A couple of weeks ago week I was dramatically reminded of how stimulus material can dictate whether a creative idea lives or dies in research. It’s really scary to see how the difference between success and failure can be a small detail in the stimulus – a detail the importance of which most would not recognise. It reminded me how vital it is to be obsessed with getting the stimulus right.
I work very hard with clients and agencies to create the right stim and I try to talk to creative teams about their work before I suggest the best approach. The only rule with stim for creative development research is that you use whatever it takes to enable respondents to comprehend the idea as it is intended. Most of the time, at least with TV ideas, I find less is more. I rarely work with key frames or storyboards, since I find that the visuals usually distract from the creative idea and provide innumerable trip points that throw respondents a curved ball. Experience has convinced me that people are usually better able to envisage what an ad might look like from a vividly written description than from a bunch of Magic Marker images. In a culture as steeped in advertising as ours, I believe that respondents’ imagination provides a truer representation of most advertising ideas than does visual stimulus. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it is probable that a creative idea will be more accurately conveyed by a few well-chosen ones.
There are some TV ideas that you can’t convey without visual references, or some other form of tangible stim. But for most scripts I research nowadays, I just read out a carefully written narrative description. Yes, that’s right, I read it out, rather than play a recorded narrative. I find that playing a recording distances respondents from the narrative and blurs the distinction between story telling and performance. There are, again, exceptions, such as when the script relies upon the style of delivery or performance of a specific actor or comedian. But, it’s usually not difficult for the researcher to do a better job than a voice artist, while they can also make liberal use of gesture and expression to help convey the idea to respondents who are more attentive when the speaker is in the room with them. If you worry about consistency of delivery from group to group, with the moderator delivering the script, don’t. Remember it’s the idea we’re researching, not the execution, and this will remain even with a bit a variance in delivery.
Anyway, this is a preamble to the main point of this post. We had a ‘situation’: the scripts had performed poorly in the first two evenings of fieldwork. A clear direction for creative development had emerged, but we had no creative ideas that were working. To its credit, the agency stepped up to the plate and wrote an entirely new script overnight before the last evening’s groups. We had 4 groups taking place in 2 different locations and we were down to the wire. Receiving the new script a couple of hours before my groups were due to start, I carefully reviewed the narrative to ensure that it would faithfully deliver the idea. My aim was to ensure the narrative was as clear and as focused on the idea as possible. I do this with all narratives I research, and there are a number of specific things I look out for:
• Advertising/film direction/marketing jargon: this needs to be removed to avoid confusion, eg: ‘wipe’ and other camera directions, or ‘deliver’, which marketing folk tend to use in a sense that does not correspond with ordinary people’s understanding as ‘hand over at its destination’.
• Ambiguous phrases or references: these need to be removed or clarified since, if their meaning is not immediately apparent, they trip up people’s processing of the idea and lead to them missing the next part of the narrative as they try to work out their meaning.
• Pieces of narrative that tell you what to think, eg: “we realise that all we have been seeing is a result of the amazing taste of the drink”: these elements need to be removed because this understanding should come from what is being described and should not need to be stated explicitly.
• Any revelations that appear prior to when they would be encountered in the finished commercial: these need to be moved to the point at which they would actually be revealed.
There is no reason why creatives or anyone else on the agency or client team should be alert to these issues – which often arise from the script having been deliberately over-written to explain and even ‘sell’ the idea – and I find they are invariably quite comfortable with me making the necessary script amendments once I have explained the rationale.
All of these details needed addressing in the narrative I had been sent and, with an hour left before the start of the groups, I received approval of my rewritten final narrative script. I then emailed this through to my colleague who was running the other two groups in Leeds.
When I took my groups through the new script, it worked really well. It solved the problems we had found with the initial scripts, communicated even more than had been hoped, and was expected by respondents to be impactful, involving and rewarding. It was a great result and a huge relief.
But not in Leeds. While respondents there recognised the intended communication, it came across less much powerfully and the script lacked empathy and engagement. The difference in response was marked and left us in a quandary: who should we listen to: Leeds or London?
So then the process of analysis began. What exactly had driven these divergent responses? What elements had been the same, what had been different? Was it – God forbid – nothing but a product of the same narrative script being read by two different moderators?
After much discussion, we located the focus of the difference. The narrative was built around the journey a family was making for a day out at the seaside, the problem the family encountered on the way and how it was solved. The main difference in response was driven by the extent to which people could personally relate to the journey the family was making. The Leeds respondents had little interest in going for a family day out to the seaside, so they didn’t care about the resolution of the problem that was preventing the family getting there. This had a knock on effect on engagement and the strength of the brand communication – the brand being the problem solver. However, in London, they cared about the family getting completing their journey and so were gratified that the brand had enabled them to do so.
What should we make of this? Do Londoners have a greater liking for a day out at the seaside than the good citizens of Leeds? Did they relate better because they can get to the seaside quicker? None of this really made any sense.
And then we cracked it! In the narrative script I had received from the agency, the fact that the family had set out to have a day by the seaside had been described in the opening paragraph. I had changed this, because the viewer of the finished commercial would not find out where the family was going until the final reveal, when they arrived on the beach in the commercial’s closing moments. So, I had altered the narrative script to keep this revelation until the end. However, my fellow researcher in Leeds had not been able to pick up the revised narrative I had emailed her, and had therefore used the agency’s original narrative script, unchanged. So, in Leeds they knew from the outset the family was headed to the seaside for a day out. This sounded rather dull to them, so they began to disengage from the start. There was no intrigue, no build in tension, no resolution at the end; and, hence, less engagement, involvement, empathy and reward. In London, holding back the resolution to the point where it would be revealed in the finished film transformed response – they did not know where the family was headed and therefore hung on every moment. This meant that, when the family arrived on the beach, the story wasn’t seen as being about going for a day out at the seaside but about the brand enabling them to enjoy the experience they had set out for. Respondents in London experienced the commercial as it was intended; those in Leeds did not.
So, we were able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat – and next week they’re shooting the commercial.
The line between success and failure is incredibly narrow and the finest technique and analysis in the world wouldn’t have saved this idea if we had only researched the new narrative script as originally written. So, when researching TV ideas, never forget to think carefully about how the finished article would work on screen and how to ensure the stimulus represents this absolutely as faithfully as possible.