The Secret Life of Market Researchers: Engaging Gen Y

Carolyn Torres, a Brand Amplitude moderator

To really understand Gen Y, it’s important to get beyond survey data and really talk to them, using qualitative methods.
Millennials are some of the least inhibited and most transparent audiences a qualitative researcher could wish for. But getting them to engage in the research can be just as challenging as creating a Gen Y-targeted marketing program. In both cases, the same two questions apply:

1) How do we find them?

2) How do we engage them?

Stalking the Elusive Gen Y Respondent

To find study participants, Gen Y Research firm, Outlaw Consulting, sends ambassadors to recruit at the places where Millennials like to hang out – clubs, schools, malls. This is effective but can be very costly.  Another firm, Agent Wildfire, has conducted a dozen research projects on Facebook over the past two years, by ‘looking for people who have self-identified their interests by the groups they join.’ Anderson Research uses a software robot to ‘scrape’ online forums for the sentiment members express about products and issues. The firm then matches the findings to publicly available information about the speakers.  Other firms use networking – literally bring a friend – to identify communities of interest.   At Brand Amplitude, we like to tap client’s customer databases Gen Y research, a ready-made opt-in community of brand enthusiasts.

Talking to Gen Y: Fun and Games

Engaging Millennials in qualitative research also requires imagination. If we are doing real-time online focus groups, we vary the activities and stimuli frequently to hold their attention (and keep them from playing Halo or checking email in the background).  When we designed focus groups for Vogue last Fall, we used dozens of word games and visual exercises to understand how they related to different kinds of articles, their feelings about fashion, and their aspirations. Tapping into emotions, imagery, culture and language were essential to uncovering their true relationship with the brand.

Software designed to engage Gen Y in market research communities (MROC’s) over time, such as that provided by Revelation Global, asks members to blog about their activities, upload photos and read and respond to the stories provided by their peers.  Steve August, principal at Revelation puts it this way: “You have to figure out ways to engage them at an emotional level, if you ask for cut-and-dried answers, you won’t get rich information.

Software innovations are extending qualitative research in new directions. For example, a new research app for the  iPhone, called Everyday Lives, shows great promise for making ethnographic research convenient for on the go researchers and study participants. Peanut Labs uses virtual worlds to stimulate participation. Through a partnership with, respondents can earn ‘virtual lunch money’ to share with friends or unlock hidden features on the site.

Millennial research experts agree on one thing, however. It’s best to have a Gen Y moderator involved in each project.

Under 20 moderators often think to ask questions older moderators might never consider. When we conducted research on our own behalf in 2008 about Gen Y’s workplace expectations, Carolyn Torres, a recent Notre Dame MBA grad working at Whirlpool, was tapped to draft the guide and lead the discussion. Her question, “If you could tell your boss one thing, what would it be?” lead to a surprising exchange which ended up being featured in our report and ultimately in an article in Advertising Age, (“The Inside Scoop on Millennial Hires”).

Younger moderators also have the advantage of ‘speaking the language’, so to speak.  Shalli Bhatt, 28, is an independent moderator based in Chicago. Bhatt had this to say in a recent article in QRCA Views: “Gen Y consumers appreciate that someone is listening to them and can recognize and embrace the subtleties of their own personal stories and experiences over time.” Outlaw’s Holly Brickley, 29, thinks her age gives her credibility with the target, but she also believes people of any age can draw out Gen Y consumers as long as they are ‘real and not disingenuous’.  Some things just can’t be faked.  On the Internet, no one may know you are a dog, but they certainly can tell if you aren’t in touch with their culture.