Do you come here often?

In devising a new interpretation, how much use is market research? For one thing, it depends on what kind of research you do – and how well it’s done. Quantitative research can be useful in learning how people respond to very specific topics. It has the benefit that all interviews are conducted according to the same questionnaire, which makes subsequent analysis much simpler. One of the big problems with quantitative research though, is the fact that the research designer has to make certain assumptions about what the responses will be.

The question, “Would you like to have learned more about Sir John Smith and his family?” may allow for a “No” or a “Don’t know” response but it doesn’t reveal why the respondent says that. It may not have occurred to the researcher that a lot of visitors come to the property purely because it’s mentioned in a cult sci-fi novel – and this question won’t reveal that fact. The simple question, “Why did you come here today?”, would of course uncover the sci-fi geeks, but the researcher may or may not have included it.

THE REAL STORY of course is a heritage interpretation company, not a market research firm, but as it happens, I did work for such a firm in another life and it taught me a few things. The design of market research surveys, even quantitative ones, is far from simple.

As an example, look at the Scottish independence referendum. There was a lengthy debate over whether the ballot paper should contain one question or two. The final decision was to have one. Even more debate ensued over what that one should be. The Scottish parliament’s preferred version was, “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” However, the Electoral Commission pointed out that this was tendentious, leading voters towards the answer, “Yes.”

The current version is, “Should Scotland be an independent country?” You may feel that this is about as simple and straightforward as it could get but even this draws objections. The word “independent”, some feel, is too positive and should be replaced by “separate”.

An earlier version put forward by the SNP was (are you ready for this?) “The Scottish Parliament should negotiate a new settlement with the British government, based on the proposals set out in the white paper, so that Scotland becomes a sovereign and independent state. Do you agree or disagree?”, which avoids bias but risks the voter falling asleep before the end of the question.

Qualitative research gives the chance of a much wider trawl of respondents’ opinions and thoughts, but it needs as much skill in its design as quantitative research, and even more skill in carrying it out and assessing the results.

“So what do you think we should do next?” will probably elicit plenty of replies and quite a few ideas but the reasons behind them may be more complex than a simple response to the question. A useful assessment needs to take account of prejudices, momentary influences and variable motivations. A common issue here is that people will frequently say whatever they think you want to hear; they want to be helpful and friendly. It’s certainly friendly but it’s not very helpful.

On the other hand, they may answer as honestly as possible but without being conscious themselves of what makes them react to certain things in the way they do – and that’s what you need to know.

Motivational research can help uncover what lies behind these reactions but it’s a skilled technique and therefore can be expensive.

One final thought about all these forms of market research. Respondents can only answer from within their experience. There’s a danger that this can slow up the development of interpretation techniques.

Input based only on previous experience is an inherently conservative influence. There’s a risk that it can limit creativity and, if you were thinking of taking a really bold stride forward, market research is certainly likely to dampen your enthusiasm. Which is one reason why artists rarely carry out a market research survey. Though if they did, they would probably declare that the survey was the art.