Seeing is Believing

In the June 2012 posting, SLRG President Jon Last discusses how observational research has evolved to deliver more actionable insights in sports marketing. Mobile micro-video recorders now bring fans and customers “into the board room.”

As a marketing researcher who has seen more than my share of poorly executed research in the sports industry, I’ll be among the first to advocate to clients about the importance of avoiding the trap of jumping to definitive conclusions off insufficient data. I’ve aimed my disdain at poorly constructed survey questions, and inappropriate sampling, as often as I’ve raised caution about the proper deployment of qualitative research. And while my company conducts a large number of focus groups and one-on-one interviews with sports fans and participants in facilities dedicated for these purposes, I’ll caveat these engagements with a thorough discussion about the limitations of making multimillion-dollar decisions exclusively on the comments and observations of six to eight people seated around a table while your client sits behind a glass enjoying M&M’s.

So much of what we are selling in sports is intrinsically tied to the emotional connection that we make with fans and customers. And while I maintain that good researchers can capture, synthesize and interpret those connections, we’ve recognized that getting at the “why” behind what this data quantifies is becoming increasingly important both in framing breakthrough marketing communications and in understanding the consumer’s decision process. This has traditionally been done through focus groups and in-depth interviews. But in this era of reality television, social media communities and “edutainment,” we are witnessing an evolution in the research methodology known as ethnography, which in simpler terms can be defined as immersive observational research within a consumer’s natural environment.

Several years ago, I co-authored and presented a paper on the use of ethnography for the American Marketing Association’s National Research Conference. There’s a copy of it on our company website, and as I revisited it recently, it became apparent to me and my colleagues, that the very evolution of new media technology has allowed ethnography to take on an even more important role in understanding the mindset of the sports customer.

Just last week, a client and I delivered a case study at this year’s annual Marketing Research Association (MRA) Conference, which provided a rich example of how these new technologies have increased the ability of researchers to uncover the inner workings of the customer or fan experience in ways that are even more actionable than research of just a few years ago. Specifically, the use of micro video recorders and the ability to quickly upload, review and edit these recordings is a tool that we’ve leveraged of late, for multiple clients who not only want to hear the voice of the customer, but see it in ways not readily possible in the past.

The thrust of our presentation detailed how this technology can be carefully and unobtrusively deployed within retail and event environments to combine traditional qualitative interviewing techniques that get at the emotional resonance of sports marketing, while also capturing it in ways that connect with non researchers in the C-Suite.

As I’ve remarked in the past, we are often are too close to our business to separate strong perceptions and personal opinions from how the consumer actually behaves and arrives at decisions in an Orwellian world where he or she is inundated by a proliferation of messages and choices at every turn. In the sporting goods purchase process, both quantitative and qualitative research have shown the increasingly important and evolving role of the actual retail experience in bringing consumers to their ultimate purchasing moment of truth.

In venue specific research, our firm’s work has captured and illustrated how well deployed venue based activation hits a unique sweet spot with fans. We’re now melding ethnographic observation with well designed qualitative methodology, capturing this on video and professionally editing the results into digestible highlight reels that bring the customer to life. Such an approach is both consistent with sports marketing culture, and provides an entertaining illustration of what is truly going on, in ways more compelling than even the best powerpoint presentation.

The implication for sports marketers is profound in that the art and science of consumer insight can now be delivered in a more accessible and less intimidating way that coupled with the harder science of quantitative marketing research, can only enhance decision making and improve sports marketing ROI. It’s an exciting time to be part of this.