At Mingle we are notoriously bad at judging office dress codes – Craig has been known to rock a black turtle neck on occasions which is a sight to behold whereas Morgan usually plays in the smart-casual territory, failing dismally at either and, as a result, looking like a cross between Jeremy Clarkson and James May.

Anyway – sartorial elegance wasn’t actually the topic of this post, despite the title. Instead it was a topic that has come up a few times with clients recently: the question of FORMALITY versus INFORMALITY in a market research sense.

What do we mean exactly?

Well, thinking simplistically, the knowledge you collect about your customers in order to inform your decision making can often be put into one of two big buckets. FORMAL or INFORMAL. Yes, there are loads of other buckets within the large buckets but, at the risk of opening up our own builders merchants, let’s keep it at two for now.

If you wanted to define them I guess ‘Formal’ research is anything carried out and collected in ‘managed’ research environments, usually conducted by ‘research professionals’ – think most brand trackers, surveys, most quant research but also more structured qualitative work like focus groups ethnography etc.


So what’s in the INFORMAL bucket? Well, we would say it is anything else that gives you knowledge or understanding that may be useful. It could be a conversation you had with a friend or colleague, an opinion piece you read in a paper, something you observed in a supermarket, a comment posted on social media, what your Mum thinks of your brand or what ‘that bloke down the pub’ said. It’s an interesting bucket because, quite frankly, it can contain a lot of rubbish. But the fact is it can still contain real nuggets that (often in combination with your more ‘formal’ sources) unlock truly unique insight.

At the end of the day – knowledge is there to inform and enlighten us. If a random thought from a bloke I chatted to in a bar sparks my thinking about an opportunity for my business that could be exciting why should that comment be any less valuable that the conclusions from a 200 page powerpoint presentation delivered by a research agency for £150k?

Indeed, although on the face of it you might expect ‘big data’  to be playing in the FORMAL space, you can argue that in a lot of cases (social media chatter for example) it is often just giving us ways to access large volumes of very INFORMAL knowledge and perspectives.

So where does Customer Connection sit?

We’ve been challenged by a few clients to define which bucket we think customer connection sits in (by customer connection we mean any activity that gets a businesses employees away from their desk and interacting with customers directly themselves). At the risk of being branded fence sitters, our conclusion was it well and truly has a foot in each bucket.

It is proudly INFORMAL – the power in customer connection is it gets employees away from their desk and out there interacting with customers. But, although we always equip our clients with the tools to be able to interact with their customer in the most productive way, the average employee isn’t a professional qualitative moderator. We would never generally expect an employee on a connection to unearth deep ‘human truths’ in their discussions – at most we want to give that employee a memorable and insightful interaction with a customer that will inspire their thinking and actually stay in their memory far longer than the last research debrief they sat through. It is never positioned as ‘professional’ market research.

BUT through sharing and exploring the experiences you had during your connections we can get our clients to themes of understanding that are far more rigorous and similar to outputs from FORMAL research. All our projects will typically include a ‘download’ of the experiences participants have. This is a key phase. It is so important to harness what you’ve heard and craft it into a tangible return from the time investment you made in getting out and connecting. We typically bring everyone that has been out on a connection together in a workshop to share their experiences. We facilitate a download of their observations and use insight generation techniques to drill into those observations to create broader themes of understanding with associated implications to the business. That way – what starts out as quite informal observation can be pooled, shared and crafted into something really powerful.

What’s more, if it becomes something your teams do regularly it cements itself as part of your culture – rather than just saying you put the customer at the centre of decision making you have a structured program that actually does.

So don’t write off consumer connection as too informal, it can get you some powerful knowledge and gives your team experiences that will have an astounding impact on their day to day decision making. But accept it for the simple, enjoyable activity it is. If you’re expecting a few customer connections alone to redefine your entire brand strategy you’re probably expecting a bit much!

Be more connected, get out and Mingle.