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MRS Conference: MR as Storytelling; and Conference Conclusions

March 27 2009

In Which our special correspondent Phyllis Vangelder reports on a session about the need for researchers to tell stories (but not make them up, of course); an old-fashioned medium makes a timely reappearance and wins a prize; and some general remarks are made on 'Research 2009'.

Telling Stories

The Storytelling session, chaired by Rachel Lawes, Lawes Consulting, had some interesting ideas, although the presentations were somewhat uneven. Andrew Davidson and Graham Saxton, MEI, OTEX Europe, suggested quite reasonably that quantitative findings should be presented with panache and creativity, using the 'storymaking' tools that qualitative research has now used for some time. 'How many interesting stories are swamped by too much data?' Their own slides, illustrating moving graphs, were certainly fun. They exhorted quantitative researchers to get clients engaged in the data gathering process, to set up live data-gathering events, to challenge the traditional agency structure and shift client expectations of data. In fact they seemed to be asking, 'how can quant become more like qual?'

Amrita Sood, Research Director, GfK NOP Social Research and Karen Franck, COI (standing in for Krishan Lathigra), presented an important paper on citizen journalism and market research, setting out their views on what participatory journalism can teach the research industry. They suggested that citizen journalists can help to democratise research by according respondents an elevated role in the research process.

Their graphic and emotive participation was particularly effective in the large-scale qualitative study conducted for the COI on behalf of the Cabinet Office's Civil Contingencies Secretariat to provide insights into the experiences of those affected by the floods in the summer of 2007. Collaborative journalism, now so easy with mobile phone cameras and the Internet, is about sharing photos and experiences, producing very rich data sets of material.

The speakers pointed to several similarities between journalists and market researchers: we ask questions, we listen; we seek truth and insight. Audiences have now changed: many people are more open about themselves and prepared to share their individual experiences and news media particularly have embraced this change.

The topic of this research, the floods, was also a news event, and members of the public wanted to record and document their experiences. The differences between research and collaborative journalism are that in the latter people do not wait to be asked questions: they expect to be active participants and to have a say in the process. By managing this active sample and the data they provided, the researchers were able to create a different type of research platform, cross-fertilising research formats to include data from sources such as emails, personal photos and video footage as well as focus groups and in-depth interviews; it was a research structure that centred the needs and preferences of the participants. The research findings formed part of the evidence base for a government review of the floods - we may well be entering the era of the citizen researcher. The written paper is worth consulting for a well-referenced account of citizen journalism.

Lisa Stych, Principal, Incite Market Planning and Amanda Boote, International Market Research Director, Warner Brothers, illustrated the way existing data can yield new insights and be communicated vividly to key stakeholders. Their paper, 'Storytelling to the masters of storytelling: communicating insight to Warner Bros', describing a study for the retail sale of DVDs, illustrated how market research can learn the art of presenting stories from the film industry. Researchers sometimes forget the simple rules: make sure you know the story you want to tell - brainstorm and develop a framework to ensure all factors are suitably accounted for and evaluated; ensure you have the material and appropriate script to tell your story; understand your audiences and tailor your script accordingly; effective stories have a beginning, middle and end - signal where you are; the medium is as important as the message. The study highlighted the importance of reflecting the atmosphere of the film in the retail environment. The magic of the films had to be brought into the DVD section of the stores.

Fabulous Presentation

It was appropriate that the winner of the Research X-factor, 'to find the best communicator in the research world', should be the best storyteller. Erminia Blackden, MESH Planning's Group Experience Director, used puppets of a tortoise and a hare, rather than power-point, to tell a story and capture her audience.

and Summing up...

It was difficult to judge the success or otherwise of the 'Unconference'. On the plus side, we certainly felt a buzz and energy in the Conference Halls and Hub.

On the down side, at a time when the need for research to get real, justifying its budgets in a tough world more than ever concerned with ROI, has never been more apparent, there was a disappointing lack of real world application in many of the sessions. Some of the new techniques, in particular surrounding Web 2.0, are already beginning to acquire a zzz factor, and a paper about a field of technology which is seen as leading edge is not necessarily an indication of or a good substitute for original thinking - speakers beware. The session on behavioural science was a good, if partial antidote to this - see today's other DRNO item.

Accepting that it is quite inappropriate to compare this type of conference with the academic, self-referential events held decades ago, the absence of international coverage was nevertheless particularly noticeable - and at a time when global coverage is deemed more essential than ever. (The ESOMAR lunch used to be open to every international delegate. Perhaps it still is, but several overseas delegates to whom we spoke knew nothing about it). It's no good saying that the techniques discussed have 'global relevance', 'though most of them undoubtedly do - the international credentials of Conference need to be explicit. This was just right a few years ago - please bring it back.

Those aspects of Conference which are new, seem to work well - hence the 'buzz' mentioned above - and the social scene is still lively. Time to combine what's new, and has worked, with a return to what has been omitted, and also worked. We thought this was what the organisers were going to do this year, after being experimental last year (and the year before?). It doesn't need reinventing every year - keep some of the cracking new ideas, but mix and match, and the 2010 event could be the best ever.

Assuming, that is, that the commercial world as we know it is still there to discuss - otherwise there might be a good deal more to be reinvented than just Conference.

[Thanks to Phyllis as ever. The Storytelling write-up is hers; the summary combines comments from a number of contributors and from attendee feedback].

MRS Conference reviews in full:

TV Scientist Kicks off MRS 'Unconference' - Sir Robert Winston's keynote interview
Lies and Statistics - social research; getting the truth from respondents
Nerd-Free Zone? - in-game advertising; consumer engagement, YouTube vs TV
Research in a Recession - winners, losers and strategies
Glasses Half Full and Half Empty - social scene; threats and opportunities to the profession
Virtual Ethnography - multi-sourced consumer feedback from social media and elsewhere
On Human Behaviour - views from an anthropologist, a zoologist and an economist
This page: MR as Storytelling; and Conference Conclusions - how was it for you?

All articles 2006-21 written and edited by Mel Crowther and/or Nick Thomas unless otherwise stated.

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