Market Research in Converging Spaces

Posted February 26th, 2009 at 1:40 pm.

Robin Boyar '90

Shaving cream and cat food and laundry detergent have remained largely unchanged over the decades, giving the companies that manufacture such everyday household items a pretty fair handle on why consumers buy the brands that they do. But video games? Cell-phone applications? Online entertainment? In the digital sector, where change happens with stunning rapidity and scope, discerning what customers want is far trickier.

After 15 years of conducting research on behalf of educational publishers, online gaming companies, and the videogame giant Electronic Arts (EA), Robin Boyar ’90 came to realize that few market-research firms had the capabilities to fully understand digital consumers in what she calls “this new converging space.”

Holistic Perspective

Having seen a niche, Boyar founded thinktank, a research-and-strategy consulting firm, in late 2007. Since then, clients ranging from Nokia to SONY to a variety of digital startups have tapped her to gauge consumer interest in potential new products and services whose novelty requires a great deal of information to determine how to sell them.

“The challenge of doing research in the digital space is that a lot of the products and services that you’re testing are pretty new; sometimes they haven’t even been launched yet,” she says. “So while it’s easy to say, ‘Let’s have this new flavor of toothpaste’ or ‘Let’s see what color car people are going to like,’ it’s a little bit harder to talk to people about whether they would like to play a game on their mobile phone when they may have never done so before.”

Because of people’s wildly varying attitudes toward technology, thinktank approaches its work “in a much more holistic manner” than traditional market research firms, according to Boyar. She and the researchers with whom she contracts begin by assessing consumers’ general attitudes and behaviors; only then do they drill down into the specifics of the technology that they are being asked to research. Such contextual research helps software and hardware companies better realize how they can position their products and services through an emphasis on something other than nifty features.

Comprehensive Approach

Boyar cites the introduction of cell phones as an illustration of the necessity of a more comprehensive research program when it comes to consumer attitudes toward new technology. People initially doubted they’d want or need the now-ubiquitous devices; they told interviewers that with answering machines at home, they could retrieve messages whenever they wanted and were quite happy with things just the way they were. It was only after digging deeper that researchers realized that the faster pace of modern society was keeping people away from home far more than ever before. Having a device that would allow them to conduct business or catch up with friends whether or not they were home turned out to be tremendously appealing.

“Often, if you’re able to put the new technology into the context of people’s day-to-day lives, you’ll be able to better understand how that technology would actually work for them,” Boyar says. “It’s an old-school example, but it provides some context.”

Thanks to Boyar’s prior experience with EA, thinktank has a thriving video-game-research portfolio. A developer will contact her with a new concept for a game and ask her to determine, before it invests tens of millions of dollars in building the game, whether consumers are likely to play it. Boyar then crafts a research plan, usually heavy on surveys and focus groups, and begins testing the potential game’s concept.

“Once the game gets to a point where it could actually be played, this is where the fun part comes in,” she says. “We have consumers come in, play the game, and offer feedback about what things they like and what things they don’t like.”

Armed with that kind of information, the developer can then adjust its marketing and advertising strategies to best position its new game in the marketplace.

Digging Deep

The diversity of thinktank’s client list—including gaming, music, entertainment, education, and mobile companies—requires Boyar to retain the services of interviewers, statisticians, writers, and editors whose expertise lies in those various fields. And the swiftly changing pace of technology trends affects not only thinktank’s clients but also the company itself. Boyar estimates she spends a couple of hours a day poring over newspapers and trade publications, and she also takes the time to network from her Bay Area home with those at the forefront of technological advancement. This immersion has convinced her that technology has much more to offer humankind than cool phones and addictive games.

“Look at some of the really great stuff that’s being done in energy development to help reverse the effects of climate change, or some of the things they’re doing in the Third World to provide clean water or more resources for people,” she says. “It’s important to realize that technology, if used properly, can actually improve our society and make the world a better place.”

Don’t be surprised if Boyar is the one digging deep to find out how.

Tom Durso writes about science, health care, and business for a variety of publications, including the Philadelphia Business Journal and Family Business magazine.

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