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Once upon a time, market researchers fell in love with data. Emboldened by the tidal wave of data created by the digital revolution, marketer researchers believed they could best understand customers by reducing them to data points.

But the promise of getting great insight from raw data turned out to be a fairy tale. The sheer quantity of data proved hopelessly unmanageable: by 2015, the world produced an amount of data every two days equal to all the data produced in human history up to 2003. Today, according to estimates from IDC, just half of one percent of data collected gets analyzed. There was plenty of noise but not enough music.

The solution? Bring the human element back into market research. Talk to customers directly, nurturing authentic relationships and active customer communities. Getting close to the customer has served us well—illustrated by the fact that the role of market research analysts is projected to grow by more than 30 percent by 2022—but it’s time to take the relationship a step further. It’s time to fall in love with your customers.

Historically, market researchers have treated customers like lab rats, conducting impersonal, clinical studies to gauge what they want. Marketers have taken those results and tried to give them just what they want—to “surprise and delight “them, as they say in the business.

But customers today crave something more.

Everyone loves to be surprised and delighted from time to time, but reflect for a moment on your deepest, most honest relationships: with your spouse, your siblings, your best friend.

It’s not all surprise and delight, is it? You go through financial difficulties. Tragedy strikes. You see each other stumble and learn about one another’s vulnerabilities. Life gets in the way. The upshot is that, to quote Hemingway, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are stronger at the broken places.” Our dearest relationships are sturdier and richer for having waded through the muck together.

Think about the different modes of relationships as two axes, from serious at the top to light at the bottom, and from happy on the left to sad on the right. In the top left quadrant you’ve got happy but serious (like a wedding, for instance). In the bottom left you’ve got happy and lighthearted (say, goofing off with your kids). In the bottom right you have sad and lighthearted (minor everyday irritations, like getting cutoff in traffic). And in the top right you’ve got serious and sad (the heavy stuff, like death, etc.).

In the fierce battle for customers’ attention, marketers have utterly bombarded us with messages we know instinctively are basically meaningless. Every other email in our inboxes is a special offer telling us how we’re so important, our names slotted into form letters about how we’re so unique. Ad campaigns purport to celebrate individuality while blaring at us all at once. The cacophony has become undifferentiated noise.

The antidote is the opposite of “surprise and delight.” It’s authenticity.

Sometimes your deepest, richest relationships are lighthearted and happy but sometimes they’re happy and serious. Sometimes they’re even lighthearted and a little sad. And sometimes—a lot of the time, in fact—they’re both sad and serious; when things get heavy you turn to the people closest to you. Human relationships happen across all four quadrants. At a time when everyone has a perfected facade on social media, when savvy media consumers are bored by anything too plastic or too polished, it’s time for brands to embrace authenticity across all four quadrants in their relationships with customers.

Marketers and market researchers need to embrace all aspects of relationships, even the heavy parts. Learn how to surprise and delight, but also learn about how to delight your customers in richer, more wholesome ways. Learn about the small irritations. And connect with your customers around the heavy stuff. Have conversations that get into the sad and serious quadrant and invite vulnerability. By broadening your relationships with your customers to include all aspects of relationships, you’ll build trust, ensuring you get higher quality insight. You’ll also be surprised at what you learn, getting insight you didn’t anticipate.

"Marketers and market researchers need to embrace all aspects of relationships, even the heavy parts."

Connecting with customers this way requires transparency, openness and vulnerability. It’s uncharted territory and can be a little scary. But it will open up a universe of insight closed to you before by getting beyond the obvious. If all you’re doing is asking for feedback on concepts and vetting ideas, your relationship with your customer is one-dimensional and you’re missing the fuller picture. You need to find new, meaningful reasons to connect, to relate to them across all four quadrants of relationships. Engage in a real conversation. Ask them nontraditional questions: how are they affected by current events? Why are they participating in a relationship with you at all? Ask them what questions you’re not asking. And ask yourself what you’re revealing about yourself. How are you showing your customers their opinions matter?

Sensing a shift in public sentiments around Black Friday, the outdoor gear retailer REI announced in 2015 that it would be closing stores the day after Thanksgiving instead of taking part in a shopping day customers increasingly associate with ugly materialism. By understanding its customers feelings around Black Friday—especially the bad ones—and honoring them REI saw a 6,557 percent increase in social conversations over last year.

This kind of deeper, more authentic engagement builds relationships but that’s not all. It builds trust, leading to better conversations, higher quality, actionable insight, and ultimately results. The apparel company Patagonia showed a keen understanding of its environmentally-conscious customer base with its counterintuitive “Buy Less” marketing campaign. By encouraging customers to repair apparel instead of buying new, the brand showed an appreciation for its customers’ environmental concerns—and increased sales by a third. Patagonia proved that a smaller slice of the pie can still be a bigger piece if you grow the whole pie. Customers want to spend money on brands they can feel good about—on brands they feel a connection with—even if that means questioning whether or not they really need that new pair of hiking boots. The Buy Less campaign illustrates that being real, even about an issue as fraught as environmental degradation, can yield substantial rewards.

Re-imagining research: 10 golden tips for the modern researcher

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