The challenges of market research and partnerships in a world of turmoil

Categories: Extractos I&M


Niels Schillewaert, ESOMAR President

The world is in turmoil: politically, economically, socially, technically. While change and turmoil are universal, the difference now is that the gaps between the ‘current’ and the ‘new’ are extreme and opposite. This spread has not spared the marketing insights industry either.

We have moved from a business reality characterized by linearity, craftmanship and scarcity to one defined by acceleration (e.g. of decision making), automation (e.g. of services) and abundance (e.g. of data). This leads to a commoditization of marketing insights as we know it and has put the power with data technologists, data scientists and data engineers. Marketers and insights professionals have failed to keep pace. Market research has lost its “edge” and true insights may no longer be perceived as bringing a competitive “edge” for brands and executives.

market research challenges

While proponents of current evolutions will say this leads to faster and cheaper insights, critics will claim it puts quality, creativity and even innovation at risk. True, plain commoditization may lead to a loss of the skill of interpreting human behavior, big data may lead to a false sense of security that executives know everything and well. But the worst that can happen, however, is that critics hopelessly defend themselves and lose track of the “real ball”: human understanding and collaboration.

So in what way do we deal with and lead in turmoil, gauge underlying emotions and motivations of (dis)affected target groups and translate these into the business of research? The answer may be easier to give than to put in practice, but let’s give it a try and tackle the challenge by means of answering the “what” and “how”.

“What” can we do to bring back the “edge” in market research and insights? Overall it boils down to showing leadership and communication. Market research and insights can create an “EDGE” by means of adopting a strategy of Envisioning, Digesting, Gluing and Earning.

  • Envision a long-term perspective of what your insights should add up to, in line with your brand’s bigger purpose. The plan for this success can be done in several ways but building structural human connections with interesting and interested people is key. Program thinking is of utmost importance while “ad hoc” approaches seem more something of the past.
  • Digest by means of streaming insights in agile ways, beyond speed only. Working in short, iterative cycles producing “tiny” insights in a do-learn mentality will fuel fast-decision making, still leaving time for foundational studies whenever needed. To realize this as a daily business practice it is important insights professionals communicate their work effectively and become visible often, if not unceasingly.
  • Gluing different methods, data sources and teams are important for triangulation and a comprehensive understanding, but also allows sticking to core principles of data provenance and method quality.
  • Earn the attention of all stakeholders through engagement. Researchers need to get into the frontline and ban long and boring surveys. We need to encourage executives to adopt snappy surveys which are not only appealing independent of the devices they are completed on but also generate better and more contextual data.

Remains the question of “how” we execute this strategy. I feel we need to develop a razor-sharp focus on 4 key executional 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

In a world of turmoil brands (be it social, political or commercial) should create a strategic “edge” by putting insights and collaboration with their target groups at the heart of their business in versatile and agile ways. When next we strike a balance of technology, trust and people we will keep our relevance as insights, research and analytics professionals among brand owners and marketers.


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