Orlando, Fla. — It’s a brave new world for home improvement researchers.
Take for instance the gathering of more than 70 research and marketing professionals here for the Home Improvement Research Institute’s (HIRI’s) Spring Conference.
While Gwen Ishmael, senior VP insights and innovation for Decision Analyst, was leading a discussion on social media opportunities, a HIRI member in the audience was taking advantage of one. In an experiment that wouldn’t have happened just a few years ago, Steve Hauser of Lowe’s texted his son and gathered information from a targeted captive audience — high school and college students on a school bus. The results from the convenience sample of the spontaneous survey supported one of Ishmael’s points about the plateau of social media among teens (about half of the teens on the bus use Facebook less than they used to.)
More importantly, the little survey showcased the power that’s available to the modern researcher through modern tools. Facebook, Twitter, texting and other modern social media open doors to researchers, but must be managed carefully, she said.
Social media statistics are intriguing, to say the least. Ishmael pointed to 1.5 billion as the estimated figure for people using social networks. And 70% of those are members of at least one social network — most often a combination of Facebook combined with Twitter or LinkedIn.
But the flip side of that coin is that usage appears to be hitting a wall. “The social media landscape is stabilizing,” she said. “Most people want to keep their digital lives as they are.”
They’ll make exceptions if a social network provides some kind of unmet need, she added.
Researchers need to understand that there’s a price to pay when mining these new tools for valuable insights.
“A lot of people look at social media and say, ‘Great, here’s free research,’ ” Ishmael said. “But it is not free research. It requires time and resources.”
And while the ability to reach into a captive target audience (like the teens on the bus) suffers from small sample sizes, similar exercises can help researchers test hypotheses or provide direction for other research projects.
Speaking on the world’s largest social network, Ishmael said: “Facebook is good for connecting with people who already like you.” It’s also good for capturing insights into the language and words customers use when talking about specific products. And most importantly, it’s not a vehicle that she be approached half-heartedly.
“Monitoring of Facebook is a must,” she said.
Ishmael’s presentation, “Looking beyond classic market research, exploring new channels and social media opportunities with the proper focus,” was one of several during the HIRI conference to examine tools beyond classic market research. The seven presentations also included such titles as “Using Qualitative Research to Deepen and Expand Quantitative Insights” and “Engaging the Connected Consumer for Deeper Insight.”
Insights were the name of the game during the April 17 event here in Orlando.
For instance, Ken Habarta, VP consulting for The Futures Company, described qualitative research as “an exploration into real insight.” The qualitative category of research includes the “usual suspects” of focus groups, in-depth interviews and shop-alongs, but also includes new forms, such as the study of consumer scrapbooks or diaries and numerous online social networking tools.
Habarta pointed to four research techniques that he described as “the not-so-usual suspects.”
In the hands of consumers, these help researchers start the thought process and gather information on attitudes and opinions, he said.
A network of culturally connected individuals across the globe, streetscrapers are used as respondents and interviewers. “We ask them to provide their thoughts and opinions on specific topics — as well as task them to tap into their networks to collect information.”
• Social observatory
Described as a custom-built, private, online social-networking portal, it includes photo diaries, blogs, videos, forum discussions and live chats.
• Co-creation workshops.
Kind of like a focus group on steroids, these workshops are a “hands-on interactive process helping identify and synthesize key thought-starters.”
As further explanation, he said the purpose of research and data is to tell a story, and a great way to tell a story is to combine the people and behavior-focused quantitative side with the number-crunching qualitative side.
“Data alone is not an insight,” Habarta explained. “Data is a fact. It is not, however, an insight of its own. An insight rests on a deeper understanding of that information.”
And as communication evolves, so too must research, according to Laura Fitzpatrick, VP social media for research firm Ipsos.
“In the new normal, brands need to connect with people in the context of their lives and via the tools that people are using to communicate,” said Fitzpatrick.
The event also included a thorough presentation on the outlook for home improvement and a mixed message for future home improvement spending. According to James Gillula, managing director of consulting services for IHS Global Insight, one of the takeaways was an expectation of modest growth for consumer spending in 2013.
“There is a lot of hope that we’ll get to a point where we’ll have a little faster economic acceleration,” Gillula said. “And certainly the idea that there should be a lot of pent-up demand out there is relevant for home improvement products market.“
One of the key slides from Gillula’s “Outlook for the U.S. Economy and Home Improvement Spending” presentation looked at the nominal dollar and constant dollar market forecast. The forecast varied depending on whether the sales forecast was measured in nominal dollars or constant prices.
Nominally, the home improvement product market forecast called for growth to slow to 4.3% in 2013, compared with 5.4% growth in 2012. In constant prices, sales growth is expected to increase from 2.9% in 2012 to 3.4% in 2013. Both measures show accelerated growth in 2014, according to IHS Global.
The Home Improvement Research Institute is a membership-based, independent, not-for-profit organization of about 80 manufacturers, retailers, wholesalers and allied organizations in the home improvement industry.