They are everywhere around us. You and I live in them, go from one to another, make decisions in them and alter them every day. Yet in my opinion, they is one of the most overlooked variables in market research. What I’m talking about is of course “the context”.

The context has been around for quite some time now. We’ve seen great examples of how the context influences people. Malcolm Gladwell did his part in popularizing the so called ‘broken window theory’ (in his book ‘the tipping point’) that explains how crime is hugely influenced by the material manifestation of the social context. In a brilliant story, he writes about New York in the eighties and how the crime wave there was stopped by rigorously fighting the 2 G’s in the metro… Garbage and Graffiti. By altering the context in such a way that it no longer symbolized chaos and disorder, but law and order, a tipping point in the crime wave was reached, with rapidly declining crime numbers as a result.

Closer to marketing, we’ve heard about the Jam experiment where Iyengar & Lepper show a group of people 6 varieties of jam in a supermarket in the first condition. In the second condition, they show another group 24 varieties of the same brand of jam, Wilkin & Sons. (On a side note, this brand is consumed by her Majesty the Queen of England herself.) The results are definitely kind of striking. As the researchers put it so eloquently:
“Consumers initially exposed to limited choices proved considerably more likely to purchase the product than consumers who had initially encountered a much larger set of options.”

So the context even influences how and if we buy jam? Yes it does. And there are countless more examples within psychology, sociology, and a bunch of other ology’s that illustrates the power of the context, time and time again.

So you’d think that us market researchers, smart breed that we are, have been taking this into account in our work for many years already. Well, I haven’t been around for long, but at this point it seems we’re not really doing so well, right? Our surveys ask for great KPI’s for awesome new innovations, but most of the time without even showing competition. Why? Because we’re looking for unbiased, unanchored opinions? And then if we do show a shelf with competitive products, how can we possibly take all of the other contexts into account? How many times have you rushed to a supermarket after work, and ran through the aisles just before closing time? And do you think that we can measure this kind of decision making in a survey? I’m not convinced.

Don’t take me wrong, I like surveys. Surveys provide us with some kind of security in an insecure world. However, over the previous 1,5 year at InSites, I’ve had the opportunity to conduct some other kinds of research too. I did some online ethnography projects, in which people tracked a whole bunch of moments for me, taking pictures right at the moment of consumption/purchase/… They shared their family lives in pictures, gave me a guided (video) tour through the house they live in and introduced me to their favorite hobby. Now that is context. A lot of context!  Of course, this method is suited better for some kinds of questions, and surveys are better suited for others. I won’t debate that, but I must say that I just really like the fact that you can write conclusions based on a whole “consumer ecosystem”. Having all this context makes me feel comfortable in my recommendations, and is a true insights-goldmine.

The key takeaways that I’d like to get across?

1.       The context is one powerful beast. We shouldn’t forget about it

2.       The context is hard to track in traditional research methods. If the context is really important, we should consider rich methods like online ethnography

3.       The future will allow us to gain better insight in the context because of the increase in mobile technology. Doesn’t consumers that give feedback right at the point of purchase or in any other context of your interest, makes your market-research-heart beat faster?

Am I on the right track here? Did I just waste 10 minutes of your time with the most meaningless blogpost you’ve ever read, or did you actually like what you saw? I’m very eager to get in touch with you, try twitter via @eliasveris.

Elias Veris is a research consultant at InSites Consulting