Conventional wisdom is that new mould breaking ideas for various parts of the marketing mix need to be researched amongst people in their teens and early twenties. They’re the ones who are the most open-minded and can influence others. Research experience can sometimes suggest otherwise.
One particular example is young men in the early twenties where sometimes it’s difficult to believe why they are so important, as anyone will testify who has been confronted by a group of sullen individuals who seem reluctant to accept any new thinking and to delight in the current status quo, even though they fulfil some recruitment criteria to suggest that this would not be the case. It is known that teenagers can be “difficult” but aren’t these people meant to be receptive to new ideas?
What is going on here? Is it the fault of those conducting the research or are there other factors at play?
One of the issues is what might be described as machismo. These young men are very worried about how they are perceived by others within the peer group and have to display the appropriate masculine qualities. They hate to feel that they are being excluded by the peer group and one of the obvious triggers for this is if they are regarded as different or a “freak” in some way. It’s easy to compete in terms of the traditional masculine qualities of drinking too much, driving a car fast, oversleeping, talking about female conquests. But dealing with ideas is a risky area and there’s a natural inclination to play safe and operate within the current conventions. It’s potentially dangerous to say that you find something new, different and interesting unless you know that the peer group feels the same way; you run the risk of being ostracised by the peer group.
Overlaying this there is often a considerable amount of cynicism. As another manifestation of their masculinity, young men often like to demonstrate how they have wide life experience and how you can’t impress them easily or pull the wool over their eyes. This sort of behaviour seems particularly evident when you conduct research in London and the South East.
Although operating with a different age group, this sort of reluctance to engage with new ideas is highlighted by the recent TV programme “Jamie’s School Dinners” where Jamie Oliver tries to introduce “healthy” food into school dinner menus. The majority refuse to try the new foods initially and stick with the tried and trusted burgers, pizzas etc. Even within the context of a class science lesson, there are some who refuse to sample what they don’t already know and it is only after a period of exclusion from the lesson (and their friends), that they are willing to sample exotica such as fresh vegetables!
This exercise highlights both the importance of your conditioning or your environment on your willingness to try new ideas and the power of the peer group.
Another influencing factor that comes into operation is that recent scientific research has shown that the human brain of young men (and their female counterparts) may not be functionally complete and is still continuing the maturing process from the teenage years.
Vivienne Parry writing in The Guardian about her book “The truth about hormones” talks about certain areas of the brain displaying the “under reconstruction sign”. In particular, the “pre-frontal cortex ….that is responsible for executive action- such as goal setting, priority setting, planning organisation and impulse inhibition”.
There is also a certain amount of “pruning” of the nerve connections, the synapses, in all areas of the brain to increase efficiency and those pathways that get used the most, also develop the most. Perhaps these young men may find it more difficult to deal with new ideas, because they are not used to it and their brain is not up to it. It may also explain why they always turn up late to the group and given the opportunity will try to burn you up at the lights in their GTi
Of course there are young men who do seem to be more open to new ideas; these are the genuine Innovators and Early Adopters. In general in our experience, such people are better educated, although not exclusively and are more self-confident about stating their own opinion rather than following the crowd; this does not mean that they are just loud.
So what are the solutions?
There are a number of approaches that are already used in varying degrees that can help when investigating genuinely new ideas and can optimise output:
Use individual or paired depth interviews – less prone to posturing and more opportunity for understanding individual perspective
Use smaller group sizes – it encourages a more personal setting that can help to reduce the need to be overly macho. The individuals within the group get to know one another slightly
Consider friendship pairs within groups – it’s often used for research amongst children/teenagers but can help to put individuals at ease and thus less likely to behave in a superficial manner with the onus on bravado
Use various recruitment criteria to try to get the more open-minded – although you do not genuinely know how good they are with new ideas until you have spent some time with them. Depending on the nature and scale of the project it may be worth structuring the fieldwork in two stages with first stage interviewing determining who goes forward to the second stage
Allow the idea(s) time to breathe – anyone within a discussion session might need time to get their head around an idea and reactions may well improve with discussion. Outside of the research interview itself, there are various mechanisms for discovering reactions to the idea once people have had the chance to live with it. E.g. telephone follow- up, email etc.
Finally in our role as researchers, we have to make use of both our skill and judgement when it comes to exploring new ideas with this age group.
We have to be able to tell the difference between an idea that will never resonate with the target audience and one that may grow on them.
It would be interesting to know what the initial research response would have been to ideas that have subsequently achieved some critical mass of appeal amongst this target audience e.g. The Office, Little Britain, Radiohead, The Streets.
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