Climbing Mountains


Climb mountains not so the world can see you, but so you can see the world. - David McCullough Jr.

I climbed Kilimanjaro (the highest peak in Africa at 19,341’) with my father in January and February 2015. We spent 8 days on the trail and covered 43 miles. Reflecting on that climb I’ve come to realize that there are many aspects of climbing mountains like Kilimanjaro that relate to respondent engagement and insightful market research.

The thought that usually goes through my head at the beginning of a climb is “We’re going all the way up there? What?!” That can be the same thought that precedes a research project as well. By applying some of the efficiencies listed here - this daunting feeling can turn into positive anticipation.

Here’s some mountaineering lessons I learned on Mt. Kilimanjaro that can be applied to research:

  1. Food Makes Everything Better. Nourishing your respondents is key to maintaining an impactful conversation and keeping the momentum. I don’t mean this literally like you should mail high calorie Snickers bars to respondents of online boards, but emotional nourishment can go a long way. Making that personal connection and ensuring respondents are being listened to can help them open up more.

  2. Sleep When You Can. When doing online communities, allowing breaks to help revitalize the group gives respondents the boost they need to continue to come back. Breaking an online board into multiple days or having rest days in between a 3-day board can make the group seem less daunting to respondents.

  3. Lift & Serve. On my climb our group of 12 clients had a support staff of 35 porters to carry our gear. They are incredibly strong men who took on our burdens and gear to ensure that we had the energy and strength to complete the climb we signed up for. As a moderator you have to do the heavy lifting for your respondents. The more you do to make them have seamless and easy interactions on online platforms and in groups the more they will focus their brain power on the insights you want them to.

  4. Puke and Rally. On Day 2 I got very sick from a reaction to the iodine water purification tablets (only happens to 1 in about 100,000 people, lucky me!...). I knew that at the next camp I would be able to get boiled water which would improve the state of my digestive system. There was nothing to do but keep moving forward. Projects are bound to have bumps along the road where it just doesn’t seem worth it to keep moving forward. The only way out of the mire is to move forward anyway.

  5. As John & Paul Once Said, Come Together. The 12 clients on our climb came from vastly different backgrounds and we all had very different personalities. It was this hodge podge of backgrounds and personalities that made the climb beautiful and interesting. Research is the same - gathering a wide array of personalities where respondents can bring varying strengths to online boards can create beautiful and well-rounded insights.

  6. Preventative Medications Help Deal with Threats. A lot of the preparations we had for the climb included awareness of the threats that we would encounter on our climb. Altitude sickness and weather were two of the major points of concern. We not only had to be aware of these threats but we needed to have the preventative measures (such as diamox to prevent altitude sickness and malarone for malaria) and gear in place to deal with them well. By understanding your market and respondents and doing the proper prep work, you can more adequately prep your group for success. Are there market shifts or dynamics you need to be aware of? Issues with technology or sensitive topics? If you encounter concerning threats during research you need to have the preventative measures in place to deal with them on the spot or prevent them altogether.

  7. Equip Yourself with the Right Tools. Before heading to Africa, I upgraded my water system to a CamelBak hydration bag which sat in my backpack and had a long straw so I could drink water while walking without having to stop and dig it out of my pack. This created a lot of efficiency during my climb. I made it as easy as possible for myself to get my necessities and stay hydrated. In research, the right tools can make all the difference for a project. Utilizing the right online bulletin board platform can make projects run more smoothly and can make respondent experiences much more enjoyable. When you make it as easy as possible for respondents to not get distracted by technology faux pas and other issues, you make it easy for them to focus on the topic at hand.

  8. Don’t Get Discouraged by the Weather. When we were climbing, the clouds would generally roll in around 9 am and stick around until 5 pm. Therefore we only got to see the summit in the mornings and evenings because of this weather we encountered. Just because the summit was covered in clouds didn’t mean it wasn’t there. Sometimes when research is in progress it can seem cloudy and uninsightful but just because there’s a few clouds during fielding doesn’t mean the insights aren’t there.

  9. Don’t Rush. Heading up to 19,341’ is a major ordeal where altitude sickness is an ever present concern and can be life threatening. By taking our time heading up the mountain we were able to adequately acclimate so that our bodies could handle the stress. It also allowed us to be present and take time to process what we were experiencing. It was a beautiful thing. In research it is important to not rush and overpack days as well. If you squeeze too much into a day on an online board, focus group or a survey, you risk overwhelming your respondents and bringing down the quality of the research. It’s been proven that quality deteriorates the longer a survey goes. Give respondents a break or a rest day. Allow them to really focus and be present on a few well-thought-out questions. If you rush them straight to more and more questions, you automatically take out the organic insight-forming conversations. So many nuggets come from really diving in to topics and taking your time.

  10. Going Down is Still Half the Journey. It’s amazing how many memorable moments and conversations can happen on the way down a mountain. Usually I discount this as I’ve reached my goal and now I’m just rushing to be done with the climb. While doing research, just because the focus group is wrapping up or finished doesn’t mean that there aren’t impactful findings hiding in transcripts. Finding insights doesn’t stop the moment the focus group does. Putting the pieces together at the end is half the fun!

One final bonus tidbit:

  1. Celebrate. No better way to feel accomplished at the end of a big project than looking back and recognizing where you started and where you are now. Why not take a moment to celebrate! That was a big task! Respondents like to celebrate too-- recognize them for the insights they provided!