Opportunities and Threats in a Brave New Market Research World

research

Much is written about how much Research has changed over the past few years – mobile is the latest big thing, social media is hovering in the background to be trawled for insights, ethnography is making a comeback, online qual. is proving extremely popular thanks to the speed and ease with which selected consumers can give their opinions on a whole range of subjects. Behavioural Economics has pointed out with much fanfare what qualitative researchers have always known – that context, social influence and emotions play a huge role in influencing what we say and do.

It’s exciting times, and from a Client perspective almost bewildering – the array of options from which to choose from is expanding rapidly, and the new normal seems to be that any one insights challenge requires a mixed methodology approach, using online, offline, qual and quant. We encircle our subject with an ever better (we hope) sense of what’s really going on – making Research an even more powerful tool.

So why the ongoing sense of Angst – that Research is threatened? Shouldn’t we be relishing change as an opportunity to become more influential with an upgraded toolkit?

My sense is it’s actually change per se, that is making many of us feel uncomfortable – margin-destroying, pervasive, ongoing. Low-cost technology software is putting MR tools into the hands of the potentially inexperienced. Our professional status is challenged; our sense of relative immunity to the ups and downs of economic cycles shattered; some of our assumptions on how best to model human behaviour are being shown to be wrong. It’s how we react to this change that will determine whether we will emerge strengthened or elbowed aside in a wave of MR disruption.

Here’s my take on the opportunities and threats.

Opportunities:

Data Experts = Insights Experts
Companies are exposed to ever more information, but we still live in a world short on real insights. This is a huge opportunity for Market Researchers: to widen the scope of our mandate – take on sales data, market data, financial data, feedback from Customer Service, sales force reports, and mine them appropriately for a given business question.

Nearer the Action
The traditional structure of a Research programme was invariably quant. survey plus groups/depths – solid, but hardly spicy and often regarded as costly and slow by Marketing people inspired by the speed with which their Internet Marketing analytics were available. All that has changed with a MR powered by technology which can now deliver data (not necessarily insights) in days not weeks, and where the visualisation of evidence produced by Smartphones gets us really up-close and personal.

This ability to be on-the pace pushes market research nearer to decision making – and helps ensure we are an ongoing and valued member of the marketing team.

New MR = Creative and Strategic
Market Research increasingly plays a strategic role in new product development: we are tasked with unearthing unmet needs, leading ideation projects; we often take the lead in multi-functional task forces made up of R&D, marketing and sales personnel.

This is a radically new position: we’re forced to develop hypotheses, not just evaluate them, to be pro-active, engage in lateral thinking, and step out of our analytical comfort zone. Get this right and you automatically upgrade the value of the MR effort.

Threats

Role-Usurption
Market Researchers used to be data-guardians, people respected for their in-depth knowledge of categories and brands, often gained over decades. The power associated with this knowledge primacy has effectively been exploded – data often bypasses the MR department; Marketing people with good business degrees often have a good grasp of how to use Excel, perform simple regression analyses, certainly track data, and establish benchmarks. The black box, if you like, has been replaced by Pandora’s box.

This data-freedom means Researchers need to work harder to be recognised and valued as the true go-to people when it comes to insights.

market-research

“D. I. B.” (Do it Badly) Research
Low-cost, easy-to-use survey software effectively allows anyone with a database to do their own research – social media scraping (netnography at its best) is equally a field open to those with the time and inclination. The DIY trend is unquantified, often under-discussed, but a strong one in MR, driven by cost and speed – unstoppable forces, but with a downside: the lack of understanding of what makes good research, and what dangers and biases are involved in the whole Research process. I recently heard the phrase “Do-It -Together” at an Esomar Conference – which nicely encapsulates one way of addressing the danger of botched DIY Market Research, by collaborating and offering training, expertise.

Volume not Value Growth
The biggest single pressure I see on MR of the future is on budgets – either flat, decreasing, or simply not capturing a larger slice of the Marketing pot. More needs to be done with less, effectively – and once Marketing people have discovered the benefits of using a proprietary panel – radically reducing the per-survey cost – the floodgates can and do open.

This can lead to MR departments being bombarded with Survey requests, with less and less time available to evaluate the results. Larger Client side MR departments can split roles into more senior “strategic evaluators” roles and more junior “data-providers”, but for many smaller companies this isn’t an option.

Outlook

In summary, Research has a broader and arguably superior toolkit than say 5 years ago – we can get closer and closer to an authentic sense of what is driving choice, be it habit, social influence, visceral states or impulse. We have reason to be optimistic, but the hope that methodologies will on their own actually make a massive difference may be naive.

The most pressing challenge for Market Research in future is in my view actually using all the methodological innovations for superior business impact.

The most amazing tools aren’t much use in the hands of mediocre craftsmen, and vice versa: brilliant skills can create much out of nothing. It’s here ,at the coal-face of MR – the area of ROI and impact – that we actually need to see the needle move. I hope that we can look back in 5 years time and say that all our improved insights actually made a bigger difference, and that we captured the recognition for the additional value we bring to the party

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