Marketing Research Horror Stories II

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research horror stories 2015

Last year around this time we presented some frightening, creepy, scary stories about research projects gone wrong. In keeping with the spirit of the season, here are four more for your enjoyment and, hopefully, edification.

EMTNever say, “What could go wrong?”

Typically, focus groups are held during evening hours.  Sometimes, for special groups, during working hours. But, in one rare case, I decided to hold a focus group on a Saturday morning. My boss was a bit skeptical about scheduling a focus group at that time, particularly because he didn’t really want to spend a Saturday morning in a focus group. But I assured him I had everything under control. “What could go wrong?” I said.

The focus group started out in standard manner. Participants checked in promptly for our 8:30 am start, got their coffee and pastries, and settled into their seats. In the observation room, our capacity attendance of interested stakeholders and note-takers was ready to learn what consumers had to tell us about a new product.

Suddenly, during the traditional introductions, one of the female participants  jumped out of her seat, fell to the floor, and began to have convulsions. Panic ensued in the room as well as in the observation room.  Our focus group moderator leaped into action, and did what he could to help the poor woman. Security was called. EMT’s arrived. And the situation was brought under control.

The good news is that the woman did not have a serious health issue and recovered from her experience. After she was taken to the hospital, the rest of the participants voted to go ahead and continue with the focus group. So, we actually finished the day with a successful event.

Lesson learned? Never, ever say, “What could go wrong?”

Coffee bagThe Mystery of the Coffee Thief

I once designed and managed a large field research project that required recruiting owners of carpet and flooring stores to participate in a year-long research audit of their carpet sales. We set up panels of store owners in 12 cities and each month our auditor would visit a participating store and record the sales for that month. It was a labor intensive process (this was before the Internet and mobile phones) fraught with issues of poor cooperation, missed appointments, and late data delivery.

One day, I received a phone call from one of the store owners. He wanted to drop out of the research program because the auditor that we hired was taking coffee. I initially downplayed the situation, thinking that taking a cup of coffee while performing the audit wasn’t such a big deal. But the store owner informed me that it wasn’t a cup of coffee that was being taken, but rather whole bags of coffee taken out of the store’s break room. When I dismissed this auditor, the store owner was happy to remain in the panel.

Lesson learned? When you are hiring field interviewers, you never know what they may wind up doing.

Never Speak of This Againblindfold research

I was challenged with designing a project to generate new product and service ideas for our company’s product line. I hired a company that had a unique methodology. They would recruit “creative people” to participate in a full-day event, where a variety of exercises would be used to generate “out-of-the-box” ideas. An interesting twist was that the client group would participate in the exercises with the participants, rather than staying behind a one-way mirror to observe.

I assembled our client team to include our Marketing VP, Director of New Products and a number of the Product Managers.  We optimistically arrived early in the morning for our day long experience. However, nothing met our expectations. The “creative people” recruited for our group knew nothing about our product category, and thus, most of their creative ideas were either already being done or impossible.

Second, some of the exercises were downright embarrassing for the client group, putting them in very uncomfortable positions (physically and emotionally). One exercise had us all blindfolded, wandering in the room, looking for the person pre-designated as the “vampire”. How this generated product ideas, we couldn’t tell.

Finally, after lunch, when the group was tasked with writing, and subsequently singing, a song about our products, our Marketing VP had had enough. He called an immediate end to the group, asked that everyone leave, and informed me that he did not want a report from the vendor. He wanted no evidence that this had ever taken place. While he credited me with taking a risk on something new, he warned me not to do anything like that again.

Lesson learned? Understand your company’s risk profile when trying new ideas.

dangerous weatherFocus Group Trip through Hell (actually the Midwest)

Sometimes the research goes right, but getting there goes wrong. We had focus groups scheduled in February in Indianapolis, IN and Madison, WI. I was traveling with three colleagues: my internal client, my research assistant, and the focus group moderator.

The morning after the groups in Indianapolis, I got a phone call from the airline. Our flight to Madison was stuck in a snowstorm in Boston. No big deal. We were all rescheduled on a slightly later flight that would get us to Madison in plenty of time for our evening groups.

But, there was one hitch. The airplane on the new flight was a small, propeller-driven plane and not a jet.  Again, no big deal, right? Wrong. My traveling companions found this completely unacceptable. They would not fly on a “puddle jumper”, and the next available jet flights would not get us to Madison in time for the scheduled groups.

We decided to drive to Madison. Six hours, driving through snow squalls, slushy roads, and heavy traffic. We made it just in time for the group, but perhaps a bit more fatigued than if we had flown.

Lesson learned? Never assume everyone has your tolerance for alternative travel arrangements.


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Kyle Burnam

Kyle Burnam is the CEO of Infosurv and the leader of its sister company, Intengo, where he oversees all client research and R&D projects. Having been in the industry since 2005, Kyle brings a wealth of experience to the table and an innovative eye to every project.