The Truth About Market Research

Well, one of the truths…


Ok, it’s a trick question. The answer’s below. But start with this question asked of Steve Jobs in a 1990 PBS interview, which you probably haven’t seen before. It’s also available for your viewing below…

Q: How important is market research? How much did you rely on it in the early days?

The problem is that market research can tell you what your customers think of something you show them. Or it can tell you what your customers want as an incremental improvement on what you have, but very rarely can your customers predict something that they don’t even quite know they want yet.

As an example, no market research could have led to the development of the Macintosh, or the personal computer in the first place. So, there are these sort of non-incremental jumps that need to take place where it is very difficult for market research to really contribute much in the early phases of the thinking of how, you know, what those should be..”

However, once you have made that jump, possibly before the product’s on the market, or even after, is a great time to go check your instincts with the marketplace and verify that you’re on the right track. And usually when you show people something, they’ll say ‘Oh my God, this is fantastic, or give you some feedback along those lines.”

My problem with radio and market research is precisely the problem Steve Jobs had with it: Listeners can’t give us opinions about something they don’t hear, and almost all radio stations sound so much alike now, that the idea of differentiation, for the listener, is absurd.

We’re not even getting incremental improvements anymore.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with market research, but consolidated Radio uses research to justify decisions, to play it safer than they could otherwise, and as a substitute for real creativity. It’s CYA at $35,000 per market.

Do you think HOT HITS could happen in today’s consolidated radio?

Do you think KBCO would have the time, and the support, to define a whole new format today?

Do you think KVIL could be created now, with incredible talent in every daypart and contests that stretched listeners’ imagination as never before?

None of those formats could be predicted with market research because no one in their markets had ever heard anything like them before. They were completely new.

As my friend, George Johns, who helped create KVIL, and who is a lot smarter and a lot more successful than I will ever be, said recently on his blog, “Folks don’t really know what they really like or want until they see it, hear it, taste it, touch it, or smell it. Our job is to invent it, then tell them why they like it.”

George is my kind of radio guy. He’s a creator.

Now, KBCO doesn’t even sound like KBCO. It’s homogenized AAA with too many spots. KVIL is a boring music box.

Oh how I long for some true creativity in our business again.


I once read that Steve Jobs had an exact mock-up of the first Apple Store constructed in a warehouse somewhere, so he could see it and make design changes before the concept debuted in the real marketplace.

He did research, just not the kind most other companies do, with sketches or mock-ups shown to focus groups. Jobs used research to refine creations he built. He didn’t rely on research to create the products, only to improve them.

I remember when radio used to ‘secretly’ have entire staffs practice a new format off the air, complete with jingles, and production elements, in ‘real time,’ so that when the new format debuted, it would sound great, really great, to that very first listener.

I think Merlin should have tried that before they debuted in New York and Chicago.

You know the saying: You only have one chance to make a first impression.

BTW, you probably haven’t seen this PBS interview with Steve Jobs before. It’s vintage Jobs…


Watch An Interview With Steve Jobs on PBS. See more from NOVA.


*Thanks to my friend, Allan Hotlen for making me aware of this interview.