of a very wide center aisle, while others required the shopper to wind through a pre-determined path. In the wide-aisle stores, we observed women start in the middle of the aisle moving forward slowly with heads moving from one side of the aisle to the other like they were watching a tennis match. By the time we reached the last aisle in the store, some of the women had migrated from a slow walking pace to an all-out sprint.

So, one key finding from these in-store observations was that, without some physical barrier to impede or slow the rate of movement through the store and the vignettes, consumers were walking the aisles but seldom engaging with the furniture. And, as anyone in retail will tell you, less engagement results in fewer sales.

But we didn’t find this out as a result of something people told us, because they didn’t even realize it was happening. It is only because we were there to observe this 40-yard dash phenomenon and its impact on the shopping and buying process. So, sometimes people can’t answer the question you want to ask because they’re not even aware of the answer themselves.

Then, there are times when people are fully conscious of what they’re doing, but they can’t articulate it OR find it embarrassing to answer truthfully. So, even though they possess the answer, you’re not likely to get it. And, the answer you do get is likely to leave you in a worse position than before you asked the question. Why? Because the information you’ve gotten doesn’t reflect how people really think or feel and – here’s the pivotal point – you’re making marketing and operational decisions as if what they have told you is the gospel truth.

Case in point … in a recent project involving early childhood education, the goal was to find out why some parents don’t read to their children. The assumption was that parents didn’t make the connection between reading and cognitive development and, thus, placed little importance on reading.

After spending time talking with parents who don’t read to their children, what they told us were things like – busy schedule, not enough time in the day, too tired, etc. However, additional probing indicated that many of these parents could barely read themselves (and some not at all).

So, if we had accepted the answer to the question that the client wanted to ask, we would have ended up with a campaign designed to show parents how to make reading a part of busy schedule. And that would have been a waste of time and money. Instead, the primary goal shifted to getting these parents more comfortable (and capable) with reading.

Lastly, there are times when a question simply asks too much of consumer memory and the result is a reflection of mistaken recall versus behavior. The perfect example is a question on advertising media: where did you see/hear advertising for (fill in the blank product)? There was an article some years ago that told of a major peanut butter manufacturer who asked this question. 65% of those peanut butter eaters who responded, said “TV.” That brand of peanut butter had not been advertised on television during the 10 years prior to asking the question. People simply cannot tell you where they experience advertising – and, it is no surprise, given the amount of advertising we are exposed to every day, all day long.

Generally, our recommendation is not to ask this advertising question because each time we do, a minimum of 20% of people say TV – on brands that have never advertised on TV. Which is fine, I guess … until you start using this question to help make decisions on media strategy and spend.

So, you see, sometimes you just cannot get the answer by asking the question. Which is why firms like ours come in handy – we know how to navigate the landscape of what can and can’t be asked to get the answer to your question.