The Power of Context: Thinking Outside the Survey

thinking outside the survey

“He blew it.” Did he make a mistake that led to failure? Or are we learning how he created a beautiful glass vase?

Context is everything.

Consider, for example, the black dot below. What is it?


Is it the moon in eclipse? Or is it a tiny black hole—a gravitational field so intense that nothing can escape its pull? Or is it the black dot from Treasure Island that so terrified the pirate Billy Bones he had a stroke and died? Or is it simply the dot at the bottom of a question mark, found at the end of this sentence?

A wonderful example of the importance of contextualization comes from British philosopher Gilbert Ryle. In a 1968 lecture, Ryle stated, “Two boys fairly swiftly contract the eyelids of their right eyes. In the first boy this is only an involuntary twitch; but the other is winking conspiratorially to an accomplice. At the lowest or the thinnest level of description the two contractions of the eyelids may be exactly alike. From a cinematograph-film of the two faces there might be no telling which contraction, if either, was a wink, or which, if either, was a mere twitch. Yet there remains the immense but unphotographable difference between a twitch and a wink.” Ryle called this a “thick” description, one that has multiple layers of information.

A true insight cannot be born in isolation. A single result can give you an answer to a question. “The ad passed our benchmark” is an answer, but it is not an insight. The Cambridge Dictionary has a useful definition of insight: “a clear, deep, and sometimes sudden understanding of a complicated problem or situation.”

A depth of understanding comes from having multiple pieces of information. The insight comes from how you connect those pieces.

Ada Lovelace wrote the first computer science paper in 1843, and collaborated with Charles Babbage to invent the first computer. She believed insights came from the power of making connections. She wrote that imagination “brings together things, facts, ideas, conceptions, in new, original, endless, ever varying, combinations. It seizes points in common, between subjects having no very apparent connexion, & hence seldom or never brought into juxtaposition.”

Steve Jobs made a similar point about the power of connections. “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

If context is so obviously important, why are so many studies commissioned and executed in complete isolation? Most research reports include no information other than what comes out of the survey. And most requests for research come with only the scantest of background information and almost no sense of how the research problem fits into a brand’s or organization’s bigger picture. By doing this, we handicap ourselves. We risk misunderstanding what we think is the answer, and fail to deliver the best insights possible.

“One of the weirdest things that market researchers do is present a report or debrief that is based solely on the piece of research they have just conducted,” says Ray Poynter, Founder and Chair of the #NewMR. “What amazing hubris to assume that your research project on its own is going to answer any meaningful question.” Hubris is an exceptionally apt word for Poynter to use because it highlights the danger of lacking context.

Hubris is a word that comes to English from Ancient Greece. It describes how overweening pride or self-confidence leads to downfall and death. Think Achilles, Oedipus, and Icarus flying too close to the sun. Hubris is a toxic combination of ignorance and overestimation.

When we focus on the results of a single study, without context, we are, at best, missing an opportunity for greater insights. At worst, we can ignorantly provide “insights” that are misleading. It happens all the time.

The study is the solution

The tendency to treat the results of a single study as a satisfactory answer to a research problem has multiple roots. They include a history where primary research was often the only data source, a need for speed, silos within organizations, and a heritage of having worked on the supplier side—where money is made by doing one-off surveys or focus groups.

In the past, if you wanted to know what people watched or listened to, you had to ask them. If you wanted to discover what groceries they bought, you had to ask them. And if you wanted to identify where people shopped, you had to ask them. But now, we are inundated with behavioral data. There are many sources that are quite accurate at measuring what people do, buy and consume. Yes, they have their limitations and their blind spots, but so do people who answer surveys. Still, old habits die hard.

People raised in the world of market research tend to default to doing surveys—because it’s relatively fast and easy. Eleonora Jonusiene, Director of International Consumer Insights & Research at Warner Bros Home Entertainment, says she has often seen researchers “rush to the field with a new study, instead of analyzing what we already know based on the previous primary research or syndicated research, because we do not have time to go through the historical information.”

Ihno Froehling, who currently handles Global Respiratory Marketing Insights & Strategy at GSK in Switzerland, agrees. “We have a lot of data in different places,” he says. “It’s not yet a reality that you can bring the information together easily. It’s typically very time- consuming for us to do that. It’s often easier and faster to call up the supplier and start a new research study than to try to make sense of the myriad of existing data and insights that you have. It’s a sad fact.” This need for speed often goes hand in hand with the reactive order-giving mentality that we looked at in the previous chapter.

The order-giving approach to insights sees research as a means to an end. It answers the question “Did you test this ad?”: “Yes, and it passed the benchmark.” It does not embody a more holistic approach where you first comprehend what drives purchasing, then craft a message that resonates, and then convert that understanding into a campaign that drives those messages home. It is a reductionist tactic that encourages thinking about research as a one-off exercise, rather than a cumulative journey of understanding.

This short-sighted approach is endemic to the traditional buyer-supplier relationship. If studies are commissioned on a one-off basis, the contextual information suppliers have is very limited. They might get a brief that has a high-level description of the market, but it is very rare to be given a meaningful understanding of the offer, or the marketplace. That only occurs when there are deep, ongoing relationships: where the supplier becomes part of the team. A procurement-driven, project-by-project approach results in suppliers being forced to act in relative isolation. Unfortunately, that is not uncommon.

Jonusiene points out that the “majority of marketing researchers have joined business organizations from the research agencies,” where they were order takers—who typically work on a study-by-study basis. This single study orientation biases them to “continue to behave as agents or order takers”—people who default to seeing a single study as the solution. Thus, the problem perpetuates itself.

“You know the saying: ‘If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail?’” says Lucid’s Patrick Comer. “Researchers are like that. They answer everything with a survey. The reality is there may be simple social data, or you can just log onto Google analytics and glean information that is free and already there. You can then start driving the next level of insights out of that.”

But this isn’t just a problem with surveys. It is the same with any single dataset—including big data. “I think we’ve all gotten a little bit mesmerized,” says Howard Shimmel, former CRO of Turner. “Big data and first-party data is great, but it does provide a limited view of the world. I think we’ve got to do a better job of integrating survey data, panel data, first-party data, and being clear about how it all comes together to provide a solution.”

U.S. Bank’s Vidya Subramani told me a story about a behavioral analysis that underscores this point: “The company did some data analysis to understand why a certain group of customers were not using their credit card. They said, ‘Okay, let’s do some behavioral analysis.’ And they looked at the data and found that those who were not using their credit cards had lower credit limits than those who were using their credit cards. So, ‘Aha! The problem is credit limits. Let’s increase the credit limits, and then they’ll start using the card.’”

She suggested that the marketers talk to customers and figure out what kind of credit limit they needed. “When we spoke to those customers, the majority said, ‘I didn’t even know I had this credit card. I didn’t sign up for this credit card.’” It turned out these customers had automatically been given the card when they signed up for a checking account. “They hadn’t asked for the product. There wasn’t a need for the product. Giving them a greater credit line would not make them start using the card.”

It was, she recounts, “one of those ‘Aha’ moments when they realized that they do need market research. The two approaches go hand in hand.”

The biggest context is culture

To really put an insight into context, one also needs to consider the culture setting. My colleague Tommy Stinson makes the cases for the power of understanding cultural context in his piece Cultural Framing: Why Context is Crucial. And he reveals specific examples in Culture in Action and What We Can Learn from WeWork, and “Dilly Dilly”: Culture in Action and What We Can Learn from Bud Light. Erica Ruyle furthers this with a focus on archetypes in her piece Gillette –Shifting Archetypal Narrative. Taken together, these pieces make a powerful argument for the value of considering cultural context.

Context is crucial

There is no question that context is crucial. No piece of information should stand alone. Information becomes infinitely richer, and therefore more actionable, when we have context.

Let’s end this article like we started it, with our enigmatic dot.


On its own, we don’t really know what it is. The lack of context renders it easy to project multiple meanings onto it, perhaps wildly mistaken ones. That can happen with a single piece of research in isolation.

There is power in connecting the dots.

the insights revolution