What We Learned When We Took A Project That Every Other Firm Turned Down | The Garage Group

What We Learned When We Took A Project That Every Other Firm Turned Down

We love a challenge that requires a new approach.

Recently, after getting to know us a bit, a client shared a challenge with us. Our client wanted to learn more about what life was really like for low income consumers. Families that have to make choices everyday to make their paychecks last long enough to keep food on the table and bills from being unpaid.

She’d tried several times to find an agency that would work with her on this project. But the project was turned down each time.

Several barriers are cited when teams think about doing research with low income consumers.

1. Very few low income consumers are in their databases. Traditional qualitative researchers use databases of consumers to find participants for research. Frankly, many brands are not in business to serve low income consumers. If they are, they probably don’t tend to do as much research, so, while there are often a small number of low income consumers in these databases, there just weren’t enough of them to meet the needs of the research our client wanted to conduct.

2. Low income consumers aren’t reliable for research. Realistically, many low income households are led by single parents, working multiple jobs to make ends meet. Because they tend to hold hourly jobs, and every penny counts, picking up an extra shift to earn a few extra dollars is common. And, because many rely on public transportation, their schedules aren’t as flexible as a one-job, car-owning middle class consumer. They are tired and busy, so they aren’t as likely to reliably participate in research.

3. It’s not safe. This one kinda rubs us the wrong way, but our client told us that she repeatedly heard that researchers didn’t want to be liable for client teams going into “dangerous” neighborhoods. Certainly, there is a correlation between lower income and higher crime rates in some communities. This fear kept teams from learning about an important segment of consumers.

Today, in the US, nearly 15% of consumers live below the poverty line. Some reports indicate that up to 87% of them have smartphones. And, 100% of them buy food, clothing, household goods and many other products.

To us, this was a perfect opportunity. One that needed a different, entrepreneurial approach. And, to be able to value people and their opinions to inspire a corporate team to take action. We just couldn’t look the other way.

So, we thought through the challenges and barriers, and as entrepreneurs do, we tried a new approach.

1. Find them where they are. We didn’t have the luxury of a database of participants to screen through. So, we rolled up our sleeves, leveraged our own personal networks, and visited communities where lower income consumers lived and worked. We talked to people in grocery and dollar stores. We called a few folks we knew to refer us to folks who might be interested in participating in our research. And we found respondents, one by one. And they were brilliant, articulate and their stories were deeply inspiring, even to us (more on that later). We also built our research method around them: going to meet them, instead of making them come to us. We leveraged both in-home and digital (mobile) connection with these consumers. Consumers didn’t need to catch a bus to make their way to a suburban research facility or at a big box retail location. We simply met them where they live.

2. Value them. Low income consumers don’t deserve a lower incentive payment for participating in research. In fact, we offered them a higher incentive. Taking time away from work or limited time with their families is priceless; and, because their opinions aren’t heard as often, they’re worth even more. In the end, we had only one “no-show.” He called us as soon as he knew he wasn’t going to be able to make it, and encouraged us to talk with his wife, who was home for our visit. We did. It was just as insightful. And, we honored that family by valuing their opinions with our time and our payment.

3. Walk confidently and humbly. We’re not into suits and ties anyway, but we deliberately thought through the proven principle in research around dressing in a way that enables the respondent to feel comfortable. We were authentically interested in understanding these consumers and the world they live in, so we stepped into it. They live it everyday, and we knew that there was no reason for fear. We were comfortable and we were there to learn, and we wore the body language and clothing to reflect that comfort and thirst to learn.

4. Be flexible. Research schedules are set weeks in advance. In fact, teams often over-recruit in case a participant needs to reschedule or cancel. When working with low income consumers (similar to working with high-income professionals), flexibility is key. We simply prepared ourselves and our client to be flexible about our schedule. We kept our learning goal as our focus, and knew the balance of consumers we wanted to talk with, recognizing that some recruiting criteria were “non-negotiable” and others were “nice to have.” This allowed us to talk to a participant’s wife, when her husband (the primary recruited participant) had to work late instead of missing out on meaningful learning.

In the end, we not only learned a great deal about the thoughts, feelings and purchase decisions of this segment of consumers, but we built relationships and heard stories that will impact and inspire our lives and the lives of our clients for years to come. And, we created principles and practices that will continue to serve research engagements in the future.

Photo licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 via Flickr user: Cristiano Betta

The Garage Group enables corporate teams to innovate and grow like startups, including fresh approaches to age-old business or research challenges with long lists of barriers.

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