Research in Advertising: Moving Away from Being An Asterisk

By Alex Wilman

Tim Harford recently highlighted in his series ‘50 Things That Made the Modern Economy’ that market research was born when Charles Coolidge Parlin of the Curtis Publishing Press investigated the automotive market in 1911. Parlin conducted research with the goal of building more effective advertising. His research resulted in a consumer-led style of communication: finding out what people want, then selling it.

Research has progressed from informing advertising content, to now also testing and measuring advertising campaigns. In fact, research is involved in every step of an advert’s life-cycle – except of course in the adverts themselves (except for when an asterisk referencing market research appears in an illegible font at the bottom of a TV or print advert).

Similarly, the style in which adverts are communicated has now progressed. Adverts are no longer just about selling, but also about building brand identity, maintaining brand health and establishing a brand position (to name a few). Within this, emotion and information play a greater role in trying to achieve advertising success.

Communication of research findings have progressed too. When Parlin delivered the first ever set of research based insights, he did so in a report that included ‘2,500 type written sheets, charts, maps and statistics’. Such an approach is no longer viable. We now must actively think like advertisers to communicate our research findings. This means we must think about:

  • The profile of our audience
  • The channels we use to communicate insights
  • The role design mechanics can play to enhance insight communication
  • The tone of voice our insights adopt

So, since Parlin’s time the role of research in advertising has progressed, advertising’s purpose has developed and researchers are thinking more like advertisers. Yet, the most outward facing information you’ll see about research in an advert is “Based on a survey with n=5,000 consumers” squirrelled away in the bottom corner.

So, what is the next step for how research, advertising and insight communication progress?

Well, consider this, we live in the era of the information economy and datatainment. Within this, the public (an advertiser’s audience) have a genuine thirst for information and insight.

Does this mean we could see more research and insight taking centre stage within adverts themselves?

Metfriendly – the mutual society for London’s Metropolitan Police – thought so. They recognised these moving dynamics and surmised that there was an opportunity to better connect with their audience – the Metropolitan Police – using communications that had information and insight collected via market research as their main collateral. By doing so, they hoped to show their audience that they understood them, knew their concerns and had their best interests at heart.

Working with Northstar Research, several research streams – quantitative, qualitative and CRM data analysis – allowed a robust picture of Metfriendly’s audience to be established. Northstar then developed a series of advertising assets to be communicated directly back to Metfriendly’s audience – without a Parlin-esque type-written chart in sight!

Although researchers by trade, we had to start thinking like advertisers to build our campaign:

Audience Profile

Our research meant we knew our audience very well. We were able to understand both what concerned them financially and what they wanted to hear about.

Communication Channels

We uncovered the role of the police station canteen for picking up information, the importance of digital for particular segments and the role of face to face seminars in explaining complex financial products.

Design Mechanics

Infographics, appropriate ways of preventing data and imagery were identified as methods that would resonate.

Tone of Voice

An appropriate lexicon that spoke in our audience’s language and wasn’t overly complex was built.

These factors combined and allowed us – researchers – to design and launch a campaign that utilised insight as its main collateral and demonstrated to the Metropolitan Police that Metfriendly understood them and their financial needs. By progressing the relationship between research and advertising in this way, Metfriendly achieved significant ROI: increased members and a rise in new business – so much so they had to significantly increase the size of their marketing investment.

So to all researchers, think like advertisers, and find a new way to use insights! And to all advertisers, remember, research in advertising collateral can be more than just an asterisk!

By Alex Wilman, Northstar Research