The consumer as researcher

Consumers have claimed a lot of power and marketers take that into account. Paul Polman, CEO at Unilever, recently stated: ‘If they can bring the Egypt government down in six weeks, they can bring us down in nanoseconds’. It is not merely a question of ‘being able to’ but also of ‘wanting to’. 44% of consumers wish to be actively involved in the development of new products or advertising campaigns for ‘their’ brands (InSites Consulting, Social Media around the world, 2011). This evolution is an opportunity rather than a threat. But what does it mean for market research? Should the research world adapt (check out this blogpost by Annelies Verhaeghe)? And what are the opportunities that originate from it?

Sexy, cool and challenging

Market research is a middleman between consumer and marketer: the researcher listens to what the consumer says, and translates it into what the marketer needs. There often exists an Iron Curtain between marketing and consumer. This model belongs in the past. The researcher of the future will have to behave more as a coach of both consumer and marketer, and facilitate the interactions between both parties. Researchers and marketers will have to learn to delegate a part of their current responsibilities to the consumers. Not only because consumers expect that to happen more and more frequently, but mainly because they are simply better at executing certain tasks than the researchers.


Quality checks: Consumers talk, think and act as consumers and are therefore better positioned to evaluate the linguistic usage and the wording in a questionnaire. They do not start from a marketing jargon, but from their own environment and experiences.
Data collection: Consumers share information on online and social media and offer answers to questions that weren’t even asked. Advanced text analysis methods can generate in-depth consumer insights based on an authentic and natural dialogue between consumers; this technique is also called social media netnography. Furthermore consumers in observational research are often more capable of observing and interpreting their own surroundings than a professional observer.
Analysis and interpretation: Consumers can help confirm, negate or refine researcher interpretations and conclusions. Starting from a ‘wisdom of the crowd’ vision they can observe and interpret data or stimuli from different angles, in order to get further than a single researcher’s interpretation. This does by no means imply the end of the researcher. But it does mean that we will need to develop new skills and competences.
It means, that we will need to ask fewer questions and rather listen instead. That we will need to get more out of interactions between consumers, marketers and ourselves. That we will need to look for creative ways to integrate consumers in the management of our customer organisations. Research becomes sexy, cool and challenging. Who would ever have thought so? What do you think?
This column was first published in the Dutch Marketingmagazine MarketingTribune on October 4th; it was translated by Anne-Laure Simoens.  It was also posted on Twitter and Mobypicture.

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