By Elisa Foster
Marketing researchers often refer the people they study as audiences, markets, populations, demographic groups and consumers. These categorizations are useful when conducting research for a particular product or industry. However, when you constantly describe people as objects and concepts it is easy to forget what they really are: humans. This is why we often like to think of the groups we research as communities. People are not just members of demographic groups – they live in communities with complex cultural traditions and social norms.
As researchers, it is important to understand the context in which people exist in their communities. Ethnicity, income, gender and age are not just demographic identifiers; they are the factors that make people unique. As Randy Bowden puts it on his blog, “Everyone’s different and different people are attracted to different things for different reasons.”
From couples shopping for engagement rings to high school seniors applying to college, we’ve studied an extremely wide range of communities. And each project demands a specific type of understanding. We’ve learned that when you take the time to understand a community and learn how to engage with that community, you get the most valuable information and insights.
For example, it was not enough to research the basic demographics and statistics of a city known for violence and a high crime rate. To truly understand this community, we had to delve deeper and ask more complex questions through focus group research. Why did families move to this city? How do they interact with other residents? How would they react if a crime took place in their neighborhood?
When we wanted to learn more about how mothers grocery shop for their families, we decided that an online bulletin board focus group would be the best way to understand how a community of mothers in a specific geographic region makes decisions about which products to buy.
Sometimes our work helps communities better understand themselves. Recognizing that its community was changing, a regional Jewish service association wanted to learn more about the people it serves and how to meet their needs. Melior worked with a network of organizations to distribute an online survey to community members. This method allowed us to reach as many people in the community as possible.
These examples highlight one of the keys to a successful research study: when research is tailored to the people being studied, the results will be more than data points and quotes – you will garner deeper insights and begin to hear the voice of a community.