Trust me, I’m a researcher
Last week, the Media Research Group (MRG) held their excellent annual conference at the Royal College of Physicians in London under the theme “Body of evidence” (see what the organisers did there?)
It was my privilege to participate in the conference as part of a soapbox session where several speakers debated the topic “truthfulness and trust in research”.
After the conference, several people asked me for a copy of my talk, but since my notes aren’t very self-explanatory, I thought I’d expand on the theme here as a blog post.
My context was the many parallels that exist between the worlds of healthcare and media.
For starters, both industries handle massive amounts of data, often from diverse sources, and try to make sense out of it. Consider the following examples:
Single customer view
In media, this is the holy grail – being able to track an individual across multiple platforms and gather rich data to help understand them better.
This is also critical in healthcare where Electronic Health records (EHR) provide a ‘single customer view’ of their medical data, allowing for more personalised treatment and inbuilt trigger warnings.
Driving greater efficiency
In media, big data helps facilitate a range of activities from optimising campaigns through to improving internal process efficiencies.
In healthcare, studying historical patterns of hospital admissions can help organisations better plan staffing and resourcing efficiency.
In media, geo-location technology and beacons can be used to target people in real time and provide them with tailored messages.
In healthcare, real time alerting is becoming more widespread with wearables collecting individual biometric data and using it to provide notifications to patients and can also alert healthcare professionals if anything is wrong (e.g. abnormally high blood pressure) and requires intervention.
Identifying frequent users
In media, data helps identify frequent users and target them with specific offers, thereby hoping to strengthen their loyalty, or cross sell them with other products and services.
In healthcare, data may have a very different application - for instance helping to prevent the serious issues of opioid abuse by identifying people visiting multiple GPs and correlating this with other risk factors such as presenting with certain types of condition and living in certain postcodes.
Informing strategic planning
In media, big data helps segment different audiences and enable the targeting of strategies towards them.
In healthcare, big data can provide better insights into people’s motivations - care managers can analyze check-up results among different demographic groups and identify what factors discourage people from taking up treatment.
These and many other examples illustrate scenarios where both the media and healthcare industries are using big data to help solve similar issues.
And both industries also face similar challenges in terms of their management of data – capturing it, cleaning it, storing it, protecting it, querying it, reporting it, visualising it, updating it, sharing it…
But whilst these parallels are interesting, in my talk, I wanted to explore the parallels at a more human level - my hypothesis being that media researchers play a similar role in their organisations to doctors. On the surface, their roles do have much in common:
Relationship builders - Doctors must establish a rapport with their patients to put them at ease and build levels of trust. Researchers also must build strong relationships to earn the trust of their stakeholders, clients and research participants.
Attentive listeners - Doctors must be great listeners to hear not just what patients say, but what they really mean. Researchers too must listen to the subtext of briefs to appreciate the real issues and then to the responses of research participants to understand what is truly important to them.
Knowledgeable experts - Doctors must have a deep knowledge of their subject to be able to diagnose the patient’s problem and recommend the best treatment. Researchers play a similar role, recommending the best research approach and then monitoring results and adjusting the course of action where necessary
Agents of truth - Above all, doctors must always tell their patients the truth. Tell them what they need to know and not just what they want to hear. Researchers should do likewise, ensuring they maintain a sense of balanced and detached objectivity.
It is by doing this (and much more) that doctors earn the absolute trust of their patients. Indeed, a recent Ipsos study found that doctors are the UK's most trusted profession.
But to maintain that level of trust, doctors need to maintain their integrity at all times and it is noticeable that if a doctor ever loses the trust of the public, their fall from grace can be so much greater. It can even become front page news.
For those in the world of media research, truthfulness must also be central to what we do - people must trust that whatever we say will stand up to independent, objective challenge. If they start to question the validity of our research, we are in big trouble.
But it’s not always easy – there can be outside pressures that challenge our resolve.
Consider the ambitious sales person who asks us to ‘have another look’ at the data to find a more positive story.
Or the stakeholder who is so committed to their pet project that they’d rather a piece of research was sanitised rather than revealing some genuine customer concerns.
It is times like that when researchers need to stick to their principles and tell the truth, no matter what the implications.
This is often a tough challenge, but I concluded my talk by proposing the anatomy of a highly effective media researcher and suggesting that we all need to develop our skills in five main areas if we are to earn the enduring trust of our colleagues and clients:
2. Ears – we need to be considered listeners – open and empathetic . We must go beyond what people tell us to understand what they are really trying to say.
3. Gut – we need to cultivate a gut instinct. Data doesn’t have all the answers so we need a sense of intuition to look beyond the data and uncover the hidden truths that may lie there.
4. Spine – we must have the backbone to stand up for the truth at all times, no matter how hard that may be.
5. Legs - and if all else fails, with management consultancies investing strongly in the world of advertising and media at the moment, a strong pair of legs will help propel us to their doors ahead of the rest!
The reaction of the audience suggested that the theme contained more than a grain of truth for them, but just to be on the safe side, I opted to wear a Doctor’s coat as well.