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Asking for Trouble with Jon Cohen

Qualitative researcher Jon Cohen joins us to explain why we can’t trust what people say – and how their answers can lead us astray. Jon shares invaluable lessons learned from his career in consumer insights and discusses key ideas and frameworks in his book, Asking for Trouble. Jon demonstrates how researchers can ask better questions and listen harder to get closer to consumer truths – leveraging insights to develop more imaginative creative ideas and compelling communications.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: Coming up in this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS:

Jon Cohen: When you ask people what they think of your ideas, they focus on your idea. It creates what I call an “illusion of interest.” It’s an inevitable consequence of asking people what they think.

Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising, produced weekly by Bigeye. Hello. I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, VP of insights at Bigeye. A full-service, audience-focused creative agency, we’re based in Orlando, Florida, serving clients across the United States and beyond. Thank you for joining us. Since the mid-1970s, qualitative research, or just “qual”, has been used to pre-test advertising concepts. An approach to research that uses a variety of methods to discover the “why” underlying meanings and patterns, qual data can be collected from people during one-on-one or paired interviews known as “depths”, or with several participants at a time, known as “focus groups.” The qual researcher, also known as a moderator, encourages participants to discuss their opinions about ideas, yielding insights that can inform and inspire creative teams, developing ad campaigns, brand strategy, or other marketing communications. Really skilled moderators go beyond surface-level responses, probing to reveal participants’ deepest, most instinctive, and emotional responses. One such researcher and thought leader on the value of qualitative insights in helping to develop ideas that challenge the status quo is our guest today, Jon Cohen. The founding partner of Kindling, an award-winning insight consultancy based in the UK, Jon leads a talented research team, delivering guidance to clients as diverse as Cancer Research UK, the Department of Education, the telecommunications company, Three, and many more. Jon is also the author of the book, Asking For Trouble: Understanding What People Think When You Can’t Trust What They Say. To discuss ideas from his book, and how consumer insights can be used to develop more creative concepts and compelling marketing communications, Jon is joining us today from his home office in London, England. Jon, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS!

Jon Cohen: Thank you so much, Adrian. It’s really lovely to be here.

Adrian Tennant: Jon, you started your career in advertising. Can you tell us about your journey from adland to consumer research?

Jon Cohen: Of course. Well, I wish it was a kind of well-constructed journey, but it wasn’t. Like so many things, it kind of happened. And it’s really a personal story in that I started off at Leo Burnett as a graduate trainee, as a strategic planner, and then went to work for a very cool agency called Hal Henry. It was a very creative environment in which to be, and after three years, the truth is that my father wasn’t well, I took some time out to spend with him. And then after that, friends who were still planners in ad agencies started asking me to do [focus] groups. It was really as simple as that. Certainly, at the time, there were lots of researchers, but not necessarily lots of researchers who really understood communications, who are able to understand that a creative idea is the sum of its parts and pulling it apart and deconstructing it – and then putting it back together – doesn’t necessarily end up in the best place. So they started asking whether I could help them do research groups because I understood the communications and it grew from there. So then more people asked me and then I had to take on some people because more people asked me, and it grew into a business, which I was lucky enough to sell in 2007. So, yes, it was not quite a mistake, but it certainly wasn’t a grand plan.

Adrian Tennant: Your book is entitled Asking For Trouble: Understanding What People Think When You Can’t Trust What They Say. What prompted you to write the book?

Jon Cohen: So a couple of things. I think first and foremost is that I did have a particular perspective on the way in which people thought about research and the role it could play in the creative development of ideas. And I had been saying that all sort of talking about that perspective – or philosophy, to be grand – over a number of years. And I thought it was time to write it down and crystallize my own thoughts in a way that I hope will help other people. The other reason was once again, a really personal one – I’m lucky enough to grow a business. I’ve worked with lots of interesting people, but I was always very conscious, having come from an advertising background, that research tends to be, like it or not, you are by default critiquing other people’s work. Now my role in the process, I always strongly believed, and my company’s role was to help develop ideas. And it could be from the kind of the nascent idea itself, the strategy, and so on. So I always felt that we were contributing, but nonetheless, they weren’t our ideas. And I thought it was time to have my own ideas to kind of commit myself to the creative process. And I can’t draw, so a book it was!

Adrian Tennant: So, Jon, why are we asking for trouble when we interview people as part of our research?

Jon Cohen: So asking people what they think is the most natural thing in the world, whether you’re talking about your new haircut or your brilliant creative idea. It’s I think normal and I believe important to ask people what they think. Well, you can’t create something of value if you don’t ask the intended audience for their opinion. And yet we all know from our personal lives and our professional lives that the asking doesn’t always help. That actually, people’s opinions are just as likely to lead us astray, to set us on our path, to confuse us, to have conflicting responses, as it is to be helpful. There are a lot of reasons to that, which I try and outline in the book and provide solutions. But in essence, we’re asking for trouble because we believe when we ask people what they think that firstly, their answer is a true reflection of what they really think. Which is questionable, to say the least. And secondly, that somehow their answer will be a good reflection of how they would feel about our ideas in the real world. And it’s not. 

Adrian Tennant: Asking for Trouble is really three books in one. The first section is entitled The Wonder Wheel, in which you present a framework for interpreting responses from research participants. Jon, how did you develop the framework?

Jon Cohen: So I’m sure you have the same, Adrian. It’s that over the years – when you’ve been doing whatever you do for a while, whether it’s planning or creation, you do end up being asked the same questions or going through a familiar process. Just as you would with a creative brief. So if you were, as a planner or, creating ideas or developing a business, if you’ve done it multiple times, you end up doing the same things, not quite over and over again, but it has a basic structure to it. And I certainly found that over the years, when we’re asked to explore people’s ideas or help develop concepts or strategies, there are a certain set of questions that you will always ask. I suppose I kind of knew that, but I’d never formulated it into something constructive and coherent and organized. And actually, it was the hardest part of the whole process of writing the book. Because the type of research I do, which is not formulaic questionnaires, it’s qualitative research. So it’s a more intuitive process. It’s sort of by definition a bit… not nebulous, but not necessarily well structured. That’s the whole point. And trying to create some kind of framework for thinking that would hopefully be helpful for others was actually the toughest part. So it was kind of how did I do it? I’ve sat there and stared at all the work and all the stuff I’ve done over the years and thought, “God, how do I make sense of this?” 

Adrian Tennant: In what kinds of ways do you employ the framework in your own work?

Jon Cohen: Yeah, so it’s helped me actually. I mean, that’s the funny thing is, I started, I’ve been doing it for a while, but I think I’ve become a better researcher, as a result of this. And I think certainly my teams have benefited from it as well. Because a basic principle of The Wonder Wheel is that whenever you ask people what they think, there are a certain set of questions that you will always want to ask. And all of those questions are effectively contained within the wheel. So for example – Appeal: how much do you like my idea? Purpose: what is the point of my idea? Relevance: how relevant is my idea to you? Impact: does my idea stand out? Is it distinctive? Personality: how do you feel about my idea? Credibility: do you believe my idea? Is it credible? And then ultimately, at the heart of the wheel is Desire: is my idea desirable? Do you want it? Would you buy it? And whatever you’re talking about, whatever you asking about, the nature of the exact questions may change, but the basic structure of the wheel remains the same. And having a framework allows you to go, “Hold on a minute, have I answered that? Am I really digging into that? Do I properly understand how people feel about that?” Now, that’s not entirely the purpose of the framework, but instead of just taking some, generic response, like, “It’s good quality,” or, you know, they like it, or they don’t like it. What having a framework allows you to do is make sure that you properly interrogate and understand all the aspects of your idea in order to help you develop it in a way that will ultimately be more compelling and desirable. So it has helped me because it’s given me that discipline if you like.

Adrian Tennant: So Jon, you actually placed desire at the center of The Wonder Wheel. Can you tell us why you did that?

Jon Cohen: Ultimately, the reason why we create ideas or develop ideas, we’ll ask them what they think of our ideas, is, is to make them more desirable. To create an object of desire. I mean, that is the central purpose. Now I’ve worked on lots of social issues as well and obviously, you wouldn’t necessarily think about desire if you’re trying to get people to stop smoking. How do you do that? But you may not exactly call it desire, but ultimately, we do things for a reason. You know, we create products, we create advertising, we develop concepts because we want people to buy it, because we want people to behave in a particular way, or respond in a certain way. And that is at the heart of everything we do. However, in order to achieve that, we have to create ideas that are appealing, relevant, purposeful, distinctive, believable. Impactful and clear. And if you understand all the elements of the wheel and how people feel about it – in other words, for example, how much or why they like your idea or don’t like it – that will then help you create something desirable. So the reason why desire sits at the heart of the wheel, it’s firstly because We want to create desirable ideas. And secondly, because desire – how desirable our idea is – is a function of all of the other elements of the wheel combined. 

Adrian Tennant: And I should note that purchasers of the book also gain access to a PDF version of The Wonder Wheel, which includes questions applicable to different kinds of projects. But you also write, and I quote: “The purpose of the wonder wheel goes way beyond defining the questions you should ask and the answers you should seek. That’s the easy bit. The hard part is working out what to do with other people’s opinions in a world where you can’t trust what people say.” Jon, in what kinds of ways are people’s responses illusory or distortions of reality – and why?

Jon Cohen: That is the nub of the book, Adrian. So when you ask people what they think, we do that in order to try and get a feel for how they might respond to our ideas in the real world or how we could develop ideas to make them more desirable or more compelling in the real world. And within that, there is this fundamental assumption that the world of asking is in some way related to the real world. In other words, when we ask people what they think of our ideas, it’s a true and accurate reflection of how they might feel about our ideas when they encountered them, when they were properly made, finished, and showing it in the real world. And the truth is they’re not, they’re completely different things. When you ask people what they think of your ideas, they focus. They focus on your idea. It creates what I call an “illusion of interest.” It’s an inevitable consequence of asking people what they think. Whether it’s a book or an idea or an advertising concept, whatever it may be, the act of asking causes people to focus on your idea in a way that is totally out of sync with how they would engage with it in the real world. Now that doesn’t mean the world of asking is worse than the real world, it doesn’t mean it’s better than the real world. It just means it’s different. When you ask people, what they think of your ideas it’s a fantasy land. It’s a land of make-believe. And our job is to try and build a bridge between that asked-for world and how people might respond in the real world. Every single one of the elements of the wheel, or each of the Wonders, as I call them, is altered by the asking in its own unique and distinctive way. So if you imagine, for example, the world of behavioral economics, and the heuristics and distortions of biases and so on. And increasingly, we’re conscious of the ways in which System One and System Two responses influence the way we behave and what we buy. Well, in the world of asking, there are also a whole set of distortions, illusions, and biases that influence the response we get when we ask before they think, and that’s really the purpose of the framework. It’s not simply to say, “Actually I need to ask these questions,” but more importantly, to allow us to think about each of the different ways in which response is altered by the asking, and then try and interpret, analyze the response accordingly in order to help us make good decisions. It sounds very complicated and it’s not actually, the idea is that thinking about those illusions or biases should become as natural as the asking itself. And instead of saying, actually, “How much do you like my idea?” And somebody says, “I really love it” – taking that at face value. You say, “well, why?” And you think about that response, and you understand that response, then the onus is on you to say, actually, “I’m going to think about that. And I’m not going to tell you that face value, because I understand that, you know, that response is flawed.” So it sounds complicated actually, I think it makes it easier. That’s the idea, anyway!

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after these messages.

Sandra Marshall: I’m Sandra Marshall, VP of Client Services at Bigeye. Every week, IN CLEAR FOCUS addresses topics that impact our work as advertising professionals. At Bigeye, we always put audiences first. For every engagement, we’re committed not just to understanding our clients’ business challenges but also learning about their prospects and customers’ attitudes, behaviors, and motivations. These insights inform our strategy and collectively inspire the account, creative, media, and analytics teams working on our clients’ projects. If you’d like to put Bigeye’s audience-focused consumer insights to work for your brand, please contact us. Email info@bigeyeagency.com. Bigeye. Reaching the Right People, in the Right Place, at the Right Time.

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Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with Jon Cohen, founder of the UK-based insight consultancy, Kindling, and the author of the book, Asking for Trouble. The second section of Asking For Trouble is entitled Truth. You write that, and again, I quote: “The world of asking spins on two axes. Axis one is a supporter axis. That is how inclined participants are to be on your side. Axis two is a challenger axis, how keen they are to tell you that you’re wrong.” You then go on to identify four types of participants that sit within these axes. Can you tell us what they are?

Jon Cohen: Yes. We all know that you can’t necessarily believe what people say – and that’s the whole point about the second section of the book. But what you do know is that whenever you ask people what they think, there will always be four types of answers or four types of people. There will be the Supporter. In other words, somebody who loves your idea. There will be the Critic. Somebody who wants to pull apart your idea. The Developer, who is the person who says, “I like it, but perhaps you should do it that way.” They’ve always got a good suggestion. And the Disinterested is the person who would actually rather be watching something else on YouTube. And you can guarantee that whatever you’re asking about, whether it be your new shoes, or a government intervention to try and reduce knife crime, you would always find the Supporter, the Developer, the Critic, and Disinterested. Your job as the person asking or trying to understand what people think of your ideas is not to look for one particular person, not to hope that everyone likes your idea, not to seek out your supporters – but actually, your job is to find all four types of response. It’s a different way of thinking about asking. So rather than looking for, or hoping for, or trying to find what’s good about your idea, what you’re trying to do is simply understand all the ways people think about your idea. So that you have a better idea about how people heard about it, a better understanding of your idea, and therefore you are able to make better decisions as a result. If you think about it, what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to become customer-focused or customer-centered rather than customer-led. As I say, if you’re trying to be customer-led and then your customers lead you down a path which you don’t want to go, you can’t be upset, angry, or frustrated about it because you let somebody else drive your idea. The whole point about asking is that you remain in control of the idea, you’re responsible for its development. And what you’re doing is you’re using the people you’re talking to to better understand your idea and to better understand how people are made to engage with it. So rather than looking for supporters or rather than kind of going, “Oh my God, what’s wrong with my idea?” what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to find all four of those different types of people, which will happen naturally. Based on that holistic understanding of your idea, you can then make good decisions. It’s a different way of thinking. 

Adrian Tennant: In the second part of the book, you also introduce readers to the ACID Test. Could you explain that and why you think it’s critical to successful research?

Jon Cohen: So, yes. I’ve always felt that at the top of every research brief, there should be a little section that says, “Why are you really doing this? What’s your real reason for doing this? Tell me what your motivations for asking people what they think. Not because you want to develop the idea and find out how relevant or not is, or how motivating people find it, but why are you doing it?” And over the years, I think there were four reasons why people need to ask. First I called Affirmation, which is, people are looking for someone to say, “It’s great,” “or “Yes,” or, “Aren’t you clever” or “Fantastic.” They’re looking for ammunition, they’re looking for investments, they want people to say the right things. The second is Confidence, because people are not quite sure that their idea is as good as it should be. And they need other people to go, “Yeah it’s fine,” or, “Actually, you’re right. You should be a bit worried about it.” [The third type] They’re looking for Insight. In other words, “I’m really trying to understand how you feel about my idea. I’m really trying to get to grips with you and understand your needs.” And the fourth one is Decision. In other words, “I need you to decide for me, I don’t know which is best to be used to be ideas,” or “I don’t quite know what to do. And you’re the consumer. So you tell me.” And those are the four underlying motivations. If you go back to the four types of people I was just talking about and your motivations for asking whether you looking for affirmation, confidence, insight or decision makes a huge difference to who you listen to. To what you want to hear to, how you ask to do, where you ask to who you ask to what you do with the answers. Your motivations for asking will define every element of the experience of asking and what you choose to do with the results. And therefore, the whole point about taking the ACID Test is that if you’re honest with yourself about why you’re asking, you’ll be much more self-aware of the way you’re asking, the way you’ve set it up, who you’re asking, who you’re listened to, what you do as a result. Ultimately, asking people what they think tells you more about your own relationship with your idea than it does about the people you’re asking and how they feel about it. It always struck me, I work with a lot of ad agencies, and you can tell firstly, the confidence of the agency, how good they are, how successful they are. And also really importantly, how strong the client relationship is, but also how confident they are in their own ideas. And the more confident the agency is their own idea, the better the client relationship, and the more successful agency is, the more open they are to whatever people have to say when it comes to asking. Much less defensive. The whole attitude towards the research and their experience of asking changes dramatically. So if you take the ACID Testt and you’re truly honest with yourself in the beginning, how you feel about your own ideas, you’ll do a much better job both of asking and interpreting the response. So that’s the idea is before you start, take the ACID Test!

Adrian Tennant: Excellent. The third part of Asking for Trouble is entitled Good Asking Guide and it’s got a ton of practical tips. You also write about the Golden Triangle of Intelligent Response. Jon, please tell us more.

Jon Cohen: It sounds like there are hundreds of models in this book, I suppose there are, aren’t there? So the Golden Triangle of Intelligent Response is, as hopefully, you’ve got a sense by now from this is that I’m not really a believer in consensus necessarily. That’s not what the research is about. You’re not looking for everybody to say the same thing. What you’re doing is you’re looking to understand your ideas and therefore, whilst you respect and you value every single response you get, and certainly everyone you talk to because you never know when you’re going to get really rich responses. The truth is all responses are not equal. Some responses are more helpful than others. And when you’re asking people what they think, you cannot beat an intelligent response, that’s the way it is. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean intelligent people in an academic sense. You have to be very open-minded about where the response may be and what that intelligent response may be. But you can’t beat an intelligent response. And there were three types of intelligent response.

There’s Emotional intelligence, which we’re all kind of familiar with. It’s a very familiar phrase. Emotional intelligence has been around for a long time. But what we mean in this context is people who are able to respond emotionally. So when you ask people where they think the act of asking encourages people to be rational They say, “This is how I feel about your idea,” but that’s still telling you what they think of it. Whereas we know in the real world, we tend to do things without thinking. It tends to be our emotions that drive our behaviors and our response. But the kind of act of asking creates a rational response that says, “I think this way.” You don’t get the feeling. Well, emotionally intelligent respondents do just automatically tell you how they feel. They don’t overthink it. So there’s that which we’re familiar with.

The second is Behavioral intelligent response. Now talked a bit about behavioral already, but when you ask people what they think, it’s very easy to lose sight of what you actually do. And it’s important to put either response in the context of what people actually do. How they really behave. Otherwise, we’ve become very divorced from reality. And behaviorally intelligent respondents are people who naturally do that for you, who can start with what they do so that you don’t have to. In other words, they have good understanding of how they actually behave so “Well I really looked at there, but there’s no relation to what I actually do.”

And the third is what I call Conception intelligence. And it’s kind of, I described it’s a superpower, which is that some people are just intuitively able to make the leap from a concept to how something may look. You know, when we ask people what they think we are always, or almost always, kind of looking at half-formed ideas and some people will automatically get sort of hung up on small details that bear no relation to how the idea is actually going to be created. You know, whether that be the way the board is drawn or a particular word. Whereas conception intelligent respondents to just be able to see past don’t go there. “This is the idea you’re trying to communicate. This is how I feel about that.”

So you’ve got these three types of intelligence. You’ve got behavioral intelligence, conception intelligence, and emotional intelligence. And some people have all three. Some people have none. Some people start off not having any, but actually, say something conceptually incredibly intelligent halfway through the conversation. You can’t tell, but your job when you’re asking people is to look out and seek out those student intelligent responses. It’s not complicated. It just requires a bit of thinking. It comes back to this idea that you mentioned at the very beginning, Adrian, which is that asking is easy. The hard part is knowing what to do with the answer. But it’s also the fun part. and if you get it right, that’s the bit we’ll help you develop great ideas.

Adrian Tennant: Congratulations on writing such a great book -one that I think anybody that has to interview people in the course of their work would find valuable. So do you have any plans to create an online course or consider applications for your frameworks outside of market research?

Jon Cohen: Yes and no. So I’m enjoying riding this wave at the moment. It’s been a fun experience, publishing a book and then being involved in this kind of stuff. It’s a whole new experience for me and I’m really enjoying it. I’ve had a lot of lovely feedback, which has been great. Certainly, kind of the name Asking for Trouble, it lends itself to a sequel, doesn’t it? Double Trouble or whatever it may be. I have been asked by clients to develop a training course around that. I don’t have any great experiences with that, so we’ll see where that goes. And in terms of the applications beyond market research, there is a universal need to better understand what people think when you can’t trust what they say. And obviously, there is a whole sort of fake news narrative that’s underlying this, and I did consider going there, but I decided not to because I’m not an expert. And I didn’t just want to be another voice, but that does feel like it’s something we could all do a bit of help with – beyond simply developing ideas, knowing what on earth people are saying and whether we can trust it and what to do with that. So if anyone has got any good advice or knows other people who are kind of experts in that field as well, then maybe a group of us can gather together to find out how to apply that thought in a way that’s beyond market research.

Adrian Tennant: If IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners would like to learn more about you, your company, Kindling, or your book Asking For Trouble, where can they find you?

Jon Cohen: So my company’s Kindling, as you mentioned, you can find me at kindlingstrategy.com or more about the company there. Asking for Trouble has its own website if you want to go and look at the reviews or download the resources – The Wonder Wheel, that’s there, or get in touch with me on LinkedIn or Twitter, where I’m @AskingJon.

Adrian Tennant: Jon, thank you very much for being our guest today on IN CLEAR FOCUS.

Jon Cohen: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

Adrian Tennant: Thanks again to my guest this week, Jon Cohen, founder of the UK-based insight consultancy, Kindling, and the author of the book, Asking for Trouble. You’ll find a transcript with links to the resources we discussed today on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at Bigeyeagency.com. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider following us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Audible, YouTube, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next time, goodbye.

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