Media Perspective: Research needs to be treated like any brand experience

What would you think of a brand that rounded up dozens of its best and most influential customers, shoved them in a dreary room for a couple of hours, confused them with obtuse questions and odd drawings and then sent them on their way with £20?

Or turned up at their houses with huge wodges of paper full of deeply repetitive questions? Or e-mailed them, asking them to point and click for what seems like hours on silly pictures and dozens of ways of saying the same thing?

You'd think that brand was mad. Well, actually you probably wouldn't, because you've seen through my clever narrative trick here and you realise that I'm going on about market research and the awfulness of the experience we make people go through.

It's a symptom of the horribly compartmentalised way most of us do our jobs that we can spend half our day thinking of delicious and imaginative ways to delight a very particular, narrowly defined, probably influential segment of our audience. And then, in the next meeting, we take that same audience definition, and offer a recruitment agency a few hundred quid to round up some of the same people so we can show them dozens of stupid ideas in a fake living room in Kingston. On the one hand, we're trying our hardest to be persuasive and seductive, on the other, we're strip-mining people's heads.

This commoditisation of the research process (and failure to think of it as another brand experience) has reached its nadir online. Once the bright future for research, it's now a place where everyone knows you can ask 5,000 people four quick questions and it only costs you £50 and only takes you half an hour. Or that's how everyone behaves.

It's not expensive enough to consider properly, but something cheap you can use to make a point or gather some ammunition, and that's destroying all the client credibility it might have had. Procter & Gamble recently raised the issue with the professional research bodies in the US, pointing to two identical studies they'd done, with the same supplier, only a week apart, which had returned completely contradictory results.

This is a massive shame because online research could be the most effective and joyful tool in our armoury. Imaginative research design can be like great game design: you can get respondents into a flow state, having purposeful fun with their answers, enjoying their experience with you, not noticing the time flying by. This not only gets you the answers you want, it leaves people liking you more. In a world where our customers are lining up to share their opinions anyway, this kind of imaginative research will soon be all that anyone's going to pay for.