Riveting Research: It’s Not a Mission Impossible

There is no excuse for a dry market research readout.

Documentary film-making can teach qualitative researchers about the art of crafting a great story, leveraging in-depth interviews for all they’re worth, and building findings that make clients act.

Of course, not every documentary is great. For every Ken Burns there are literally hundreds of one-star documentaries on Amazon. Don’t worry, we’re not asking you to take tips from duds.

We’re going more for the edge-of-your-seat, riveting variety like Man On Wire, Harlan County, Audrie & Daisy, Hoop Dreams, The War Room, etc.

Riveting Research: It’s Not a Mission Impossible
This article is based off a B2B Revealed episode. You can listen to the episode or read the article below.


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We want to emulate the type of documentary that keeps you fascinated until the very end, leaves you re-evaluating your view of the world, and inspires actions to make it better. Wouldn’t it be great if your business stakeholders had that reaction to your research?

Documentaries and qualitative research have more in common than you may think. Great documentary films are typically based on scores of interviews, just like a good qualitative research study. With B2B, in-depth interviews are often the most effective means of gathering worthwhile research data.

Documentary filmmakers basically have the same goals as qualitative researchers:

  • To report on what they see and observe.
  • Inspire actions based on those observations.

There is a lot we can learn from great documentary filmmakers about creating a compelling narrative.

It’s All In The Name


Take, for instance, the title. The average qualitative research presentation doesn’t have as evocative a name as the “The War Room,” “Man On Wire,” or “Hoop Dreams.”

They’re more likely to be named after the proposal the vendor originally created, or the name of an RFP, or, worse yet, the name of a Purchase Order. Sad, but true.

Next time you’re getting ready to title a presentation, focus on the tension in your story and turn it into a title.  Here are a few examples.

  • “[Company Name]: An Upstart to Watch”: for when your study reveals your company or client is losing to an emerging competitor.
  • “Missing Features That Matter”: for when your research reveals that product development should shift their focus.
  • “Post-Purchase Remorse”: for when interview subjects discuss implementation issues or dissatisfaction.

Title aside, there is a lot that corporate researchers can learn from great documentary filmmakers.

Advice From Great Documentarians


First, we’ll turn to Michael Moore. Michael Moore has produced tons of documentaries over the years including Roger & Me and Sicko.

In a recent interview, he mentioned 13 rules for great documentaries. I’ll share a few of his suggestions and how to apply them to research.

Say Something New


Don’t tell me shit I already know,” Michael Moore writes. He goes on,

I don’t go to those kinds of documentaries, the ones that think I’m ignorant. Don’t tell me that nuclear power is bad. I know it’s bad. I’m not going to give up two hours of my life to have you tell me it’s bad. All right? Seriously, “I don’t want to hear anything I already know. I don’t like watching a movie where the filmmakers obviously think they’re the first people to discover something might be wrong with genetically modified foods. You think that you’re the only one who knows that? Your failure to trust that there are quite a few smart people out there is the reason people are not going to come see your documentary. Oh, I see — you made the movie because there are so many people who DON’T know about genetically modified foods. And you’re right. There are. And they just can’t wait to give up their Saturday to learn about it.

This rings so true for market research presentations too. How often have you listened to a readout and realized that the vendor isn’t telling you anything you didn’t already know?  Or that a researcher doesn’t really understand the customers your company is targeting?

A research presentation that is just a regurgitation of established facts is cringe worthy. Don’t go there.

Tell the people in the room something they don’t already know.

It’s more likely that you’ll be able to do this if you have picked a focus: an industry or method that you work in exclusively. That way, over time, you’ll get better and better at crafting data-driven stories that resonate.

We’ve chosen to focus our research exclusively on B2B technology companies. For that reason, we know the space better than any generalist out there.  We know what is already held as common knowledge, so we’re not going to suggest the obvious. Instead, we’re able to share something that’s truly insightful.

We’re delighted to frequently get feedback from our clients that we have given them an insight they haven’t heard before or that we thought to ask a question of an interviewee that wouldn’t have occurred to our stakeholders, etc.

These new questions and new insights should hold places of honor and focus in the presentation.

Entertainment Is Not A *&!% Word


OK, so maybe your day-to-day life as a researcher isn’t filled with laugh tracks and emotional cut scenes. But your presentation sure should be.

Riveting Market Research Can Be Entertaining

“Entertainment” should not be a forbidden word in the world of corporate research. © Scanrail / Fotolia

Moore writes,

Yes, repeat after me, they want to be entertained! If you can’t accept that you are an entertainer with your truth, then please get out of the business.

I couldn’t agree with him more.

Personally, I’m a huge fan of nonfiction books. Sure, some nonfiction books are boring. However, there are some fantastic nonfiction books with all the makings of ground-breaking, imagination capturing, must-see TV.

The obvious difference between the two is narrative. One is just data, the other is a story.

You can make research findings interesting regardless of the subject matter.

The key point here to remember, “you are an entertainer with your truth.”

There isn’t anything wrong with being entertaining so long as the entertainment doesn’t detract or alter the truth. Some of the best comedy is truth telling in disguise. Does this mean you should include a laugh track in your presentation? No. But it does mean that you can frame your findings in a way that is interesting enough to inspire insights and actions.

Talk To People Who Don’t Like You


I especially like Moore’s advice to,

As much as possible, try to film only the people who disagree with you.

This should ring true for most market researchers.  Some of the most valuable market research insights come from customers who love your competitor.

So often our clients say in a surprised tone, “Those competitor customers sound rational as they described their decision to go with a competitor.” Well, yes, those competitor customers were rational. Unfortunately, you’d never know that unless you talk to them.

This is also a reason why organizations focused solely on customer satisfaction scores often miss out on what’s really driving the market. They never hear a contrary voice. They won’t hear from a customer who is super happy and satisfied with a competitor. They won’t know if potential customers think that no solution currently in the marketplace is adequate. Only talking to sympathetic voices makes you miss a lot.

Who Gets The Spotlight?


We’ll take our next tips from a Filmmaker Magazine article titled “Expert Tips For First-time Documentary Filmmakers”. This one comes from Nick Berardini, the director of “Killing Them Safely.”

Understand the point of view you want to represent. It’s a bit different than saying ‘understand your story’ because the point of view you’re representing is coming directly from your primary character/characters. More than just what story do you want to tell, whose story do you want to tell, and how does the way you interpret their story filter who your characters really are? You should be an expert in all your characters’ voices, but really have a clear understanding about the way your main character sees things, and don’t neglect them. Everyone else is reactionary to that voice.

Your customers aren't the only ones that deserve a spotlight in the study. © pixelalex / Fotolia

Your customers aren’t the only ones that deserve a spotlight in the study. © pixelalex / Fotolia

So often, researchers consider that their only job is to get the information right. They do need to get the information right, but that’s just a starting point. You need to build toward a bigger story that can motivate a company to act.

It’s also important to get all the perspectives and voices you need into the research study. Don’t just focus on current customers. Also include:

After gathering sufficient perspectives, you can put your main character, your client, into full context.

Invariably, our clients find these other perspectives equally or even more interesting than the conversations with their own customers. At that point, we can return to describing how our client fits within the broader landscape of insights.

The biggest reason why research findings presentations fail to motivate companies to act is the lack of complete relevant industry context.

A Presentation is More Than Its Slides


Next, we’re going to turn to some tips from Ken Burns based on an interview he did for Screencraft.

Burns writes,

1 + 1 = 3.

Over his career, Burns has been able to take dry historical subjects and turn them into more than the sum of their parts.   Some examples include Ken’s series on the National Parks or his documentary on the Dust Bowl.

For market researchers, we need to arrive at something that is more than just raw data. Take all those interviews or survey responses and build a story. Provide a set of actions for your clients to take based on the narrative you’ve given them.

Make It a Nail-Biter


Burns says,

Stories Can Wake the Dead.

I think Burns has managed to achieve this for several topics such as baseball and the Civil War.

Great market research can do the same for companies. It can rattle leadership out of outdated thinking. It can warn of a new threat. It can illuminate a new opportunity. But only if the information driving these insights is presented in a way that’s worth listening to.

In closing, I want to share this quote from Eugene Jarecki, an award-winning filmmaker. He said, “One of the greatest things a person can do is change his mind.”

We need to be doing this with our research. Our presentations should introduce our clients to new perspectives and offer a path forward.


This podcast is brought to you by Cascade Insights. We specialize in market research and competitive intelligence for B2B technology companies. Our focus allows us to deliver detailed insights that generalist firms simply can’t match. Got a B2B tech sector question? We can help.

Header image used courtesy of  doomu / Fotolia.

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