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Re-Writing the Research Playbook: How to Think About Research Differently


By Marisa Rondinelli

If someone were to create a scrapbook with the hallmarks of research, there are a few things you would certainly find inside: write-up after write-up of creative concepts, storyboards, discussion guides where the moderator tells the participants “there are no wrong answers!” But research doesn’t have to — read: shouldn’t — look the same every time. In fact, unconventional approaches to research can be powerful tools in unlocking participants’ creativity, ideas and willingness to share—which means better insights for your team.

Don’t ask the obvious question.
To get the best answers, you have to ask the right questions. Enter: the research question. At the start of any research assignment, it’s crucial to explore whether the topic you’re investigating is really the right problem to dissect. The brief might say that the client is losing share, but is this the true problem or rather a symptom of a greater issue? I like to follow the rule of “going five why’s deep”—keep digging to get underneath the root of the topic. It’s really only then that you can begin to develop a research methodology that attacks the right problems in the right ways.

The approach of avoiding the obvious carries over to the questions we ask research participants. Sometimes the best way to extract rich information is not to ask the question directly. Leveraging metaphors and images can be a powerful way to help research participants express topics and ideas they might typically have a hard time putting into words. Ask the group, “how is tequila different than light beer?” and you’ll hear canned responses about how tequila is for shots, wild nights out and bad decisions. Ask participants to imagine types of alcohol as people they know, and suddenly you’re talking about how tequila is a frenemy and light beer is that cousin you don’t really see any more.

Get creative (Shhh—don’t say that out loud).
In the words of Mary Poppins, “In every job that must be done there is an element of fun. Find the fun and snap! The job’s a game!” This same idea applies to research.

Whether it’s a mobile ethnography, online panel, focus groups or even a quantitative study, go beyond default methodologies and platforms and look for ways to make your research feel less like research. Quantitative Vendors that effectively employ progress visualization bring touches of gamification and help to increase completion rates. In other digital research platforms, leaderboards, badging and challenges can promote ongoing engagement.

The same holds for in-person research formats. Tell your focus group participant to “get creative” with their responses and they’ll probably wish they never signed up for your research in the first place. Instead, unlock participants’ creative sides by disguising the need for creativity within games and exercises that don’t put participants on the spot. Use coins or chips to “vote” for ideas when multiple concepts are shared, try image cards to help participants express ideas about complex subjects, or arrange brand cards into “neighborhoods” of like items.

Rethink the who and the where.
The people and the place are two crucial ingredients in any research assignment. Shaking up who we invite to research and where we conduct it can infuse fresh energy and ideas.

No matter where the research takes place, getting the right people in the room is essential. Start with the research team. Aside from the team conducting the research, extend an invite to clients and the broader account team. Having the team hear the participants share their thoughts and ideas first-hand will foster an empathetic understanding of the customer and serve as a source of creative inspiration. When it comes to the research participants themselves, consider an alternate approach like a buddy recruit. While recruiters can work wonders when searching for a nuanced target sample, sometimes the person best suited to find someone matching your recruiting parameters is the guy you just recruited. Buddy recruits help to cut down on recruiting time and costs, but the added bonus is the dynamic that comes from having a group of friends in a room versus an assortment of carefully selected strangers. They keep each other honest, call their friends out when they’re BS-ing and have an instant comfort-level that lets the moderator get right to the big questions they want to ask.

There’s a time and a place for focus group facilities. But there are some topics where going off-site relevant to the topic at hand can totally shape the conversation for the better. Studying beer? Go to a bar or restaurant. Need to know about how moms care for their kids? Go to their homes. Not only will the location help put participants in the right frame of mind, but you’ll also gain access to killer stimulus.

Thinking outside the standard research box can fuel better conversations, better ideas and better outputs. The next time a research need arises, don’t be afraid to dig for the right question, get creative and shake up the surroundings.


As a senior strategist at VSA Partners, Marisa helps establish digital and social strategies through in-depth research. In her four year tenure at VSA, she has led strategic initiatives for industry-leading clients such as Nike, Checkers & Rally’s restaurants, AB InBev and Kimberly-Clark, among others. Marisa has also helped develop social strategies for Dairy Farmers of America brands, including a partnership between Borden Cheese and Martha Stewart on Facebook Live. Marisa holds a BA in Marketing from the University of Wisconsin. Get in touch with marisa at