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Geolocation and Memory: How Technology Remedies a Common Research Problem

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By: Ari Stillman, Senior Research Associate

In market research, nothing matters more than accurate insights. It doesn’t matter how actionable they are unless they’re valid and reliable – terms for how well a study measures what it purports to measure and how replicable the study is if it were to be conducted again with a demographically identical sample, respectively.[1]

On the quantitative side of things, this should be as easy as replicating the survey design. With qualitative research, in which there is a higher margin of error due to the nuances of interpretation (as well as the potential for greater depth…), it gets a bit trickier. Either way, classic market research techniques suffer from memory fallacy – the problem of recalling facts.

Our memories tend to be fallible; we often remember the emotional impression an event had on us more than the exact details of the event.[2] This makes us more easily manipulated than we would like to believe.

As psychology teaches us, memory can be divided into two types: constructive and reconstructive memory. As the terms suggest, reconstructive memory entails events that happened while constructive memory entails memories formed through suggestion, melding together what actually happened with new information that produces a very different recollection than what actually happened.[3]

In research, this type of recall is often the result of leading questions – those worded in a manner that suggest to the respondent what the asker wants them to say. For instance, “what did you like about the concert?” tells the respondent that they are to share something positive about their experience, whereas “how was the concert?” allows them to volunteer whatever positively or negatively valenced response comes to mind. As natural people pleasers, we subconsciously want to make our interlocutors happy, so we find it easy to agree so long as the proposition isn’t heinous.[4]

While the best way to avoid collecting inaccurate responses is not to ask leading questions in the first place, one methodological approach that comes close to inoculating against invalid data is to ask in loco, in the place where the respondent is being asked about.[5] This ‘on-site’ level of embeddedness allows for information to be captured while it is not just fresh, but happening live.

In modern market research, this is achieved through geolocation technology. While traditional market research accesses in loco information through ethnography, this approach is time-consuming and, relying on the ethnographer to report on what he or she observes, doesn’t lend itself to insights directly from the population being studied or queried.

This shortcoming is remedied through geolocation, which combines the fly-on-the-wall insights of ethnography with the robust insights of surveys, vlogs, and location verification. Here is an example of geolocation in practice:

Let’s say you work on the Insights Team for a large toy retail chain. You want to understand the differences in purchasing behaviors among customers at various locations within a region and what contributes to these behaviors in order to understand why some locations are more successful than others.

You would begin by setting up surveys tailored to the specifics of each location that are unlocked when the customer enters the store or when the customer checks in on the app. Each survey is tethered to certain geographical coordinates to ensure that only customers who enter the store can access it. Customers could be notified either by logging into the vendor’s app or receiving a push notification. The customer could then be prompted to take a video of him or herself shopping in the store, commenting aloud on the products observed, and responding to any preset prompts from the client. These insights could then either be uploaded immediately or whenever the customer is back on a Wi-Fi network.

It’s hard not to see geolocation’s merits. Researchers are able to verify responses in the moment and track locations so they can better tell which locations are more frequented than others and at what time of day. Geolocation lends itself to grouping such that a client could easily identify respondents who have been to a given location and group them together for a follow-up study that builds upon the previous one. And of course, geolocation ensures high data fidelity with in loco data collection and location verification.

To learn more about geolocation and how it can add value to your team’s insights, click here.

[1] Guion, R. M. (2008). Validity and Reliability. In S. G. Rogelberg (Ed.) Handbook of Research Methods in Industrial and Organizational Psychology (pp. 57-76). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

[2] Leichtman, M. D., S. J. Ceci, & P. A. Ornstein. (1992). The Influence of Affect on Memory: Mechanism and Development. In Sven-Åke Christianson (Ed.) The Handbook of Emotion and Memory: Research and Theory (pp. 181-200). New York: Psychology Press.

[3] Mitchell, K. J. & M. K. Johnson. (2000). Source Monitoring: Attributing Mental Experiences. In Endel Tulving and Fergus I. M. Craik (Eds) The Oxford Handbook of Memory (pp. 179-195). New York: Oxford University Press.

[4] Goffman, E. (1967). Interaction Rituals: Essays in Face-To-Face Behavior. New York: Pantheon Books.

[5] Mihelj, S. (2013). Between Official and Vernacular Memory. In Emily Keightley and Michael Pickering (Eds.) Research Methods for Memory Studies (pp. 60-78). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

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