Will 50% of the work being done at market research firms today become “unnecessary” in three years?
Marshall Toplansky, President of WiseWindow, explores this question and scans the horizon of market research in a new MRA Alert article. For those MRA members, I highly recommend reading Toplansky’s article titled “Measuring the Future of Market Research.”
Reading this article reminded me very much of the things I’ve been writing on this platform and in my white paper (“Insight’s Future; From Market Research to Strategic Insight”) and I’m glad to see others thinking along similar lines.
One area of considerable agreement is what he titled “the new expectations.” Here Toplansky is, at base, writing about organizations’ increasing “need for speed” and how this is impacting traditional market research. Think James Gleick (of Faster book fame) meets Simon Chadwick.
As Toplansky colorfully puts it:
“To today’s CEO, a six week qualitative study to find a simple answer is a slow moving elephant in a race for gazelles.”
I believe that clients now have 8 demands of market research:
1. Strategic Recommendations
2. Concise Deliverables
3. Deeper Insight into the Whole Consumer
5. An Integrated Understanding of the “Infoverse”
6. Truly Understanding the Role of Emotion in Human Behavior
7. Insights Management
And speed is #4 on my list.
Given the compressed decision making cycle in corporations, there is certainly a need for faster data collection, analysis and reporting of insights. Of course, “fast” and “deep thinking” are difficult to combine. And, there are limitations on how quickly good research can be conducted. But, there is strong client demand for speedier delivery of research based insights and firms that can work quickly, using a 24 hour “global clock”, will be at a significant long term advantage.
As I noted in my white paper, this threatens the large traditional suppliers who do not appear to be built for speed. For them it will be imperative to argue for a deliberative process that tests assumptions as well as hypothesis. But, when it comes to speed, these large suppliers will be at a disadvantage relative to smaller, nimbler firms.
Of course, Toplansky takes his speed argument further and merges it with the emergence of what some have called social media “listening posts.” Here he rightly argues that mass analysis of unstructured, “unsolicited and unexpurgated” comments across social media platforms can provide organizations with a new kind of real-time tracking system – a trends and insights stream.
I generally agree with Toplansky’s argument. We have certainly seen a rapid development of social media research tools, and in time these will become incredibly powerful. To my thinking there are two key hinge points in the development of social media listening. The first is improvements in the analysis of unstructured text. The progress being made here is impressive, but the human element is still needed. The second is the representativeness of social media engagement. We assume that social media usage will continue to explode and eventually become ubiquitous across generational, gender and SES lines. This seems to be a solid assumption, but we’re not there yet and participation frequency rates can differ dramatically. I freely admit that projectability in the survey sense may not be a valid critique in this instance. My second concern about participation rates is the privacy issue. In my scenario building for the futures of market research, at least one scenario has privacy concerns reversing some of these basic assumptions and challenging the development of “listening posts” altogether. In fact, Jeffrey Henning is giving a speech on this very issue today at the CASRO Technology Conference. The title of this speech is “Um, We Didn’t Know You Were Listening.” As Henning puts it in his synopsis, “Unlike the traditional ethnography, consumers have not given researchers explicit permission to study them online. What do individuals think about this?” Good question.
Toplansky outlines the three “seminal” methodologies that he sees driving a “new era” of market research. I’m glad he uses this “era” terminology.
In my thinking on the futures (thanks to Peter Bishop at the University of Houston) of market research I have segmented market research into historical and evolving eras and epochs. The “Data Collection Epoch” which we are now exiting, began with face-to-face interviewing, advanced to telephone and then advanced again to online. I have also named this epoch the “Asking Epoch” because it was defined by the utilization of the structured survey instrument. But, there are now two epochs on the market research horizon. The first is what I call the “Listening Epoch” and the next I have termed the “Simulation Epoch.” The “Listening Epoch” is defined by observational analytics, a movement away from the survey instrument as the primary research vehicle and a significant shift to social media analytics and other observational technologies (such as fMRI, eye tracking ,etc.). The “Simulation Epoch” is defined by anticipatory research. It is this market research epoch that I am most excited about. I see the “Simulation Epoch” as one defined by mass simulation gaming, predictions markets like those designed by Inkling, MROC Delphi panels and strategic foresight. In fact, when market research enters this era, I believe that the survey instrument will be replaced by the online game and that market research game designers will replace today’s survey writers. This may sound a bit strange, but consider that this would mesh with the gaming behaviors of younger people today and would be more observational and less intrusive. One company that may epitomize this new Simulation Epoch is Simulex.
In essence, the “Asking Epoch” was about the survey instrument. The “Listening Epoch” is about real-time observation, and the “Simulation Epoch” is about modeling future behavior. One could argue that this progression takes us from a focus on the past (reported behavior in surveys) to the present (observed behavior and social media sentiment in real-time) and on to the future (gaming, prediction markets and scenario building).
Finally, Toplanksy discusses marketing eras. His thinking very much tracks with that of noted futurist Jim Dator and author Virginia Postrel. I think his taxonomy (industrial to information to relationship) is excellent, although I would not name the current marketing era the “relationship era.” Instead, I would christen it the “design”, “dream” or “experience” era. Market research, neuromarketing, fMRI and behavioral economics are significantly chipping away at the notion of the “rational man” and instead revealing the power of the creative and emotional elements of the human psyche. Toplansky gets at this in his piece in a shorthand way.