Piece 1: Hunches and hypotheses Marketing research is generally better suited to testing hypotheses than to following hunches. This said, both hypotheses and hunches can be “sufficient cause” to underwrite research studies. This Piece comments on this claim with respect to hunches. What is the distinction between a hunch and a hypothesis? A hypothesis is intended to be tested (or at least testable) in some way. Often, the method of verification is implied in its assertion. To hypothesize (before 1969 anyhow) that the moon is made of blue cheese implies that a visit there (or a spectrographic analysis of its surface maybe) would be needed to test the validity of the assertion: granite, grit, gorgonzola, gruyere or some other geological or gastronomic unknown? A hunch is much less “formed” than a hypothesis, often little more than a guess, and usually lacking a means of verification at the time it is proposed. A pre-season hunch (in 2007) that the Mets would win the World Series was not testable when proposed, and is indeed tautologous since it could not be tested until its defining element were already fact (or fiction). Sometimes, however, a hunch is voiced with an implied wish that there were some way to convert it to a hypothesis. It is in this sense that hunches and research can benefit from each other, as will be shown below. In some ways, hunches and hypotheses correspond to open-ended and closed or structured questions in marketing research. [See Bit 1 for comments on open-ended questions.] Hunches (and open-ends) are usually hopeful, future-oriented, general, unconditional, free of specific underlying assumptions, provocative, challenging or “out of left field” perhaps. Hypotheses and closed-ends, on the other hand, are expectant, present-oriented, specific, conditional, and based on assumptions - but may of course also be provocative, challenging or unorthodox in the same way as hunches. There are research techniques available to “deal with” the essential attributes of hunches, just as hypotheses can be rigorously tested using appropriate methods of sampling, data collection and analysis. (This Piece does not cover research methods for hypothesis testing. It is a broad and deep subject covered amply in many published sources. Later Pieces will however address aspects of hypothesis testing.) Research techniques for evaluating hunches often aim quite specifically at their eventual conversion into hypotheses (or abandonment). There are numerous reasons for this, centered often on the desirability of obtaining some form of measurement for their evaluation. Exploring hunches must allow the free flow of ideas, in an ambience where their attributes can flourish. Participants in the process should aim to foment free-ranging discussion without sinking to mere wooliness. Thus, its investigator (researcher, moderator, interviewer) must steer a fine line between over- and under-preparedness, both for one-on-one discussion and for focus groups or similar occasions. Above all, hunches - once aired, and however well articulated – should receive initial support before being criticized. (This seemingly trivial but highly effective notion is sometimes formalized in focus groups: a given time period is allotted solely to “positive” commentary – a simple mechanism to prevent the fragility of a hunch being crushed prematurely.) Support; free flow of ideas; an ambience conducive to discussion – all these are essential qualities of research exploring hunches, no matter how conducted. But eventually something has to emerge from the effort besides a warm feeling or its counterpart. Discussion, in other words, is better channeled in a way that poses the question: Can this hunch be converted into a hypothesis? If so, how? A key dimension in the conversion of a hunch to a hypothesis is, as noted, its “testability”. How will the hunch be verified or denied? What is entailed in its verification? (A trip to the moon maybe?) What will be the benefits in doing so? Who will do it? The answers to these questions must form part of the exploratory discussions, whether one-on-one or in groups. Therefore, these questions (or rather questions that lead up to seeing ways answering them) must form an integral component of early discussions. A second dimension is the potentially delicate one of qualification – that is, being qualified to take part in the verification process (a straightforward matter in most circumstances) and, more subtly, being qualified to assess the hunch in the first place. The mantra that “every opinion counts” does not apply in converting hunches to hypotheses, attractive and “inclusive” though it may sound in a sentimental way. Every opinion may (or may not) be interesting (and there is usually no shortage of them) but that does not mean each one counts. Counter-intuitively maybe, the proponent of a hunch may not be qualified to pursue the notion any further. Indeed, suggestion boxes are full of hunches from, well, left field. Those involved in assessing hunches and their “potential” for conversion to hypotheses should have some “say” in the microeconomic implications of their ultimately being “tested positive”. What are these “microeconomic implications” in the process? Simply put (too simply no doubt) each hunch contains an implied “cost” associated with its verification (the moon trip) and a “benefit” associated with its subsequent veracity and enactment (trillions of tons of gorgonzola or priceless incremental knowledge). Most research associated with evaluating hunches concerns itself with the latter (its rewards), and often in a broad-brush way. Only when the rewards seem attractive enough is it worth moving on to create specific hypotheses. What do these two dimensions – testability and qualification - of the conversion process suggest? At least one cardinal rule emerges from discussions airing and evaluating hunches: Draw no conclusions from them – except if the hunch proves to be untenable at a common-sense level, but use them as preparation for discovering hypotheses. And (an oblique commercial message here) work with someone who is used to the conversion process. Focus groups in particular – but also one-on-one interviews - are delicate instruments that can easily transmute from flowerbeds to minefields. Each requires the tiptoe approach: the important thing is to have some sort of guidance as to where to tread. That’s my hunch anyhow.