Right vs. Left: Two Approaches To Understanding

This past week, I was fortunate to be able to interview Penn State professor Jim Jansen about some of the work he’s been doing. I had hoped to get the interview transcript back in time for this column, but unfortunately the timing didn’t work with the deadlines (that will be the next column). My conversation with Jim did bring something to light, however, that I would like to cover in this week’s Just Behave.

Quant & Qual: the yin and yang of research

Jim works in the quantitative world. For his most recent work, he’s been digging into a massive dataset that includes the click stream of millions of visitors to one large commercial site. Slicing and dicing data is Jim’s thing. He’s one of the best in the world at taking these massive sets of digital footprints and boiling it down to discover the interesting common threads.

I, on the other hand, am much more comfortable in the qualitative world. I like knowing what makes humans tick. The research I love to conduct depends more on a handful of people than huge mounds of data. Observed behavior and signals of neural activity continually fascinate me.

Jim and I have had a correspondence going back several years now, punctuated by one single face-to-face visit. And although we approach questions from different perspectives, we both enjoy the times we get to bounce our respective view of search behavior off each other. Jim provides me with a meticulously crafted view of “what” happens and I attempt to provide some educated guesses as to “why” that might be. I have had similar conversations with the data analysts at comScore, Compete and Google.

Is “maybe” an answer?

A month or so ago, I was talking to a reporter who was looking at the evolution of market research and we got onto the question of the qualitative/quantitative balance. She asked me why there weren’t more psychologists doing market research? My belief was that psychologists don’t provide clear-cut answers. Everything is a qualified “maybe.” And in this age of digital accountability, a “maybe” just doesn’t cut it if millions or billions are at stake.

However, I do think the balance between qualitative and quantitative is unfairly skewed towards logic and hard data. The reason I enjoy my conversations with Dr. Jansen so much is that we have a very healthy respect for each other’s approach. We know that both approaches have their place and need to work together. To understand “how”, you need to know both “what” and “why.”

We’re short on the “why”

Today, there are no shortage of places marketers can turn for answers to “what.” There are site analytics and panel based tools such as comScore, Hitwise and Compete, as well as Google’s own tools. In short order, a marketer can become buried in a mound of data, endlessly analyzing the “what.”  But even with all the information available, this view can be of limited value if you have never think about “why.”

So, where do marketers turn for “why?” For example, at Enquiro, we recently wrapped up an extensive research project looking at organizational buying behavior. We wanted to know “why” businesses buy from certain vendors and not others in the new digital marketplace. We started by looking for existing research into this and came up dry. If you’re looking for why, there are not a lot of resources available to you. When we started looking, our most promising trails led back to our own research—gratifying for our egos but not very satisfying for our curiosity.

Search is a connection

One of the things about search activity that quickly became apparent to me is that you can’t analyze it in isolation. Search is a connection between a person’s intent and the most relevant information. Looking at search activity has less value if you don’t know the intent that lead to that activity. You look at faceless, intentless aggregated data and try to determine patterns. It hearkens back to B.F. Skinner’s “black box” approach to psychology. Jansen has demonstrated that this approach can yield interesting findings, but they become all the more interesting when you combine that with pure qualitative exploration of people’s motives and objectives. That gives you the framework that helps make sense of the quantitative data. Yes, accepting qualitative research requires a leap of faith, but the best qualitative researchers thrive on gut instinct. It’s that quality that makes them such a rare breed.

The time is “right”

The book I’m reading right now is Daniel Pink’s “A Whole New Mind“. In it, he compares left and right brain thinking, a convenient metaphor for quantitative, rational thinking and qualitative, creative thinking. Left brain thinking focuses on details, facts and figures. Right brain thinking synthesizes all this into a bigger picture, using intuition to fill in the inevitable gaps. Pink maintains that our left dominated world will veer more to the right in the future.  The time for right brain thinking has arrived.

I hope the same is true for market research. I think we need more of the conversations I’ve so enjoyed with Dr. Jansen, a convergence between right and left approaches to understanding search marketing. We need both for a complete picture of human behavior.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Content | Search & Usability


About The Author: is CEO of Enquiro, a search marketing firm that produces search engine user eye tracking studies and other research.

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