How researchers get heard
Abstract lines

Is Research a Good or a Service?

We assume that research and the expertise that flows from research is all information. Information is most often a good or a service.

Increasingly, however, goods and services are not enough. The world wants experiences and transformations — the “experience economy,” in the rubric of management advisor Joe Pine. We continue to sell things you hand to someone or do for someone. Meanwhile, the world wants things done to them, or help becoming something different.

Jonny Ive understood this. When you buy an Apple product, you aren’t buying a good. You’re buying an experience — from the unboxing to the setup to the design to the interface to the (sometimes!) seamless integration with your other Apple products. It’s not just conspicuous consumption of a luxury good, as some sneer. You actually intend to create a new and ongoing state for yourself.

Going to “Hamilton” is both an experience and a transformation. So is going to a well-curated show at a great museum. Live sporting events are, increasingly, often poor experiences, and rarely transformational — which is why they’re losing to e-sports.

In Pine’s definition of transformation (as he related it to Jonathan Stark and Rochelle Moulton on their excellent podcast, The Business of Authority), “the customer is the product. The inputs you do, the activities you do, the functional things that you do, the whats — don’t matter unless the customer achieves the aspiration that they want.”

Research never thinks of itself as an experience, much less a transformation. Of course, we want our research to transform our audiences. But the way we deliver it says: it’s about the research, take it or leave it. We don’t customize it for the audience. We rarely pay attention to who they are and how they might experience it. We make little attempt to create a pathway to their transformation out of what we’ve found.

As Pine says: “We only ever change through the experiences we have.”

Researchers who take transformation of their audiences seriously develop the skills and assets to do so. They develop messaging, incubate great talks, learn how to write compellingly and without jargon, learn how to be effective on camera, and plan their research agendas to fuel that transformation.

Research-driven organizations that take transformation seriously are thinking continually about the present and desired future states of their audiences — and how to win their trust as a guide to that transformation.

In real time, research is incremental at best. Over the long term, though, the body of it — and the authority that can flow from expertise rooted in research — is fundamentally transformational. 

And that transformational power and potential is one of the best arguments, I think, for moving away from the single-study click-farming way of doing research communications to a longer, more holistic paradigm of authority.