We Overvalue Norms… in Market Research and in Life

As a society we value norms — how is something compared with the “normal”. School starts it off but throughout our lives we seem to find ways to comparing ourselves to some normal. Even online we have developed measures of how we are doing relative to some standard (see klout).

When we reduce ourselves to a comparison with the normal we are inevitably losing the essence of who we are.

In market research norms are particularly banal. The norms, by definition, are an average of a disparate number of, probably unlike, observations. A great score or a really bad score moves the needle of a norm only perceptively with a lot of observations.  The norm is not special; its just there.

Particularly used to benchmark customer satisfaction or ad success, the norm is an interpretive crutch used to avoid the more difficult work of unpacking a research findings.

  • “You are doing better than average”… so no problem.
  • A good score is anything above…”; … this is your target.

Norms may be here to stay but as Seth Godin has pointed out, We Are All Weird, the world is getting weirder. Our preoccupation with normal is a cultural phenomenon. “Marketers have made normal a moral and cultural standard, not just a statistical one” (Seth Godin, We Are All Weird).

As a proponent of evidence-based decision-making, I appreciate the desire to measure and compare. But why use an amorphous norm? How about a “best-in-class” metric? Or, how about develop your metrics with your business in mind? Who wants to be average?

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About Richard Jenkins

Market research professional and small business owner

View all posts by Richard Jenkins


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