Thinking / Research: The Creative GPS

Research: The Creative GPS

If you want to get to a destination, you can get in your car and drive aimlessly. Or, you can use your GPS to prepare a route and get there directly.

If your organization or brand wants to reach a target audience, and connect and engage with relevance, you too can just start generating creative ideas aimlessly. Or, you can use a creative GPS to guide the way. You can use research.

Contrary to some thinking, research doesn’t hinder the creative process; it sets it free. Out-of-the-box thinking only happens when the box is defined. Research creates the box by illuminating and informing creative options based upon the realities of the marketplace and the consumers who occupy it.

In this blog post we’ll look at research applied to four objectives related to advertising or creative product. These are, in order of campaign development:

Objectives should be viewed as a cyclical process, since research output from the fourth objective will feed back into the first objective for subsequent campaign development.

Without doubt, the most important stage at which research can contribute to the creative process is in planning. It doesn’t matter how brilliant your creative is, if it conveys the wrong message to the wrong people, you’re toast.

In order to plan effectively, you’ll need a clear picture of the market and those with whom you’re engaging. You’ll need to understand how they make choices or decisions (i.e., purchase journeys). At Marcus Thomas, our planning and research team employs a host of primary and secondary methodologies to gather this information and draw actionable conclusions. The research methodology depends on the market and an organization’s specific situation, available research, existing resources, etc. Both qualitative and quantitative methodologies may be employed to get a clear picture of the target audience, the way they behave and why, plus how they currently perceive a brand or organization. From there, we produce a platform as the seed from which creative or specific messaging grows. Two essential ingredients are:

  • Who is the advertising/messaging aimed at (i.e., a detailed, concise target audience description)?
  • How is it intended to affect them (i.e., what do we want them to think and/or do)?

Research is also important when you’re developing implementation approaches or gathering feedback on particular ideas, including competitive executions. Putting advertising and particularly creative people in touch with their consumers is a critical function of creative research. But, for this feedback process to be effective, several important conditions must be met:

  • The research should be conducted early in the creative development process, while ideas are still “malleable” and there’s still time and budget for remaining development activities.
  • An understanding that the research at this stage is for learning, not testing. The goal at this point is to study consumers to gain an understanding of how they are likely to react to various stimuli at an early creative development stage. Now’s the time to identify strengths and weaknesses of various ideas and learn how to evolve or improve them.
  • The research must be relevant and accessible to creative people. Creatives must be involved early and often throughout development research for maximum success.

Qualitative research in the form of in-depth interviews or discussions best meets these early stage needs, and Webcams or video methodologies can also be employed. Interviews provide deep understanding when done correctly, stimulating rather than enervating creative people. Objectives, regardless of methodological approach, focus on understanding the main idea/message takeaway, relevance “to me,” engagement, believability and distinctiveness – with exploratory questioning used to understand responses.

As creative development continues, you may feel the need to go to larger audiences to provide statistically reliable and less subjective feedback (i.e., evaluation research). When most organizations or brands think of creative research, evaluation or pretesting is what they’re thinking about. This is what ticks off creative – because clients think they can “test” their way into the “perfect” ad.

Still, there is some value in evaluative testing, and conducting this kind of research takes both skills and tools to implement. One methodology popularized in James Surowiecki’s "The Wisdom of Crowds" and gaining traction for assessing and prioritizing ideas or concepts is predictive markets. This approach has been used to evaluate concepts, claims, positionings and more – helping organizations or brands identify the winners from the losers.

While it’s true that evaluation research aims to test whether an idea or ad should be produced, it’s not perfect. This research typically includes measures of preference, interest or purchase intent interpreted as effectiveness, but it’s not the whole picture:

  • In the real world, ads/messages don’t have all, or even most of their effect after a single showing. Effects accumulate over time. Any single point-in-time test inevitably favors short-term effects rather than long-term buildup.
  • Any test situation is likely to focus attention on the stimuli in a way that’s atypical of normal viewing or reading. The whole process of questioning suggests and implants perspectives that are foreign to the audience’s normal way of viewing things – especially in today’s multi-tasking environment in which multiple devices distract consumer attention. In addition, much of the effort of advertising comes at low levels of consciousness from repeated brief and inattentive exposures. This is opposite of the way in which test judgments are made.

Demand for evaluative testing still exists despite its limitations, which can result in undesirable side effects. Among the consequences is that it is feared the clients who use evaluative testing will limit the use of creative development research (presumably because they can just kill a “bad” idea later). After all, what’s the point of working through a sophisticated development program if the end result will be subjected to an oversimplified evaluation process?

Rather than hungering for last-minute reassurance, those responsible for creative development should regard the development of a campaign as an evolutionary process, getting involved in all research stages from earliest planning onward.

Finally, once the campaign is running, monitor its progress in-market. Use primary research to measure brand progress. Use quantitative surveys frequently and continuously (i.e., quarterly or semiannually depending on investments). Frequent checks allow you to build continuous trend lines, so you can observe changes in brand awareness, affinity, attitudes and other criteria over time.

Just as importantly, other applicable metrics should be components in evaluating overall effectiveness (e.g., platform metrics such as reach and impressions, behavioral tracking metrics). At the risk of sounding self-serving, Marcus Thomas employs a six-person team of professionals focused on program and campaign performance optimization, which supports the importance of this step for a brand’s continued campaign evolution.

Whether you’re buying my Creative GPS metaphor or not, creative content research can be very valuable — but only if it’s begun early in the creative process.

There should be willingness and encouragement to develop and modify ideas, with time and money being made available for this process.

There should be a shared understanding that creative judgment develops over a period of time, fed by planning and development research insights that heighten understanding instead of providing thumbs up or down on ideas. Good creative research stimulates and helps focus the creative process. It doesn’t encumber or restrain.