Back in 2009, our company conducted a survey amongst research buyers that focused on the strategic relevance of market research. At the time, the outcome was that roughly 40% of buyers did not think that senior management in their organization was convinced of the relevance of MR.Now, 5 years later, we have started a wide discussion on ‘the future of market research’. We interviewed close to 100 individuals on their ideas about the future of market research and the outcome of these discussions is telling. When asked about what future ‘threats’ the industry has to face, the response focuses on new technologies: big data, mobile and social media. The only non-technical threat on the list is still the strategic relevance of market research.So what makes research relevant? Surely, the answer to this question must be that market research is relevant when the results are actively used.When results are not used they have no effect and therefore can’t be relevant in any shape or form. At this point it is important to stress that this effectiveness has nothing to do with the quality of the research. Also excellent research is irrelevant when the results are not actively used. It is against this background that we ask the question if the industry is not so focused on the quality of the research, that it disregards the effectiveness and thus leaves itself open to the danger of becoming irrelevant.
Going back to our recent interviews, we must conclude that the industry’s main worries are in the area of ‘survey conducting’ and much less in the area of ‘survey reporting’. In the end, big data, social media and mobile will significantly change the rules of the survey game, but just as in any other form of more traditional data collection, the results coming from these new ‘vehicles’ will only be effective and thus relevant when they are actually used.Market research is only actively used, when the right people get the right information at the right time.Assuming this makes sense, MR professionals should ask themselves three basic questions if they want their research to be relevant:- Who will be using this information?- Which part of the information is most relevant to them and in what format do they need it?- When do they need the information and with what frequency?If these questions remain unanswered before survey results are fed back to users, the reporting side of the study has not been taken seriously and, as a result, it runs a very high risk becoming strategically irrelevant.As I am painting with a very broad brush here, I will make an over-simplified division between two different types of market research: first of all, there is the type of research where the effectiveness is very dependent on the speed and diversity of the delivery (think of client satisfaction or NPS trackers etc.) and secondly, there is the type where the effectiveness depends more on the quality and depth of the analysis (think of brand positioning, market segmentation etc.).If MR agencies want to compete on speed and diversity of data delivery, they will have to change the outdated work-process of mass-tabulation combined with manual MS Office based reporting. This process is simply not dynamic enough to compete with the ‘new kids on the block. These new-comers, who offer automated high-speed delivery at low cost, have their weak points as well, of course. They often lack any sense of data handling and management, thereby pushing specialized responsibility to the client with often glaring and painful misinterpretations as a result.The second type of research depends more on the depth of the analysis and often relies on a detailed understanding of a specific market. Here we see a strong growth of consultancy based MR business, where the relevance of the results is guaranteed by a consultancy based implementation phase. If MR agencies want to compete in this segment, they will have to free up much more time in the work-process than they currently have, in order to collect sufficient creativity and insight to offer comparable advice. Consultants offering MR also have their weak spot. Quite often, they lack the knowledge and experience of modern-day data collection and still think they can gain some sort of ‘truth’ by asking respondents 95 boring questions.
So the question is not if Market Research is losing its relevance. The question is if MR agencies are losing the battle because they refuse to use the weapons they need to defend themselves. The industry must wake up and asses the real enemy: not big data, not social media or mobile platforms, but its own inertia, its fear of change. Market Research must become much more dynamic in order to survive.Concluding, I think that traditional market research lacks focus. However huge the shift in methods of data collection might be in the coming 5 years, this is not the only responsibility of the industry. If MR agencies want to survive, they will need to change their work process in order to become more dynamic so they can pay full attention to the effectiveness of their work and ensure that the research they conduct is actually used by the client. The relevance of research depends fully on the quality, speed and diversity of the reporting process, an aspect of research services that has been and still is, more an afterthought than a key Unique Selling Point.