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John's Corner: Addressing the Nature of Importance and Salience

Posted by Megan McManaman on Tue, Nov 15, 2011

John's CornerThis month, John and Megan talk about the differences between importance and salience, and why they should matter to market researchers and their clients.

MM: In September we talked about differentiating goals from needs, and why market researchers must be more precise in their language. This month we’re discussing a different kind of distinction—between importance and salience.  What is this differentiation?

JM: I see salience and importance as two different conditions to address significance.  Salience is about the prominence of something that can change quickly (dynamic and short-term) while importance is about something more substantial and enduring (stable and long-term). I think it’s helpful to visualize importance and salience as ends of a continuum representing types of significance. As researchers we should attempt to represent those different conditions since they have a major bearing on how our results are applied.  Things that are salient will change fast and actions may accentuate those changes.  On the other hand, things that are important will have more long term meaning for enduring applications.

MM: We know that, in market research, significance is central to understanding decision making.  Can you give a concrete example of how importance and salience fit in?

JM: Think about what matters most to you now for service calls to your bank.  It may be speed of the response.  However, when the bank takes action so that your speed requirements are always met, something else will rise in significance to you, such as respect or treatment.  So speed is replaced by respect, and we can expect another change in the near future in what is salient to you.  On the other hand, you have personal values, such as honesty and responsibility taking.  These may vary in their relative significance but remain stable over time in their importance. At present, researchers use significance and importance interchangeably while salience is often ignored altogether.

MM: This is where it gets a bit fuzzy for me; the idea of short-term versus long-term significance seems a bit nebulous.

JM: It’s quite a pragmatic distinction. The word “important” should represent applications where significance is long-term or basic to what matters to a person.  “Salience” refers to more dynamic criteria where significance can be changed.  Put simply, importance is highly relevant when building offers and salience is relevant when identifying where to apply improvement programs. Both are concerned with revenue (importance to acquire and salience to retain) and cost (importance to trade-off what is provided and salience to prioritize maintenance expenditures).

MM: It’s clearer to me that the “importance” is best used when trying to leverage attributes of a company, product, or service, and “salience” is appropriate when we are measuring a process or criteria that are constantly shifting. But, why is this distinction so important?

JM: At the core of market research, is the desire to understand motivations and decision making. When we are more precise with our language we are more precise with our methods. We are better able to determine which criterion is most significant and then to prioritize what is most meaningful, it directly translates into improved business strategy and decision making.

Next month John tackles the problem of imprecise language in Market Research. What terms do you most often see misused; “data” instead of “results,” “survey” instead of “questionnaire?” Let us know in the comments.

Topics: John's Corner