The state of market research: keep and gain relevance

As published in Research World – September 2017 issue. One may feel overpowered and dazzled looking at what is going on in the insights and research industry and by extension in the bigger marketing sphere. The technological developments around social media, the IoT, AI, AR or VR, are fast and furious. The offspring of it shifts the scope of the business we operate in so drastically that you may be thinking the end is close to near and there is nothing we can do.
One should not think that way! We should constantly repeat to ourselves that we are good at understanding human behavior and that we are hired to change executive decision making based on delivering human insights. The fundamentals of doing that have not changed. What has changed is how we generate and process data. Because of that our overarching challenge in market research and insights centers around generating relevance. To keep and gain that relevance, I feel we need to develop a razor-sharp focus on 4 key points.

1. DEVELOP A BRAND IDENTITY and enlarge our footprint

Traditional researchers are poor marketers of their own product. We take things for granted and need to develop a bigger sense of pride about the industry we work in and the work we do every day. Our industry is sizable and attractive if you think that it is on par with the recorded music and online gaming industry. Yet we are perceived as old-fashioned and boring. Many do not want to be a researcher, but do not mind being a data geek or work in data science. While the latter is simply a rebranding of how to use information to improve and understand the marketing process – aka market research – is not it? Our brand identity of antiquated librarians is simply wrong and it is our joint responsibility to change it to that of a global insights community.

2. NEED TO INNOVATE and add agility and intelligence

One way of doing that is to consider technology and digitalization as an opportunity – not a threat! Technology should make us more agile, generate higher quality and allow us to do things that were not possible before. If digital makes brand trackers shorter and more engaging, for example, then that is great and we should embrace it. What is happening is nothing else than another wave of Joseph Schumpeter’s Creative Destruction – “the process of transformation that accompanies radical innovation”. Researchers and insight professionals should critically evaluate their current methods, experiment with and adopt new ones without throwing out core methodological principles. Traditional researchers need to realize that there is a fundamental shift going on in the need structure of business executives. Especially digital native businesses, but more and more goods and service companies too, will take longer to conduct any foundational study. The reason being that they are sitting on a ton of data and can experiment in real-life with an immediate link to business impact and revenue. This alone puts them on a firehose and live-stream of data and observations. They are used to and need an iterative, agile and instant flux of insights as business decision making is no longer singular or discrete but a connected series of micro-decisions.
All forms of ad hoc descriptive research (still dominant today) will be under huge pressure. Yet insights solutions which combine deep-dive collaboration with agile processes and embedded measurement of social data will have a place. Machine learning will help insights professionals by means of intelligence amplification – dashboards, apps, or widgets that aggregate information from different systems, extracts topics from each update, and then assist in organizing information in ways that make it easy to digest and stimulates human thinking and decision making. There is no escape so we may as well embrace it.

3. BUILD TRUST and increase business impact

In this new era of post-truth, alternative facts and political uncertainty our role is one of building trust – in data, methodology and deliverables. More than ever do we need to guard the quality of our core insights product. CMI departments at the client-side for example are best placed to make risk assessments when it comes to which data conclusion they their executives use for decision making. People do not report every aspect of their lives on social media, so that data is inherently incomplete, but how complete is good enough? In addition, the new data are not perfect. Just consider the fact that Facebook had to admit their video viewing data had been inflated for two years. Often too, core concepts of correlation and causation are wrongly considered synonyms. It is a task of all insights professionals to educate users of data about flaws that may exist and ask questions about rigor.

When there is so much data, who can you trust to find the right data, and make sure it is good data? Methodological rigour is what researchers know, and what many big data professionals do not. Many things will always require the unique skills of the insight professional, to ensure that reliable, representative information is collected and used.
Another big challenge is that people give away all their private information to companies like Google, Facebook or Amazon without caring or realizing this. In May 2018 the European Commission’s GDPR General data Protection Regulation comes into effect and will revolutionize data privacy, as well as our obligations to data protection. It is time that new players and data driven marketers join the insights profession. It is a key objective of ESOMAR – the global insights community – to ensure we can benefit from the opportunities digital data brings, with a focus on building trust together for the public, marketers and legislators.

4. SET PEOPLE FIRST because why matters

But technology does not solve problems, in the end people do. Therefore, we should simply put “people first”. Big data makes us data rich, but we are often still insight poor. Big data does not work in isolation. While having data is important, they do remain a flow of emotionless facts or numbers. We need to understand not only what but also why people do the things they do. It is our mission to collaborate with people and rely on human insights to shape the future of brands.

It is my personal conviction that when we strike this balance of technology, trust and people we will keep our relevance as insights, research and analytics professionals among brand owners and marketers.
German Market Research Trends infographic

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