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Mental Model Mining: 3 steps to understanding how customers think about your brand

Mental models are explanations of how we receive and interpret information and, ultimately, shape how we make sense of the world. They manifest in language through the conceptual narratives and metaphors we use in our everyday communication. Mental modeling can be tremendously helpful in market research: by understanding mental models and the related narratives (such as Heroic Journey, Transformation, Rescue, etc.), researchers and marketers can develop messaging strategies that more effectively motivate their target audiences to action.

As researchers of the more qualitative variety, the best we can do for our clients is help them understand, shape and command the meaning-making environments in which they operate. The best way to do that is to mine data not only for what people say but also for how they say it. This provides a window into how they think about our clients and why they behave the way they do.

Let me illustrate.

Here is a reader comment posted to the discussion thread of an online article about Tesla Motors.

“Kudos to Tesla. The change has begun and the race will be run. The world will be better, incrementally, but Tesla and others are giving our children a chance to see what majesty the earth held for those of us fortunate enough to have seen it. I’m afraid our stories to the kids will sound like the old perceived embellishments of the snow being whiter, the stars so much brighter and the air after a rain intoxicating. I’ll keep the stories of the back seat out of respect for the wives and mothers but I cheer Tesla.”

As a research provider and strategic consultant to your client, your ability to analyze this text, and the hundreds that accompany it, determines just how necessary you are to your clients’ success.

Below are three tips on getting the most from your insights and analytics work.

1. Get Your Head out of the Cloud

Clients love word clouds. Here is a word cloud.

Word clouds take messy, language-based data – like the discussion board post above – and give it the quantitative treatment, itemizing and tabulating words as discrete objects without acknowledging their semantic and syntactic relations or, more importantly, the broader discourses from which they came. Word clouds reveal – in the crudest and most literal way – what people say, not necessarily what they mean.

Like Chris Tucker to Jackie Chan, they beg the question: “DO YOU UNDERSTAND THE WORDS THAT ARE COMING OUT OF MY MOUTH?”

2. Get Your Feet on the Ground

Through simple content analysis, you can discern the general sentiment people have toward the company and the range of associations they attach to it. A series of discussion board posts like the one above might lead to a representable finding that people view Tesla Motors favorably due to the company’s perceived positive impact on the environment.

This is where most analytical work stops: at the raking, piling and stuffing of observations into a series of neatly bagged findings. This is important work, for sure, and useful for informing a number of marketing initiatives; less useful, though, for capturing and changing hearts and minds. For that, more work needs to be done.

To really add value and counsel our clients toward success, we need to press a boot against the shovel and shove. You’re looking for insights, and insights exist only in the deep. So start digging.

3. Dig!

Using the tools of discourse analysis – such as thematic and metaphor analysis – we can dig beneath the content level to uncover the largely unconscious mental models that govern how people think about companies and products. These mental models are where meaning gets made, and meaning is ultimately what determines failure or success.

Getting beneath the surface-level content of the above post to see its underlying structure, we find that the writer’s understanding is shaped by a Transformation and Rescue Narrative. He frames Tesla Motors as the goal-oriented archetypal hero who is giving “our children a chance” and himself as a loss-focused victim who is “afraid our stories to the kids will sound like old perceived embellishments.” It’s a story about a fighting chance in a world gone sour.

Mental models are how people make sense of the world. They’re cognitive shortcuts that enable us to readily process the vast amount of information we encounter every day. Through mental models, we readily identify politicians as liars or defenders of the people and CEOs as crooks or job creators – and we filter everything we see, read and hear accordingly.

By understanding the range and variety of mental models customers have toward brands, products and services, you can better shape and command the meaning-making environment. All you have to do is dig!

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