Yesterday three key leaders (and disruptors) of the market research industry - from Brainjuicer, Qualtrics and Google - took part in an interesting and provocative ESOMAR Webinar discussion on the future of market research. Here are my key take-outs from the session:
New Technology at the Forefront of Behavioural Research
Technology has been disrupting market research throughout its history – older researchers may remember how the term ‘punching’ of data arose and of course in recent decades we have the rise of online research. However these changes didn’t really threaten the business models of existing suppliers of market research. What we now face is how technology – through big data computing – is automating the WHAT of consumer behaviour. Behavioural data used to be collected in survey-based methodologies (based on either recall of past behaviour or intention of future behaviour). Technology is now providing alternative (and cheaper, quicker) ways to collect the WHAT as it happens and also PREDICT future behaviour based on ‘big data’ algorithms. This ability to predict behaviour will surely increase in future.
Technology is also shaping the people we wish to understand. It has through social media created an ‘opinion culture’ where everyone feels entitled to express an opinion on any subject. Arguably this ‘democratisation of information’ is facilitating a more fickle consumer – as we are exposed to more opinions our own become less static. Market researchers can use technology to measure and understand these ever-shifting opinions, for example through social media listening.
How is this Impacting ‘Traditional’ Research Methods?
Many quantitative survey based approaches will increasingly be competing with technology led automated approaches. Technology may be slowly replacing surveys for the WHAT of consumer behaviour but to solve many marketing problems we still need to understand the WHY. Qualitative research is as much art as science and it is harder to replicate the same level of insight in technology-based solutions.
Furthermore, the social/behavioural sciences and neuroscience are increasingly showing us the complexity that underlies human decision-making and behaviour. We can see now both the importance of context and the prevalence of irrationality in decision-making and this perhaps provides an even greater need for the qualitative toolkit to help us get beyond a surface level of understanding. So the impact can potentially be greater on traditional survey-based quantitative research, which needs to continue to evolve to ensure the right questions are asked at the right time to the right person.
Proving our Worth
Whatever role technology plays in the future of market research, we still need to show our value in a more transparent and tangible way. New ways of collecting data, integrating it with other data sources and analysing it are making us rethink the existing paradigms around what constitutes ‘rigour’ and ‘quality’. Previously as an industry we were focused on the robustness of the sampling and statistical approaches we used, but as recent results of polling surveys in the UK have shown, this does not guarantee good results. Do we need to be less academic and more practical and focus more on research’s ability to drive profitable brand growth as the key determinant of quality? This recognises the complexity of doing great impactful research in 2016 and recognises that there are numerous pathways and determinants to delivering good research outcomes. And it puts clients at the heart of the matter, who will decide what constitutes ‘quality’ using their marketing and research budgets.
The key themes discussed can be narrowed down to discussions on how technology is changing the market research landscape (and what is means for traditional research) and how as an industry we need to prove our worth. Whilst it was highly enjoyable and engaging to hear the worldviews of these industry disruptors, these are not new themes.
As market research practitioners, we have a choice about how we respond to these changes. If we stick with what we know, then slowly we will see innovation, both driven by technology and through new theories of human behaviour, replace (some) traditional methods. If we choose to engage with the new and we are willing to spend time to explore how to leverage technology and latest thinking in the social, behavioural and neuro-sciences for greater insight, we will be well-armed to maintain and increase our relevance and influence. Most good researchers I know are driven by curiosity so it shouldn’t be too hard. A third way is to specialise and be the best at what you do. Not everyone wants to be a data scientist. The choice is yours.