In Praise of “Horseback Research”

February 20th, 2017
Men and women horseback riding in the mountains

In an age where “Big Data” dominates, where more and more consumer behavior is tracked – web analytics, purchase history, campaign response — and where on-line survey tools proliferate, I still like to use an often overlooked, some say old school technique that provides much needed insight for B2B marketing.

“Horseback Research”

– small scale, fast track qualitative research, uses individual phone interviews to explore customer and prospect perceptions, and is a quick and useful way to probe beneath surface replies. It’s based on the premise that if you want to know what customers really think, the first step is to ask them. It’s about listening to what they say and understanding what they mean. For many of our clients that don’t have research departments and have to do more with limited resources, this is an affordable way to get invaluable insight.

Simple but not easy.

Of course, people often say what they think you want to hear, so it’s important to structure open ended questions and create the feeling that it is more of an interview than a survey. Horseback research is for generating insights, not projectable data. It’s about words, not numbers. It’s focused on a few important issues, but is more in-depth. It’s conversational but not informal.

Ask the right people at the right time.

We had a client who was losing business even though their long established customer satisfaction surveys showed that customers were consistently satisfied with the level of service. The problem was that unsatisfied customers left, so they were routinely surveying only those who remained. When we talked with those lost customers we found gaping holes in our client’s service model.

Insight to Drive Decisions.

Some B2B marketers compile ever increasing amounts of data. But that data has to be organized to become useful information. And that information has to be rigorously distilled into a few actionable insights if it is to more than academically interesting. Insights only become marketing advantages when you are ready and willing to apply them to making business decisions. So as we understand customers better we have to be willing to change things that we find are important to them.

Customer insights come from many different places, and more than one point of view is essential. Social media, social listening, email, mobile — each plays a useful research role. But even with all the advances that technology offers, I find it’s still particularly helpful to regularly engage customers in exploratory conversations. When you’re looking to understand what customers think about your company or whether they even think about you at all, then a tightly focused small-bite Horseback Research effort may fit the bill.

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