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How To Avoid The Five Biggest Fib-Triggers In Market Research

Dec 18, 2007
Your favorite coffee shop has introduced a new variety. As you stand in line for your usual order, a positively delightful staff member offers you a free sample of the new brew. They look on, eagerly awaiting your response as you give it a try.

And you hate it.

It's the nastiest drink you've tried in ages. Yet somehow, your head nods in grimaced approval. You smile, anxious to please the lovely staff member. Is that really an "mmmm" sound you're making?

Armed with its dodgy customer research data, the coffee shop thinks it has a certain hit on its hands. But you know you will never less this product pass your lips again as long as you live.

Maybe your business has already learned this lesson the hard way. But the fact is, when you conduct market research, there's every chance your research participants will not be telling you the truth.

Are they all barefaced liars?

Are these participants out to deliberately lead your business astray? Do they trick innocent researchers just for fun? Of course, that's not the case. When research respondents start telling you fibs, the problem often lies with what you're doing.

The chances are your survey, focus group or research process has unwittingly tripped one of these five big fib-triggers.

So, what are the biggest fib-triggers that you should avoid in your research?

1. Leading questions and the desire to please

The number one biggest fib trigger of all is not borne from a desire to mislead, but a well-meant desire to please.

Just as you grimaced an "mmmm" to please that lovely coffee shop assistant as they watched you, so your research participants will try to please you by giving you the "right answer" to your question.

They want to make you happy. If they think they know where your question is going, then they'll tell you what you want to hear. That is why it is so important to ensure that the questions you ask during the research process are not leading them towards a specific answer or your desired outcome.

For example, "Do you think our improvements to the café have paid off?" is a leading question. You are clearly revealing that your intent, that are looking for re-assurance that your efforts have been worthwhile. By asking such a leading question people will want to please you by giving you the answer you clearly seek.

"How would you rate the café's decor?" is a far more balanced question. Just be prepared to accept that their view may differ from yours!

2. Don't make it personal

Keep it professional, keep your distance and don't let personal connections influence the out come of your research.

Your friends and family are often your biggest fans. So, these are the wrong people to be approaching for an objective view about your business and about new ideas.

They are likely to give your most hare-brained schemes the benefit of the doubt. They will also feel under pressure to be nice and positive, when it is a hard dose of objective realism that you are really seeking.

Keep the little white lies away by keeping your research impersonal.

3. They just want to get rid of you

Talking people into resigned submission may be a sales technique, but its not one of recommended for market researchers. Conducting research often means balancing people's goodwill and patience. Overstep the mark and the fibs start to flow.

If your interview or seemingly infinite survey has over-stepped the participants patience line, they will say anything just to get rid of you. Far better that you keep your questions to a necessary minimum, or look for a suitably rewarded longer format methodology, than drive participants to distraction with yet another dozen questions.

Because, if the fibs increase along with the length of the survey, what value do those additional answers really have?

4. Accidental untruths

Some untruths are accidental. The respondent didn't understand the question, your question wasn't clear enough or it was somehow ambiguous. The result is an answer that doesn't really reflect the respondents view.

A multi-part question is a sure fire way to trigger accidental untruths.

If asked "How often do you go out eating and drinking in a month?" and given a list of options to select from, I can't answer this without being accidentally untruthful because I go out drinking more than I go out eating. The right answer for one element is wrong for the other. Or perhaps it means only those times when I do both at the same time, therefore my answer is again wrong if that wasn't the questions intent.

Simple, non-ambiguous questions, with a single point of inquiry per question will minimize chances of accidental untruths from your respondents.

5. Embarrassment and peer group influence

This is the final giant fib-trigger! The more a research topic is embarrassing, sensitive or controversial, there more care is required to create an environment that produces truthful responses.

Judgmental language, words like "normal", "decent" and "acceptable", is particularly likely to trigger "guilt-fibs". As a result, people moderate their responses towards what they think they should do, rather than what they actually do.

A judgmental question like "do you think all decent, civilized people should compost their waste?" will not only skew this answer, it will impact the truthfulness of any later questions about the individual's habits. I know I wouldn't risk admitting to throwing away the odd bag of grass clippings!

Finally, because many people care about what their peers think of them, the influence of others in the research process is also a significant trigger for little fibs and bare faced lies. When conducting group research, it is worth engaging a professional moderator or reading up on these techniques in advance if you are to avoid triggering fibs at every turn!

Remember the nasty coffee?

You'll never get your research entirely fib free - at least not if it involves human beings. And in future articles, I will look at some other techniques that help ensure research accuracy.

But simply by being aware of the five biggest fib-triggers, you can avoid falling into the costly trap of making decisions based on little white lies. And you won't make the same expensive mistake as the unfortunate coffee shop!
About the Author
Vicky Brock is Co-Founder of Highland Business Research one of Scotland's leading market research agencies. She is also International Committee Co-Chair of the Web Analytics Association and a reknowned international speaker and workshop leader.
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