The use of tense in writing up market research results

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This blog post has been written as part of a project I am working on to produce a series of short books that will act as guides to different aspects of market research. The specific post looks at two key aspects of writing up market research results, i.e. differentiating between the ‘facts’ and the judgement/opinion elements, and using past, present, and future tense to make reporting clearer and more actionable.

I am very keen to hear other people’s views on the advice in this post – all contributors to this series will, of course, be listed and thanked.

Market research results consist of two elements, which we can loosely call:

  1. Facts
  2. Judgement/opinion

We can argue about the meaning or existence of facts, but in this case I am talking about the material revealed by market research that is not disputed. For example, we might find that 75% of the sample said they were male.

The term judgment (or opinion, or insight) covers things such as:

  • How good/appropriate you think the research was.
  • What you think the research means. For example, you might discover that trial is an important driver of purchase.
  • What you think the client should do. For example, you might recommend that the client launch product A with campaign X and target it at young professionals.
  • Predictions. For example, you might conclude that the demand for this product will decline over the next 18 months.

Separating the facts from judgement
When writing up the results (as a presentation, report, or even in an email) it is important to separate the facts from the judgement/opinion. This is especially true if the opinion turns out to be wrong to help you identify what went wrong. Knowing the difference between fact and opinion is an important part of the process of creating recommendations and predictions.

In some cases the client is focused on the facts, but in many cases it is the judgement that creates the real value of market research – treating it all as facts can devalue the process of adding insight, interpretation, and recommendations.

The facts tend to be in the past tense
Market research is typically based on using surveys, discussions, or observations. In almost all cases these produce information (facts) that are in the past. In a survey we might ask how often somebody shops online, or what advertising they have seen, or their satisfaction with their last service experience. Even if we ask research participants to make predictions (e.g. “How likely are you to buy a new smartphone next year?”) those predictions were made in the past.

When you report facts, use the past tense to help identify them as facts and to remind the reader that they tend to be a ‘rear-view mirror’ view of the world. For example, for example we would not say “Customers prefer the red option to the blue option.”, we would say something like “The sample of customers said they preferred the red option to the blue option.”

In many cases the facts can be best represented via charts or tables to show that the information is data, as opposed to opinion. For example:

“In response to ‘Which of these two options do you prefer?’ the responses were:

  • Red 67%
  • Blue31%
  • Neither 2%”

Most research facts are hearsay
Observational research (for example passive data collected from mobile devices or websites) is about what people have actually done. However, most research, at the moment, is based on survey responses and things said in discussions (for example in a focus group or during an online discussion) and may not be true in an objective/scientific sense. There are several reasons why what people say may not be ‘factually correct’, including:

  • Confusion, sometimes the questions market researchers ask are not clear to every research participant, which can result in the participant entering data that is not correct. For example, if we ask how many rooms are in your home, some participants might include the bathroom, whilst others might not – unless the instructions are very clear.
  • Mistakes, sometimes participants make a mistake. They might click the wrong option, or they may simply make a mistake when recalling something, for example what supermarket did you visit most recently.
  • Social desirability bias, some questions tend to elicit answers that make people appear ‘better’. For example, if you ask people if they eat too much, drink too much, exercise regularly, or visit adult entertainment sites, many participants will give answers that do not correctly reflect their behaviour.
  • Being poor witnesses to our own motivations and beliefs. Writers such as Daniel Kahneman Mark Earls have highlighted that people are often unaware of why they do things. Asking people questions like “How motivated by price are you?”, “Which attribute was most important in your decision?”, or even “Will you buy this product in the future?” are likely to elicit inaccurate results.

The best way to flag up that the ‘facts’ are hearsay is to insert words such as ‘said’ into that section of the reporting. For example say, “75% of participants said they would buy the product in the future.”, rather than “75% will buy the product.”

Clients are focused on the future, not the past
Generally, the people who buy, commission, read, and use market research results are looking for guidance in what they should do next. For example, should they launch a new product, change a service, shift resources, etc.

The guidance they are seeking is typically opinion (i.e. is not simply a reporting of the data as collected) and it needs to be focused on the future. Sometimes, the guidance might focus on describing the current market, but usually with the intention of using that information to manage the future.

This dichotomy between a client’s need (future focused) and research results (firmly based in the past) highlights the importance of judgement. It is judgement/opinion that that translates the data into insight and from there into actionable recommendations.

Use current and future tense for opinion
To signal to the client that the conclusions and recommendation are judgment or opinion-based, and to make them more action orientated, use the current and future tense.

Use the current tense to describe the world as you believe it is today.

Use the future tense for:

  • Predictions.
  • Recommendations.
  • Next steps.

For example, after conducting a concept test you might report the following:

The Facts: 1000 customers were interviewed (to the normal, representative specification) and 25% said they would definitely buy the product and a further 40% said they would try it. [past tense, third-person, passive]

What it means: Compared with other studies and our benchmarks we believe this is a very good result, showing there is a demand for this sort of product. [Current tense, first person] If the product is launched in the near future, and is consistent with the proposition tested in the research, we would expect it sales in the first 12 months to be in the region X to Y. [future tense, first person]

Recommendations: From a customer demand point of view we would recommend launching the product, and launching it before either demand changes or some other product takes its place. If there are legal, marketing, or logistic issues that have not been fully resolved, then these should be tackled as a priority. The implementation plan should include further research to ensure that the product being launched aligns with the concept that has been tested. [future tense, first person]

Algorithms are opinion too!
A sales forecast from a proprietary concept screening program, or a brand index score from a brand tracker, or a sentiment score from a social media monitoring system are not facts.

I would recommend adopting the following conventions when reporting results and forecasts based on algorithms:

  1. The data produced the following scores – past tense.
  2. This means A, B, C – current tense.
  3. Therefore we think that you should do X and we predict Y will happen – future tense.

The balance between facts and judgement
There is no general right and wrong answer to the question how to balance the facts and the judgement.

For some clients and for some projects, the main deliverable is the collection of facts. For example, many tracking projects are focused on the week-by-week data, with the changes in the numbers being highlighted. When a project is mostly about the facts, the reporting will normally be structured around those facts, for example:

  • A summary of what was done, the key results, and key conclusions/recommendations.
  • The key facts (for example the tracking data as charts or tables).
  • A set of conclusions and recommendations.
  • The detailed data – perhaps as a separate document, file, or database. This might include the questionnaire and the cross-tabs for example.

However, in many cases it is the judgment that is the key component. If the project is mostly about the analysis and interpretation of the research, then the reporting should reflect this, for example:

  • Executive summary, what does the client need to know and what do you think they should do.
  • A minimal description/background – comprising only those things that a reader should know before assessing your conclusions, recommendations, and predictions.
  • The judgement/opinion piece.
  • The detailed data – usually as a separate document, file, or databases.

Your Thoughts?
As I said at the start of this post, I am very keen to hear other people’s views on the advice in this post. For example:

  1. Is it clear?
  2. Do you agree with the basic proposition?
  3. Would you add, delete, or amend anything?

5 thoughts on “The use of tense in writing up market research results

  1. I agree with the proposition and thought it gave clarity to a highly debatable area.
    I think we should always ask in any result: what are the respondents really saying? For example, in a pricing study I would suggest that their optimum price is actually a reaction of how people value or position the product, rather than the respondents actually knowing the price. So in other words we should always look at results, but question; what are we really reporting? Truth, marketing fantasy or something else.

  2. I get what you are saying about reporting so that we are showing the ‘rear-view mirror’ view of the world, however I think we also need to remind our clients that the insights are up-to-date and in the past. Your ‘facts’, ‘recommendation’ and ‘next steps’ approach is the best in my opinion.

  3. Ray I admire your ambition to tackle one of the toughest areas to set standards for in marketing research. Reports can be so different depending on the situation including scorecards, video reports, dashboards and full PowerPoint decks to name a few. I agree full heartily that the clients want to know what to do with the research results. They usually use these results to support some action they are going to take. Ideally as researchers we can consolidate the “Facts” and package them in a way that will best help support the clients decision. I may not fully agree that we need to delineate between past tense,current tense and future tense as some of our research goes beyond just collecting information about past behavior it does try to take into consideration future actions and I wouldn’t consider that past tense. I would love to see the role of the researcher be the steward of all the “Facts” and instead of just creating a report and trying to provide some recommendations based on what they know about the clients decision that they in turn setup a workshop on how to use the information to support next steps. I think we too often work in silos and one group designs the research, another captures the data, another analyzes and writes the reports and includes some recommendations that hopefully the client can use. We need to quit writing so many reports and start setting up workshops to utilize the information and to help support the decision at hand. Bringing clients and researchers together in the same room to take action on the learnings real time to support a decision. No more guessing or thinking we know what the client needs, we need to bring all the resources together at one time in one place and synthesize all the necessary data and facts to move forward. I don’t know if we need to setup and delineate past, present and future nomenclature. In the end, I think we both agree that we want our clients to walk away making better decisions and how we package that information needs to focus on the recommendations that are formed by the judgment/opinion piece.

  4. Ray,I think the article is clearly written, and I agree with the basic proposition. However, it raises another interesting question, which is how long is data collected in the past good for? I imagine a lot depends on what it is you are measuring. I know that News reporters, PR folks and the digital media, for example, like polls, particularly political polls to be current, within a few days of coming out of field. Therefore, I know these particular groups like a MR analyst to write as though the results are current, even if the actual fieldwork was done a week ago. I also know Banking types who want financial survey results to be written up as current even though the data was collected months earlier. So the needs of the client may sometimes need to be considered when dealing with report tenses.

  5. The rule of thumb I recommend is that is a finding is likely still true today as it was when measured, use present tense. It is a much more powerful way of writing. If a finding is likely changed due to time, always use past tense and when not sure use past tense. Totally agree for recommendations or projections to use future tense.

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