MONDAY 20 DEC 2021 1:43 PM


Content strategist, Don Hoyt Gorman, reveals some insights from the research and strategy desk at independent design consultancy, The Frameworks.

Meaningful, impactful content, doesn’t come from quiet self-reflection or space to think. Yes, those things help, but really where you need to start is with listening.

We do this all the time on behalf of our clients. We ask questions, both broadly and precisely so we can get a real feel for the outline of their challenge. It’s time consuming, but getting this part of the job right sets us up to deliver better strategies and content and design than we could otherwise. So, we listen; professionally.

Here are a few things that we’ve learned over the years:

The client’s perception of their problem is not always right

Clients often come to us with a challenge to solve. “Great” you might think, and the brief goes like this: “This is the shape of our problem, we’ve identified we need a solution, we’d like to hire you to tackle it.” But, you must always ask how the client has framed the challenge. Realistically, it is a result of internal processes, dialogues and power play. It’s biased. It’s based on navel-gazing. Meaning our first job is to validate the problem.

On a project for a maritime engineering firm, I conducted interviews with internal stakeholders to get to the root of a brand-perception problem that senior executives wanted to change.

Two themes emerged. Many employees believed their company was a beloved stalwart of its industry: trusted and dependable. But others — almost a third of the employees I spoke with — had a different story. The company was arrogant, expensive, lacking in innovation and slow to deliver compared to its competitors. And, they assured me, customers were looking elsewhere to place their business.

That much the client knew, but there was more at play. Nearly all of the employees who had the negative brand story to tell were former employees of the company’s nearest competitor. We chose to dig deeper and re-interviewed team members to interrogate the negative perception. This exercise taught us that it had been cultivated as competitive propaganda. It should have been obvious to management, but it wasn’t. And just identifying that perception issue helped clarify our strategy (hint: internal comms).

Context first

All researchers and strategists face the same challenge: ‘How do we ask questions about a problem we don’t yet understand?’

Divide the research in two. First, we encourage asking open questions about the context of the problem at hand. Have we understood the problem correctly? Are there underlying issues, trends or forces that may be driving the situation? We ask questions, at first, to ensure we ask the right questions next. Then we define the problem and design the research approach that will give us the data, information and knowledge. Then, we share insights and recommendations on how to move forwards.

Listen for the opportunity to reframe the research

I learned a good trick from an old newshound mentor: at some point in an interview, just say nothing. Carry on writing notes. Let the interviewee step into the empty space. Silence is a good way to get people to tell you what the real story is without asking directly.

No matter how well we research and prepare for interviews, we are always imposing a set of parameters onto a subject’s experience. If we are diligent and lucky, perhaps we will understand their situation almost as well as they do. But most of the time, that’s not actually the case; what we need to do is let our subject tell us what the story is, from their perspective.

So, we give them that space. Let them tell us. And then, we listen and let our questions be guided by the real-world situation they are in.

Research is a brand experience

When we ask questions — of employees, subject matter experts, customers and others — we know that the experience of being asked is also an experience of the brand.

When designing surveys and interviews for employees and customers, the experience must represent the client. Creating a thoughtful, informed, positive experience for research subjects helps us get the information we need, while also conveying that our client cares about their thoughts and experiences. 

Market research shouldn’t be treated like market-facing brand activities — it needs to be able to operate free from those guidelines. But it behoves the team asking the questions to remember that the act of asking is in itself an extension of the brand’s personality.

People still liked to be listened to in B2B

In big B2B organisations, there is hesitation around directly asking what customers want and need. ‘Surely, if we know our business,’ these clients say, ‘we shouldn’t have to ask our customers what they want.’

But they’re still people. And if you don’t know how others experience you or the value you offer, can you really say you know your business?

So, ask questions, and listen to your customers. Speak to them. Engage with them. Be open to their circumstances, their fears, their ambitions and their demands. It will make your brand more human and build trust. Always be listening, if possible. But if that’s not possible, do your research. Or hire someone to do it for you.

It's not easy to come up with an idea that will improve the lives of your customers and the world they inhabit. Research projects offer us the opportunity to speak directly to the people a brand is for, to hear from them about their concerns, their world and their hopes for the future.

In amongst the stats and the quotes, there are insights that fall outside the primary scope of research, but nonetheless offer brands the opportunity to pin genuine ideas and insights onto the boardroom wall.

Listen, then act 

As a content strategist, I lead research that is designed to help our clients tell their stories clearly, creatively and effectively. Long gone are the days when the expected output of B2B market research was solely about leveraging data to optimise our clients’ business goals. About time too. Asking questions and listening to answers is now critical for brands that want to be part of the conversations about environmental, social and cultural issues. It’s an opportunity for brands to become self-aware, to consider themselves as corporate citizens and to hear and amplify the concerns and values of their customers.

And so, on behalf of all our clients, we question the questions, embrace the answers – even the surprising ones – and never, ever stop listening.