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Giving A Voice To More Challenging And Hard-To-Reach Social Groups

Published 19 Apr 2017 5 minute read

Seldom Heard

When society and the world around us is changing so fast, understanding consumer behaviours and attitudes is hard enough. It's even more challenging when you need to understand deeply what ‘hard to reach’ consumers think, feel and do, but in giving them a voice you will surface the issues and frustrations that matter most to them. It can deliver some incredible results...

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In a recent blog post, my colleague Dr Marie-Claude Gervais argued that, against most researchers’ expectations, online research (including online research communities) with ethnic minority groups is not as challenging as it might it appear. Her post highlighted the common misconception that digital research with these communities is not possible or desirable because, it is wrongly assumed, people from minority ethnic backgrounds are not online or tech-savvy. Using evidence from OFCOM, she makes the case that digital research is ideally suited to understand this group.

However, ethnic minorities are not the only group that can get left by the research roadside. The same applies to children and young people, older people, disabled people, LGBT people, people living in rural areas, people living in institutions, etc.  Researchers tend to steer clear of projects that focus on any group of individuals that we might not define as ‘typical’, ‘mainstream’ or ‘normal’. Children, due to their age, propose challenges regarding consent, access and ultimately creating (and sustaining) engagement. Individuals with disabilities likewise offer similar barriers. Now for the market researcher, who is beset by encroaching deadlines and limited budgets, any added challenge is, of course, going to diminish their desire to pursue a group that will only add to these issues.

Yet each of these groups offers something that no ‘mainstream’ participant (no matter how well-recruited or profiled) can; their unique group perspectives on the world they live in, and a chance to explore the key issues that relate to their experiences. Conducting research WITH these groups, as opposed to ON them, can lead to critical innovation and better relationships between brands and customer.

Yet, in order to truly give these groups a voice, we have to change how we approach the very concept of research itself.

Who's The Expert?

As researchers, over the course of a career we have learnt how to manage and deploy a range of methods, encourage positive engagement, and order or analyse vast amounts of data. With all our knowledge and skills, honed throughout the years, it seems natural to consider ourselves as the expert when interacting with participants.

Yet, positioning ourselves in this way can, in fact, undermine the effectiveness of our research. It can lead us to analyse the data we are seeing, with our own biases and preconceptions, and decide what is and is not important to US. When confronted with short deadlines and demanding clients, the chance of this happening only increases as we try to complete our studies in line with predefined briefs and limited resources. Through placing ourselves above our participants, we can make the mistake of extracting their knowledge, placing it within our own personal frameworks (i.e. the things we think are key) and risk losing the authenticity of what has been expressed, as we bend data towards a predefined hypothesis.

Engaging with participants in a manner that facilitates the co-creation of ideas (alongside the researcher), which demonstrates that their ideas are valued, and which is open to exploring new themes as they emerge can lead to brilliant insights. Indeed, when we take a step back, it should seem obvious to place these groups as experts in their own right:

UNICEF’s guiding principle in relation to article 12 is an important consideration for child research as it recognises children’s perspectives as distinct from those of adults (Cook & Hess, 2007 ; Cook, T., & Hess, E. (2007). This distinction asserts that children are innately imbued with the capacity to share their knowledge and understandings about childhood, by virtue of being children.

(Fane, 2016)

This quote, although focused on children, is just as valid when we use it within the context of other ‘challenging’ groups. There is no one better placed at expressing the experiences of contemporary teenagers, ethnic minorities, LGBT etc than these people themselves. In this present day and age, which is full of new society shaping technology, we are encountering events and interactional processes that are unprecedented. Knowledge that draws upon tradition, or compares ideas against a view of the ‘way things were’, is literally outdated and likely to lead to false conclusions. The only way to gather effective and relevant data is to give a voice to those whom it relates to, and allow their voices to shape the nature (and objectives) of that project.

In order to do this, we have to deploy methods that encourage participants to express their knowledge in a way that is natural for them, without us tainting their answers or leading them to an outcome. This means managing our biases and preconceptions, and maintaining an agile (or iterative-inductive!) approach, unafraid to incorporate new ideas we may not immediately perceive as important.

State Their Value

In many cases, the first step upon this road is to openly state to your participants (at the start of every IDI, focus group, community etc) that they are the experts and that you are there to listen to what they have to say. As simple as this seems, it eases people into the research process, initiates an open and easy rapport and boosts the confidence of the respondents. This leads to uncovering ideas that aren’t always present in the boardrooms or meetings which have led to the project brief, but which (crucially) can become the catalyst for incredible innovation.

A Family (and friends) Affair

Exploring ideas within a larger group can often give ‘research-shy’ individuals a safe environment in which to share if it comprises of friends and family. Although the presence of these relations can influence some individual answers because of their relation (which alters the dynamic of a focus group when investigating intimate or awkward ideas), it can offer a valuable insight into how close family (or peer) units interact with brands and products through prompting them to identify daily routines. Or, when working with children and teens, conducting sessions amongst class groups and close friends reproduces the interpersonal dynamics at play in the outside world, in a setting that these individuals are used to interacting in. This boosts confidence and response frequency . Furthermore, another benefit of these sessions is that assembling these groups is often easier than gathering disparate individuals, as already participating individuals can be encouraged to enlist their relations and friends. This eases study recruitment and, when managed appropriately, situates some participants as co-researchers who have a vested interest in executing the project successfully; which produces a more harmonious project!

Re-invest The Interest

Take the time at the end of the research phase to give something back to your participants . If you have been successful in working with a ‘non-mainstream’ group, it is well worth ensuring that they feel valued for their contributions and feel inclined to take part in further studies. This doesn’t mean lavishing them with gifts or more monetary incentives, but perhaps providing personal feedback on the results of the study, your highlights, or what you’ve learnt about their community. Sharing insights about these groups can lead to personal reflection and perhaps even reveal more useful data. Not only is this morally and ethically positive, it also leads to better overall engagement in market research and its cultural standing (something which is great for all of us!) This will also bring these ‘different’ and overlooked groups into the everyday focus of brands and companies as they realise the power of including their stories.

If you’d like to learn more about how to make your research community more effective or to learn about the methods that complement these ideas and how to use them with these diverse groups...

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