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Formulating Interesting

Research Questions
Glenn B. Voss
North Carolina State University

I frequently hear lamentations that research appearing equal or greater problem is that many of the submissions at
in academic journals is not interesting. The reasons ad- these journals fail to make interesting contributions.
vanced include the academic writing style not being inter- With that in mind, I will endeavor to offer suggestions
esting and the potential audience for the article being on how to formulate more interesting research questions.
relatively small. There also is widespread criticism of the The formulation of an interesting research question is a
academic review process, such as: necessary first step to conducting successful research.
When this first step is done poorly, the research is doomed
9 Reviewers are overly critical, protect their turf, to mediocrity. But "being interesting" is a tacit skill that is
squelch creative new ideas, and are slow to respond. hard to define or teach (see Davis 1971; Zaltman,
9 Editors are too conservative, too passive, and reject LeMasters, and Heffering 1982). We easily recognize
everything (that I write). when something is interesting (and even more easily when
it is not!), but it is difficult to articulate what makes some-
The result is that academic research is perceived as irrele- thing interesting.
vant and incremental and is rarely read.
Figure 1 offers a framework for identifying interesting
It should come as no surprise that the academic review
research questions that has been adapted from Henderson
process is viewed as flawed. The evaluation and produc-
and Clark's (1990) framework for defining innovation.
tion of new ideas is, at best, an ill-structured problem, and
This framework identifies two distinct dimensions of inno-
market failure in this process is universally evident. For
vation and proposes a 2 • 2 matrix that yields four types of
example, the television and film industries spend billions
innovation in marketing research. In the sections that fol-
to develop, evaluate, and distribute new concepts. Pub-
low, I will describe each type of innovation and offer ex-
lishers search for promising new authors and manuscripts.
amples from creative fields and from marketing research.
Advertisers create new images and messages. The success
The accompanying discussion suggests that
rate for these various efforts is underwhelming. And we
the public see only the small percentage of ideas that sur-
9 incremental innovation in marketing research is in-
vive the review and evaluation process.
herently less interesting and less likely to make a
The programming of academic research is unique in
contribution significant enough to warrant publica-
that the audience for new ideas also plays the role of pro-
tion in a top academic journal;
ducer and reviewer. Thus, unlike television programming
9 modular and architectural innovations in marketing
where my only option is either to watch or not, I read aca-
research produce a large number of the interesting
demic journals, participate in the review process, and
studies that are published in top academic journals;
occasionally contribute content as an author. In all of these
and
capacities, I am excited by research that is interesting,
9 radical innovation, while inherently interesting, is
which I define as research that makes a significant contri-
rare and difficult to implement for all but the most
bution to the body of knowledge. Unfortunately, as a
skillful researchers.
reviewer, I frequently read papers that are not interesting,
and even the authors are hard-pressed to clearly articulate
the study's contribution. Thus, although the review pro- INCREMENTAL INNOVATION IN
cess at many scholarly journals may have deficiencies, an MARKETING RESEARCH

Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science. According to Henderson and Clark (1990), incremental
Volume 31, No. 3, pages 356-359.
DOI: 10.1177/0092070303253870 innovation "refines and extends an established design.
Copyright 9 2003 by Academy of Marketing Science. Improvement occurs in individual components, but the
Voss / INTERESTING RESEARCH QUESTIONS 357

FIGURE 1
A Framework for Formulating Interesting Marketing Research Questions

Linkages Between Core Concepts


Core Concepts Reinforced Changed
Same Incrcmenal Innovation in Marketing Research Modular Innovation in Marketing Research
Replicate results for the focal relationship(s) Define, measure, or analyze one or more core constructs in a new
Replicate results for the focal relationship(s) and extend way
by adding peripheral construct(s)
Different Architectural Innovation in Marketing Research Radical Innovation in Marketing Research
Examine a new situation or context in which the nature Introduce a new conceptualization that replaces and changes how
of the focal relationship(s) may be different we think of the old constructs and relationship(s)
Examine the role of a new construct that may moderate
the nature of the focal relationship(s)

underlying core design concepts, and the links between conditions may moderate relationships of interest in strat-
them, remain the same" (p. 11). In the world of theater, egy research. Individual-difference variables or purchase
incremental innovation occurs each time a classic play situations may moderate relationships of interest in con-
(e.g., Shakespeare) is remounted with different directors sumer research. Research examining these moderating
and actors interpreting the motivations behind each char- conditions or constructs deepens our understanding of the
acter. These nuances may produce new insights into the complexity of the relationships examined.
relationships between characters, even though the pre- Consider, for example, research examining price-
scribed nature of the relationships in the script (father, sis- quality-value relationships. Perceived value is generally
ter, lover, etc.) remains unchanged. In marketing research, thought to be a negative function of price and a positive
incremental innovation takes the form of replication stud- function of quality, so that yet another study supporting
ies that also may extend the examination to include addi- these relationships is generally uninteresting. Studies that
tional peripheral constructs. examine moderating conditions for the price-quality-
Incremental innovation has its place in academic value relationships are far more interesting. Some of the
research, but it is inherently less interesting than more more interesting research on product value of the last two
innovative research and offers relatively little contribution decades has examined how price and value perceptions
to new knowledge. As such, incremental research has a vary based on changes in reference price across individu-
lower probability of being published in a top academic als or across contexts (e.g., Niedrich, Sharma, and Wedell
journal. Stewart (2002) ranks insufficient contribution as 2001; Thaler 1985). These findings suggest that the value
the single most common reason for rejection at the Journal calculation formula changes but that the relationship be-
of Marketing. Producing more interesting research tween price and value remains negative.
requires new relationships, situations, contexts, or con- There also exists conceptual support for a positive rela-
structs that change our current understanding of the phe- tionship between price and perceived value (or demand) in
nomenon. This can be accomplished by implementing some contexts and within some range of prices, a phenom-
either architectural or modular innovations in marketing enon referred to as a Geffen good in the economics litera-
research. ture. These represent boundary conditions for the price-
value relationship, where the relationship changes from
negative to positive. But there is little empirical research in
ARCHITECTURAL INNOVATION IN marketing that supports the existence of these conditions.
MARKETING RESEARCH An empirical study that illuminates the conditions under
which the price-value relationship is actually positive
With architectural innovation, the core concepts of the would be inherently interesting.
system remain the same but new interactions and linkages The other side of the value equation suggests that qual-
between the components are introduced (Henderson and ity or performance assessments are positively linked to
Clark 1990). Architectural innovation is the norm in situa- value. There has been a healthy debate as to whether exam-
tion comedies, where core characters interact in new situa- ining the process by which consumers relate perceptions
tions each week. In marketing research, architectural inno- to expectations enhances our understanding of value or
vation involves identifying moderating or boundary satisfaction formation, but at some point, this debate
conditions that produce new meaning or insights for the becomes less interesting. A more interesting research
focal relationships. Contextual variables such as industry question is under what conditions or for which market
358 JOURNAL OF THE ACADEMY OF MARKETING SCIENCE SUMMER 2003

segments might we find that exceeding quality expecta- Cha, and Bryant 1996). This type of research requires an
tions leads to lower value perceptions. This would suggest understanding of the issues and challenges associated with
that expectations can act as a classic rather than infinite cross-level research (see Klein, Dansereau, and Hall 1994
ideal point (e.g., Teas 1993). Thus, while the price-quality- for a discussion of levels issues).
value relationship is an interesting story, additional mean- The Marketing Science Institute's recent competition
ing is provided by examining constructs or contexts that on Linking Marketing to Financial Performance and Finn
interact with the focal constructs to produce new meaning Value can be seen as a stimulus for modular innovation.
or insights. The purpose of the competition was to stimulate empirical
research examining links between marketing activities and
financial performance. Winners of the competition linked
MODULAR INNOVATION IN customer satisfaction and shareholder value (Anderson,
MARKETING RESEARCH
Fornell, and Mazvancheryl 2002), competitive strategies,
advertising, personal sales and return on investment
Modular innovation involves replacing one or more (Chintagunta and Desiraju 2002), and branding strategy
core concepts without changing the system's architecture and intangible firm value (Rao, Agarwal, and Dahlhoff
(Henderson and Clark 1990). For example, the basic story, 2002). In each instance, marketers generally would agree
focal characters, and relationships in West Side Story are that the focal construct (e.g., customer satisfaction, adver-
largely the same as in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, but tising, branding strategy) should be related to finn perfor-
moving the story from sixteenth-century Italy to twenti- mance, so the primary contribution of the winning
eth-century New York changes the core theme from family research was the explicit use of financial outcome vari-
hatred to racism in America. In marketing research, modu- ables rather than, for example, managers' subjective
lar innovation occurs when the conceptual system of rela- assessments of firm performance. The research offers new
tionships remains unchanged but one or more of the focal insights by defining, measuring, and analyzing focal con-
constructs are defined, measured, or analyzed in a new cepts in new ways.
way. This shift in measurement or analysis extends our
understanding of the nature of the focal relationships by
examining them through a different lens. RADICAL INNOVATION IN
For example, most marketers accept that favorable con- MARKETING RESEARCH
sumer performance assessments lead to satisfaction and
repurchase intentions, and additional studies confirming Radical innovation creates a dominant new design that
these links offer relatively little new knowledge. Two incorporates links between new core concepts (Henderson
recent studies made significant contributions to the satis- and Clark 1990). About a decade ago, the publishing
faction literature by changing methods of measurement or industry introduced a radical innovation in the form of
analysis. Mittal and Kamakura (2001) replicated earlier "books on tape" This innovation changes how consumers
studies demonstrating a link between satisfaction and interact with their books (listening rather than reading),
repurchase intentions, but they also implemented a modu- and it changes how books are designed, produced, and
lar innovation by exploring the nature of the link between packaged. In marketing research, radical innovation pro-
satisfaction and actual repurchase behavior. Fournier and duces a paradigm shift that introduces new constructs that
Mick (1999) used a phenomenological approach to exam- both replace and change how we think of the focal
ine the extant consumer satisfaction paradigm and pro- relationships.
duced new insights by changing the method of measure- As in most contexts, radical innovation in marketing
ment and the level of analysis. research occurs infrequently, and it is a somewhat arbitrary
There are other examples of modular innovation that designation. One candidate for radical innovation designa-
change the level of analysis. Most quality or satisfaction tion in marketing research is the concept of relationship
research has been conducted at the individual level of the- marketing. Initially introduced into the services marketing
ory and measurement with the analyses and findings gen- literature (Berry 1983), relationship marketing has influ-
eralized to some aggregate population of customers. enced or subsumed research in consumer behavior, cus-
Recent studies have moved the level of theory and analysis tomer satisfaction, channel management, direct market-
from the individual customer to the level of the firm, in an ing, database marketing, frequency marketing, Internet
attempt to determine the long-term value to the company marketing, and nonprofit marketing. Relationship market-
of delivering quality to its customers (e.g., Rust, Zahorik, ing is now a dominant theme in marketing research (Stew-
and Keiningham 1995). Other research has examined the art 2002).
relationship between the quality of goods and services and Several characteristics of radical innovation are worth
the performance of entire industries, economic sectors, noting. Radical innovation is a chaotic process subject to
and national economies (e.g., Fornell, Johnson, Anderson, high failure rates. Doing it well requires tacit knowledge
Voss / INTERESTING RESEARCH QUESTION8 359

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