How “feral” insights sometimes trump qualitative and quantitative research


I feel so guilty when I have to tell colleagues and management that technology can’t solve a given problem. I feel even more uncomfortable when I have to explain that technology is actually decreasing effectiveness. I don’t have a C-level technology job title — but I know that it’s even more difficult (and counter-intuitive) for tech pros to have to deliver that news to their business stakeholders. It must be similar to how a physician feels when they have tell a patient that traditional medical care won’t cure a certain ailment.

For those of us who conduct quantitative research, we can at times create the illusion that we’re “speaking” having surveyed the entire universe — that the 300 completes we get on a survey represent the entire market because it’s statistically valid. As a researcher, I’ve been hired to conduct such studies and to do “read-outs” to the users to add color commentary to somewhat binary data.

It can lead to some initial confusion then when a situation calls for a “feral” approach that produces better data than traditional quantitative or qualitative research. Yes, feral like a the cat in the wild or, in this case, a company roaming face-to-face with real live customers in their natural settings.

The world of marketing has become more complicated given that martech stacks now track metrics we’ve never dreamed of in the past. Huge volumes of data are thrown from content engagements and transactions which are then translated into insights for subsequent best practices. Many a digital professional around the world loses sleep about what reporting platforms like Google Analytics say about page views, time on site, and unique visitors.

Despite my career being inextricably connected with these platforms, I’m constantly being reminded that many of the metrics result in false-positives, thanks to that age-old disconnect between real and statistical life. In business there are thousands of these false positives occurring every day, and with what could be very steep financial or societal stakes involved.

Think about the first time the market was told they should put a box of baking soda in their refrigerator to keep it from gathering odors! Quantitative research at the time would likely have shown that it was a crazy idea, whereas a more “feral” approach of speaking with customers would have unearthed one of the greatest product extension case studies in history.

As a case in point, consider a recent research project I lead to determine healthcare technology buying personas. The goal was to get into the minds of buyers to determine business and emotional triggers for marketing messages. The research was largely a success from a buying neuroscience point of view. However, it wasn’t until we actually started to speak directly with the personas that we found some key limitations to the findings.

We had some incredible insights about the messages and the emotions that resonated with these buyers, but we came to learn that getting these (or any) messages, in front of healthcare tech buyers was daunting. Many refused to open commercial emails. Others had no relationship with social media. Most wouldn’t take phone calls for face-to-face meetings without, ironically, first receiving compelling content reinforcing the value of such a call.

Essentially we know everything about the persona’s informational needs, we just can’t get messages to them.

The challenge is that feral research takes time. It also needs to be a part of the corporate culture. If feral insights are confused with qualitative research, it’s not part of the fabric of the enterprise. If feral insight means asking questions from a clipboard with a pencil attached with a string, it’s not part of your corporate culture. You are feral if your selling is observational and probative without any overt sign of commercial intent in that feral setting. Your goal is strictly to make a concerted effort to unearth how the customer buys and the thought process in doing so. It’s the difference between hunting in the wild and wildlife study.

In fact, some of the best feral insights come from a self-deprecating approach where the seller asks the buyer, “what drives you crazy about the way vendors sell to you?” While this is surely not a line for closing the sale, I’ve found that is very powerful in identifying the informational tools the buyer needs to buy. This provides a perfect opportunity for the seller to produce a much more prescriptive sales strategy and do a gap analysis on what informational assets can bring to bear and what assets need to be created.

Actionable sales and marketing decisions be only be made by having a feral, outside-in view from the periphery — as this where most clients actually make buying decisions.


  1. Julie Lynch says:

    Great writing. Baking soda in the fridge reference made me smile! So true.

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