Automation – a curse or a gift?

It won’t be long before we will all have driverless cars and faceless personal assistants and that any contact with a company will in fact be with a bot or Artificial Intelligence system. Technological developments are creating new playgrounds for businesses and consumers. Yet at the same time, a study by Oxford University shows that nearly half of the US jobs run the risk of being automated in the next 20 years (Osborne M, 2013).
Whether or not you are at risk of being out of a job soon, there is no doubt automation will reshift not only how we do business but also our lives. In fact, it already started doing so. The rise of bots and Artificial Intelligence is at full speed, with the human brain being surpassed by the rise of smart machine-learning systems. And this is also the case in marketing research, where automation is fueling the need for speed and bringing many new opportunities. The question however remains: to what extent will our jobs be replaced by these smart systems? Is the researcher of the future a robot, a human or both? New technological evolutions are transforming the different stages in the research process as we speak.

The power of automation

Research design and set-up – DIY and the rise of boxed solutions
Traditionally, market research could be considered as craftsmanship. Based on a client request, we developed a customized proposal, project flow and survey or topic guide. Backed with years of expertise, we are experts in crafting the right questions that help reach research objectives in the most engaging way. Automation could drastically disrupt this. In recent years, new platforms and technologies have risen, providing research users the flexibility to ask questions when, where and how they want, by means of do-it-yourself solutions. These tools, allowing anyone with or without a research background to easily collect responses, might threaten the researcher’s role. Although do-it-yourself drives speed and democratizes market research, the question remains if ‘just anybody’ is qualified to set up research.
The common critique with these ‘ask anything’ methods is the lack of validity compared to crafted solutions, which has caused a new format to rise, the so-called ‘boxed solutions’. These pre-defined formats can be considered as the ‘prêt-à-porter’ of the research industry. Yet, can we box everything or is there still a need for research craftsmanship? Will machines learn to ask the right (or even better) questions?
Participants engagement – panel aggregators and research bots
In the panel industry, we are seeing the first signs of ‘smart sampling’ with the rise of the so-called ‘panel aggregators’. Unlike the current way of sampling, these aggregators allow you to set up research projects by interacting with a market place.
A similar trend is visible in participant engagement, where the rise of chat bots is expected to be a real game changer. Bots bring the opportunity to tap into the short conversation loops consumers expect. With people using more and more chat-based communication means like WhatsApp and Messenger, smart technologies bring the opportunity to move research to these more natural communication settings.
Yet all of this comes with a layer of caution, as recent press releases reveal instances of bots engaging in racist conversations or insulting shouting. It seems that while bots are becoming better in understanding and mimicking humans, they do not seem to be able to develop a moral judgement (yet). With consumer dialogue being core in research, can we take this risk? Can bots ever develop that nuanced empathic consumer understanding of an experienced moderator?
Analysis and reporting – Artificial insighting and data with a soul
In the AI industry, a lot of attention goes to applications that help understand humans. Bots might be able to deal with (a lot of) data as well as detect meaningful patterns, but will they ever be able to give it a meaning and turn it into actionable insights a brand manager can work with? Are machines capable of true storytelling? Will new technologies allow us to better engage client organizations and activate insights?

Will automation lead to increased consumer centricity?

For some, the possibilities described above may sound like heaven; for others, it is a depiction of their worst nightmare. Is automation the ultimate killer of creativity for our industry or will it finally enable us to incorporate consumer feedback at the pulse of the business? The answer will most definitely be uncovered soon.

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