6 Ways to Hear What Consumers Are Really Saying

To understand what your customers want, don’t listen to what they say, pay attention to how they say it.

6 Ways to Hear What Consumers Are Really Saying
[Image: Flickr user Yaffa Phillips]

For decades, market research was based on a simple premise: listen to your consumers. The idea was that if you paid enough attention, and spoke to enough consumers, you would understand what they want. You would uncover their needs, desires, and frustrations, so that your products and communications could answer them.


But times are changing. We’ve become much smarter about what drives human decision making, and the science increasingly shows that much of what influences us is unconscious–which means consumers can’t talk about it directly.

Traditional focus groups have their own set of problems, but even more natural research methods (e.g. ethnographies and one-on-one interviews) and projective techniques (e.g. brand personifications, mood boards, storytelling, etc.) can fall prey to relying too strongly on what respondents say. Consumers just can’t tell you much about how they decide or why they buy. After all, we know what happened with New Coke, right?

Despite this shift in thinking, we still love consumer quotes. We want to hear it straight from their mouths, and research agencies still hand us reams of quotes from surveys and interviews. The key is to use this information wisely by reading between the lines to get at their real (and often hidden) intentions, motivations, feelings, and beliefs.

Here are six tips to get more out of your research by looking behind and around what consumers say:

1. Read body language

Are their arms crossed? Are they hunched over? Does a new idea have them sitting up and gesturing more? These clues can lead you to true excitement or disinterest in an idea. Sometimes I think you can learn more in a focus group backroom by having the sound turned off and just watching the respondents carefully.

2. Look for micro facial expressions

Many facial expressions are involuntary and immediate, and often display our real feelings. It can be easy to see if someone’s face lights up at a new idea, but there are many more nuanced expressions as well. Called microexpressions, they can reveal true feelings before our conscious mind and social judgement cloud our response. There are even training courses available to learn to spot and interpret these fleeting expressions.


3. Listen for tone, not just content

Often if I am doing research in another language, I’ll ask to hear the people speaking in their own language (in addition to the interpreter). Hearing their voices, and the changes in pitch, volume/intensity, and speed, can give you important clues as to their real excitement and interest, or lack thereof, than what their words may be telling you.

4. Look for the context around the words

When you hear a quote, think, “Why might they be saying this?” If you can, get to know the person more deeply–their lives, their goals, their dreams. Look around their homes. All this can help put their words into a much richer and more meaningful context.

5. Watch out for social pressure

Always be aware of social pressures that may be at play. What might this person want you to think, or want to think about themselves, even if it’s not the whole truth? We are very good at lying–even to ourselves–to maintain the image we want, so good research should look to break down these barriers.

6. Actual behaviors never lie

When possible, look at what the person actually does rather than what they say they do or will do. This can be done through journaling, shop alongs, or just looking at previous purchases and buying behavior.

The more you can use these tools to understand the motivations behind people’s words, the better equipped you’ll be to interpret and use your consumer research.

Daryl Weber is a brand and innovation strategist. Follow him at @BrandedCortex.