Ask any child what they know about Albert Einstein, and they’ll produce the fabled answer: E=mc2. He’d probably prefer his legacy to be defined by a question instead.
Einstein always despised rote recitation. As a teenager in Germany, he ran away from school when his instructors insisted he memorize the content of their lessons. By 16, he’d landed in a Swiss school instead, where he conceived of a question that would alter the course of human history: What would it be like to travel fast enough to ride alongside a light beam?
Further, he wondered, what would that beam look like as you sped along beside it? It would appear stationary, he supposed, relative to your own lightspeed pace. As Einstein probed this question further in the coming years, this germ of thought would blossom into the Theory of Relativity.
Einstein’s devotion to questions never left him. “If I had an hour to solve a problem,” he wrote later in his life, “I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”
Why Asking the Right Questions Counts
By professional necessity, marketers are instinctively inclined to the pursuit of answers. How did our latest campaign influence sales figures? How many people visit our website each day, and how long do they stay? These questions seem so obviously essential that they become afterthoughts – insights are what we’re after.
But the value of the information is determined by the quality of the question it answers. If marketers intend to understand their audience truly, they’ll need first to improve the questions they ask them.
Recent neuroscience research affirms the power of the question. Thanks to a cognitive mechanism termed “instinctive elaboration,” our brains are hijacked by any line of inquiry to which we’re exposed – we can’t resist the attempt to formulate an answer. Even when we can’t possibly reply accurately, our minds are automatically consumed by the effort of answering.
Notably, this mechanism is so dominant that the precise question posed can crowd out relevant or related lines of inquiry. “Research shows that we can’t multitask,” neuroscientist John Medina has written of how our brains handle questions. “We are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously.”
In other words, a question confines our conscious cognition to the task at hand – even if a more valuable question lies untouched. Even if customers possess broadly useful insights, they’ll forget them to answer your specific question correctly. If a question’s focus is misplaced, it can actively suppress what marketers want most: clarity about what matters to consumers.
After almost 20 years of applying social and behavioral sciences to discover what motivates customers, we’re evangelists of Einstein’s view. Our research continually demonstrates that potent questions are the path to human insight, while haphazard ones offer minimal value – and can even be misleading.
This knowledge inspires our work with some of the world’s leading brands, helping them to understand their customers through deep and resonant questioning. Our approach rests on five crucial elements of posing questions worth answering.
The Five Keys to Asking Effective Questions
No. 1: The Grounded Theory Effect
When it comes to well-defined systems of inquiry, none is better known than the scientific method. Its very stages summon institutional confidence: question, hypothesis, experimentation, and conclusion.
Perhaps this approach contains a well-disguised flaw: What if more data are required to know which question to ask in the first place? Or what if our preconceptions limit the range of our hypotheses to conventional thinking?
The grounded theory posits an alternative to the rigid progression of the scientific method. Developed by social scientists in the 1960s, grounded theory prizes exploration and data collection before formulating a line of inquiry. Whereas the scientific method tests a hypothesis, grounded theory avoids a narrow focus on confirming or rejecting a single possibility.
For brands seeking insight through questioning, this approach is essential. If you begin with a set hypothesis, your questions will be limited to the subject and scope of your preconceived notions.
At Brandtrust, we strive to avoid this crucial mistake, preserving broad horizons for discovery. Our in-depth interviews aren’t framed by an initial hypothesis that might limit what we can learn. Only later can we generate powerful hypotheses – by beginning without them.
No. 2: Achieving Beginner’s Mind
If the grounded theory prevents the pre-emptive hypothesis, expertise can also pose a barrier to insight. Free from the burden of what they should know, beginners are often capable of discoveries that escape those with more experience.
Zen Master Shunryo Suzuki had plenty of experience with beginners when he brought Buddhism to San Francisco in 1959. But Suzuki reveled in the “beginner’s mind” he observed among his American converts, by contrast to his Japanese countrymen who were steeped in Zen tradition.
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few,” Suzuki said. Unfortunately, for their questioning efforts, many experienced marketers belong to that latter category.
To ask the right questions of the uninitiated customer, the beginner’s mind must be operative. Otherwise, you risk substituting your deeply entrenched opinions for his or her own.
When marketers are immersed in the minutiae of their own brands, their questioning of customers can become myopically focused: How much more would a discount encourage you to buy? Do you prefer our blue or green packaging? Customers may gamely answer their questions, but these distinctions may not hold much sway in the mind of the beginner.
No. 3: The Priming Problem
Much traditional market research revolves around assertions of contrast. We demand that consumers express choices: Which product do you prefer? Does this service seem better than what your current provider offers?
Unfortunately, these questions trigger our drive to provide answers – the “instinctive elaboration” function observed by neuroscientists. In their earnest desire to be helpful, consumers will provide the answers they believe a question is designed to elicit.
This phenomenon of “priming” can cause consumers to emphasize irrelevant aspects, or draw distinctions that don’t actually exist. In one infamous experiment, researchers asked participants to assess and describe the differences among various pairs of stockings. The participants performed admirably, documenting a range of contrasting characteristics. As it turns out, however, the stockings were absolutely identical.
Avoiding priming is tricky business, and social scientists labor to mitigate its effects however possible. But brands are often far less sensitive to the priming potential of their questioning: The answer they want to see is implicit in what they ask. Without safeguards against this influence, the responses they get from consumers will have only dubious value.
No. 4: The Order of Inquiry
It might seem like an obvious requirement of interpersonal dialogue: Non sequiturs are uncomfortable and unproductive, particularly when they involve surprising leaps in intimacy. You don’t meet someone, ask their name, and then promptly inquire about their deepest insecurities.
Brands consistently skip essential stages of context when soliciting consumer opinion, leaving both parties baffled. They seek answers about what customers like and want, without first discovering who they are and how they regard the brand currently.
At Brandtrust, we emphasize benefits of phased dialogue, which introduces increasingly pointed and specific questions only after first establishing an interviewee’s broader attitudes and associations. This approach allows us to assess which focused question to ask eventually, after first establishing its relevance.
Phased dialogue also allows intimacy to grow as it would in any other relationship, as a product of increased disclosure. By rooting our approach in the way humans usually communicate truths about themselves, we allow consumers’ instincts for honesty to function.
No. 5: Narrative Is Knowledge
In our work applying the social and behavioral sciences on behalf of brands, we constantly emphasize the power of storytelling in effective and emotional branding. Because the narrative is the brain’s preferred vehicle for knowledge, a convincing brand story is an essential means to earn awareness and loyalty.
But in addition to the narrative’s function in reaching consumers, its power is equally applicable in reverse: Brands must listen to the story their customers tell them about themselves. Too often, marketers resign themselves to interpreting isolated data points. Their conclusions would be more actionable if they observed recurrent themes of customer experience instead.
These deeper themes are often accessible only through skillful probing, the act of peeling back the layers around a stated opinion to reveal the emotional forces at work behind it. Often, the most valuable interrogative is “why.” When invited to further explain even commonly held positions, many interviewees will access levels of emotional motivation they haven’t considered previously.
Inevitably, these themes of emotional experience are far more instructive than any specific set of answers customers provide. The story of your brand resides in their experience. By asking the right questions, you can hear it.
The Quest for the Better Question
While these principles form a basis for productive inquiry for any thoughtful brand, the art of asking questions doesn’t end here. At Brandtrust, we continually refine our interviewing techniques, delivering human truths that allow our clients to serve their customers better.
Rooting our approach in the social and behavioral sciences, we leverage research methodologies that reveal what matters most to each brand’s audience. In one-on-one interviews, our questioning reaches to the emotional core of how consumers make decisions.
That means harnessing the power of the narrative and steering clear of the noise. Whatever your brand’s unique challenges and triumphs, these insights will prove invaluable. As Einstein said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning.”
Learn more about our work with some of the world’s most respected brands here.