The consumer as researcher

You have undoubtedly already figured it out by now: consumers have become very powerful, a fact which marketers had better take into account. Unilever CEO Paul Polman already said: “If they can bring the Egypt government down in six weeks, they can bring us down in nanoseconds”. It is not only a matter of ‘being able to’, but also of ‘wanting to’. No less than 44% of consumers want to be actively involved in the development of new products or advertising campaigns for ‘their’ brands (InSites Consulting, Social Media around the world 2011). Therefore this entire evolution is not a threat but rather an opportunity. But what does it imply for market research? Should the research world also adapt? Which opportunities will emerge?
Market research typically is a sort of hatch between consumer and marketer: the researcher listens to the consumer and translates this into what a marketer needs. All too often there is an iron curtain between marketing and consumer. This model is clearly part of the past. The future’s researcher will need to behave more like a coach of both consumer and marketer and facilitate the interactions between them. Researchers and marketers will need to learn to delegate some of their current responsibilities to consumers, not only because the latter expect that more and more, but mainly because they are simply more capable of executing certain tasks than researchers. Some examples:

  • Quality checks: Consumers speak, think and act as consumers, and are therefore in a better position to evaluate the language or phrasing of a questionnaire. They do not start from a given marketing jargon, but from their own environment and experiences.
  • Data collection: Consumers these days spontaneously share information online and on social media and offer us answers to questions we have not even asked. Advanced text analysis methods allow us to generate in-depth consumer insights based on an authentic and natural dialogue between consumers, which is also called social media-netnography. In observational research consumers are also often more capable of perceiving and interpreting their own environment than a professional observer.
  • Analysis and interpretation: Consumer scan help confirm, negate or refine interpretations and conclusions made by researchers. They start from a ‘wisdom of the crowd’ point of view which allows them to study and interpret data or stimuli from different angles, which brings them further than the interpretation of one single researcher.

This all by no means entails the end of the market researcher. It does however mean that we need to develop new competences and capabilities; that we will need to ask fewer questions and listen more; that we will need to extract value more frequently from interactions between consumers, marketers and ourselves; that we will have to search for creative ways to integrate consumers in our customer organisations’ policies. Research will become sexy, cool and challenging, who would’ve thought…

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