The following quotation from David Ogilvy gets to the heart of the research issue and informs the way I’ve always approached uncovering insights. “Consumers don’t think how they feel. They don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say.”

It’s not that respondents deliberately mislead researchers, just that nobody can be aware of all the subconscious processes that feed into the decisions they make.

So when asked, people don’t – in fact, can’t – tell you what motivates them. Obviously, we need to work around this in our research.

I’ve adopted many techniques to uncovering insights and I’ll outline three key ones here, which you can easily adapt to apply to your own challenge. They all fall into what I call a “fast and frugal” approach – quick tactics that anyone can use, which don’t cost a fortune.


Test, test and test again

One of the most flexible tactics for uncovering insights is known as monadic testing. It’s a simple approach that you can build into your existing survey approach. Show different groups of real customers versions of a message with one key difference and observe responses, rather than showing multiple versions at once and asking them to choose.

This gets you a little closer to the truth as you’re not directly asking people what motivates them, helping you to uncover subtle influences on behaviour that you can easily incorporate into your marketing.

One example of this technique is some tests I ran to investigate people’s perceptions of time and payment. I showed 500 consumers a genuine finance deal for Mazda and they rated the deal on a variety of metrics.

All participants saw the same overall annual price, but this was displayed in one of four ways – either as a daily, weekly, monthly or annual figure. For example, £4.57 per day or £32 per week.

The results revealed that the shorter the time frame, the more appealing the deal. When the prices were shown as a daily figure, they were five times more likely to be seen as a great deal than when they were shown annually.

People pay attention to the headline cost rather than the unit of time. This insight can be harnessed by any brand that sells a subscription service.

Into the field

Monadic tests are great, but you need more than a single technique. Another useful tactic is field experiments, where you head out and carry out research with people in the most fitting environment for your business.

One example of this is the research I did into payment methods. The premise was that the greater the distance between customer and cash at the moment of paying, the more they spend. Some excellent research has been carried out by MIT psychologists Duncan Simester and Drazen Prelec suggesting this is the case.

To test this ourselves, we decided to investigate the effect of contactless payment on price sensitivity. So we headed out in central London and posed these three questions to people leaving coffee shops:

  •         How much did you spend?
  •         What means of payment did you use?
  •         Please can we see your receipt?

The last question was crucial, as it let us compare recollection with reality. The findings were striking. People paying with cash typically over-estimated their spend by 9%, whereas those using contactless cards under-estimated by 5%. A stretch of 14 percentage points.

The study showed that the more distance you can put between paying and the act of handing over physical cash, the less price sensitive shoppers become.

One other interesting discovery from this experiment was the best way to persuade passersby to stop – we tried many incentives but the best by far was scratch cards.

It’s amazing how many people will give you five minutes of their time in return for a £1 lottery ticket.


Forget who you are

This third and final approach is all about getting into the mindset of your customer. People tend to assume that everyone thinks like them and researchers are no different. Don’t fall into that trap.

One of the most hands-on forms of research is what I like to call “method planning”, in which you do what you can to actually become your customer.

My team had an interesting time doing this with an incontinence brand. Over the course of a weekend I messaged them at random times, and they had to stop what they were doing and get to a toilet within two minutes. This helped them understand the experience of the target audience, and we uncovered some useful insights.

For example, incontinence is a bigger issue for people when they’re out and about, away from the comfort of their home bathroom. This led us to recommend media that reached people at moments of maximum concern – on the tube, out driving etc.

So have some fun thinking up ways to get into your buyers’ shoes.

For example, if your brand is a beer – get into the pub and into the mindset of the drinker at the moment of purchase. If you’re targeting students, cut your budget and try eating on a pittance.

The overarching message is that you don’t need to spend a lot of money uncovering insights. If you have a clear hypothesis and a willingness to get your hands dirty, you can quickly unearth interesting insights.

A unique opportunity

Behavioural science is a powerful tool for marketers when it is used literally or laterally but the strongest effect comes when findings are interpreted laterally.

That’s an opportunity that I’m excited to be working on with The Behaviours Agency, who are combining their strong creative thinking with insights from behavioural science to develop more impactful and effective ideas.

By Richard Shotton

Behavioural Scientist