Data is everywhere these days. If you are in any form of marketing, advertising, market research or related field, you’re likely overwhelmed with just how much data is available at your fingertips at any given time. And how easy it is to get it.

In fact, it used to be a marketing truism that customers vote with their dollars. Well, now they are even “voting” with their clicks. Website visits. Social media likes. Follows and shares. Conversion clicks on call-to-action buttons. All of these activities are expressing decisions consumers make. Though perhaps not as powerful as a “vote” to spend a hard-earned dollar, they are nonetheless votes of time and attention.

And marketers—and market researchers—are eating it up. Understandably so.

But there is a danger that comes at the other end of this sword, this ubiquity of data. And that danger lies in what many have chosen to ignore, as technology makes it increasingly easy to chart consumer behaviors. And that is the true voice of the consumer. Because, while metrics that report behaviors may be relatively reliable indexes of past events, they are often woefully ill-equipped to capture consumers’ sentiment, motivators and emotional drivers—all of which happen before a button is clicked, a survey question is answered, or a purchase is made.

And that is where the magic is made.

True Voice is Revealed by Real Language

We see this pitfall manifest often in the way consumer surveys are constructed in the modern era.

For one, consider the method of delivery. To a large (and I would argue, lamentable) extent, gone are the days of phone surveys and in-person conversations. In their place, of course, are online surveys and mobile feedback-gathering technologies. Sure, these 21st-century conveniences offer efficiency both in terms of costs and time—for the surveyor and respondent alike. But they remove the human element almost entirely. There is no tone of voice to capture. There is no facial expression to read, or body language to interpret. There is simply a click and a relay of data into a database. (One is not even sure if a respondent has “fat-fingered” their mobile phone, if one isn’t careful in how the survey is constructed.)

Second, there is a trend in modern survey deployment that places little to no emphasis on open-ended questions. Justifications ranging from “open-ended questions don’t work” to “all of that data is just too difficult and costly to pore through” have managed to marginalize the very strategy on which open-ended data capture was formulated: If you don’t give people the opportunity to say it in their own words, you never truly capture the complete picture. You’re simply placing people—with all of their diversity of background, preferences, influences and individual tastes—into prefabricated “buckets” based on the four to five “choices” to which you narrowed down your survey response options.

There is no way to ask a data point, “Why?” Why did you answer B? How long have you felt that way? Could something change your mind, in a perfect world? If B wasn’t an option, what would you have said, in your own words?

Do we no longer consider such inputs valuable? I would argue that they are invaluable, and perhaps even more illustrative and predictive than mere percentages and bar graphs. Don’t we want to know how customers truly feel about our product or service? About our competitors? About our category in general? If we have insights into the emotional drivers behind consumer actions, purchase decisions and brand loyalty, doesn’t that give us an advantage over those competitors?

Isn’t that an unfair advantage? Why, yes. It is.

Consumers Say the Darnedest Things

Voice of Customer (VoC) research is what it says it is. It is research to capture the true voice of actual human beings to better measure and understand customer satisfaction and customer loyalty. And how do we get people to share those insights with us? We ask them!

Our contention is that you can never truly capture the voice of the customer if you don’t actually listen to his or her voice. Rating scales and multiple choice responses only tell you so much. Actual words, language and dialogue do the true heavy lifting when it comes to expressing one’s voice or opinion. In expressing actual words—their own words—survey respondents will reveal the emotional drivers behind the quantitative data they are sharing with you. And once you decipher emotion, you can market to it. You can message to it. You can create customer experiences around it. Experiences that build brand affinity, distinction, magnetism and loyalty.

The qualitative component to market research is as critical today as it’s ever been. But in the rush to economize, many are forfeiting true VoC intelligence. Even if a brand simply uses traditional qualitative techniques (phone surveys, focus groups, etc.) to gather the insights that will be used to ultimately construct the quantitative survey, you will have at least injected the human element into the research…and will have gained that competitive advantage over the rest of the field still relying on what can often be misleading metrics.

Remember, the true leverage is reliably predicting or influencing future events, not merely cataloging past behaviors that may or may not reveal intent.

And to address the “too much to read” objection noted above, keep in mind: We have machines for that now, too. Sophisticated AI technologies are able to read, process and decipher qualitative inputs in a fraction of the time (and cost) it used to require. So there really is no reason to not capture true voice. Besides, if it’s quantitative data you crave, we have even managed to convert qualitative, emotion-driven insights into quantitative scoring via the Martec Emotion Score.

The Costs of Getting it Wrong

There is too much at stake nowadays for brands to rely on insufficient—or worse, misinterpreted—data. True insights come from mining a consumer’s true voice, and you simply can’t do that without some effective and strategic marriage of both quantitative and qualitative methodologies.

Both recent history and cautionary tales from yesteryear are riddled with examples of even the biggest brands relying on faulty data, and often to the considerable detriment of their brands. The more we can avoid those pitfalls, the better. Conversely, the more we’re armed with actionable, reliable data, the better our brands, products and services will connect with our audiences over the long haul.

The best part? You likely don’t need to reinvent your survey or market research strategy. You probably just need to enhance it by leveraging today’s innovative technologies that re-inject the human element into intelligence gathering. It’s as easy as starting with a quick chat about your goals.

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