Kevin Gray

Multichannel marketing…mobile research…MROCs…on-line focus groups…big data…bayesian statistics…machine learning… These aren’t dull times for market researchers. There are significant new opportunities, but opportunities are also threats to incumbents, including research buyers, and the status quo we’ve all created. They also represent openings for new competitors and non-traditional providers.

We’re still open for business but there is mounting recognition that our industry is under threat. Major consolidations have been underway for some time now and, furthermore, there is greater diversity in the sorts of companies that do, or claim to do, marketing research. On the client side there is uncertainty about the appropriate organisational structures and where the marketing research function, by whatever title, should be placed.

Historically, much of marketing research has centred on data collection and tabulation. Qualitative research also has frequently tended to come to a halt with the descriptive. Though there is a lot of variation within the industry many marketing researchers have struggled to move beyond the basic level and some have sensed stagnation and felt research had become commoditised. A study conducted by The Boston Consulting Group suggests that many market research/consumer insight functions at leading global companies remain reactive and tactically-focused and that strategic consumer research is usually not a C-Suite priority. It’s now not uncommon to hear “factory” and “sweatshop” used to characterise research agencies.

Market researchers come from a wide variety of academic backgrounds, not only business and marketing. This diversity is a plus in a global industry covering practically every sector, including government. However, it comes at a price since it means many people entering the field have had little academic background in marketing or research-related subjects and a great deal must be learned on the job or on one’s own time and sometimes at one’s own expense.

Moreover, many companies suffer high employee churn and for some new-hires, market research is just a stop on the way to an MBA. Others, after two or three years, move from an MR agency to a client. Reverse migration seems to be the exception rather than the rule, however, and many working at research agencies have never worked on the client side. So, generally speaking, there is a scarcity of deep knowhow and broad experience.

Making Our Future
We humans are creatures of habit and slow to embrace change, even if we often speak or write about it. That said, it’s exceedingly difficult to believe that marketing research will be more or less the same in ten years as it is now. We can make educated guesses about how our industry will evolve but there also will be external forces outside our control that no one now envisions. Nevertheless, we can also be proactive in shaping the future of the business. Much of that will require us to change our mindsets. One simple example is being able to conceive of data as more than data from consumer surveys and better utilise and integrate various kinds of data from different sources.

Technology is increasingly affecting many facets of everyone’s lives and it may not be long before some of us are “driving” driverless cars. New tools can enable us to do things we’d never contemplated or accomplish core tasks better, more quickly and with less effort than ever before. The array of analytics methods and software, including freeware, is now vastly greater than at the turn of the millennium. Many companies could benefit from streamlining their MR processes and better aligning them with client needs. Information technology will have an important role to play in this, and better rationalisation of processes and greater efficiency will allow researchers more time for thinking and improve the quality of our offer, in addition to improving the bottom line.

However some new technology will turn out to be dead ends … hype today and forgotten tomorrow. Other innovations may soon become outdated and be replaced by newer developments. This brings us to a fundamental question: What is the purpose of market research? It’s not data, it’s not analytics and it’s not software. The raw materials, methods and tools should not lead us; they are not our purpose. We are not software engineers. The raison d’êtreof Marketing Research to enhance decision making and this must be our top priority.

We’ll need to do some judo on the new technology and make its strengths work to our advantage. We can’t allow it to dominate our business nor should we adopt new technology simply because it’s fashionable or because we assume it will reduce costs. We should be eager for change but at the same time be practical and think carefully about what real differences a piece of new technology will make in how we accomplish our core mission. Admittedly, this is not an easy task and there is no simple “to do” checklist.

But there are many things we can do that are not radical departures for current practices. More extensive and systematic training, both in-house and external, including online seminars and MOOCs, is one key. Training must also cover the basics, not only the newer developments. Sound research is actually more difficult than many of us may realise 

How can one “think outside of the box” when one doesn’t know what’s in it in the first place? The MR “veteran” who does not actually understand sampling, experimental designs and questionnaire development should be a very rare exception. All researchers should have at least a conceptual grasp of multivariate analysis and understand its role as a research tool. Likewise, we should not assume that new hires have somehow already mastered marketing or will just pick it up on the job. Paradoxically, marketing researchers have not always been very adept at marketing market research. This also must change and marketing our industry must be part of our training.

Though we hail from diverse backgrounds, ironically, marketing research has suffered from a silo mentality and there is a shortage of multi-domain expertise. This provincialism is also geographic and there needs to be greater awareness of how cultural differences affect the ways in which consumers behave and how business is done around the globe. For instance, in much of the non-Western world, collective decision-making is more common and gut feel plays more of a role than many Westerners might be comfortable with. Risk aversion tends to be stronger though, at the same time, some innovations such as mobile research might actually leapfrog adoption in the West. We need to learn from marketers and researchers everywhere.

For MR agencies, client-side internships and hiring experienced people from clients and consulting companies do happen but in the future should receive greater emphasis. Too many cultural gaps between MR agencies and other business communities remain. For clients, organisational restructuring and changes in reporting lines may be required and the C-Suites must make marketing research a top priority. It’s a minuscule investment compared with the amount budgeted for marketing.

The preceding is a mere handful of suggestions from one market researcher. In my view in order to adapt and prosper, first and foremost, we’ll need to be clear about the purpose of marketing research. It is about decisions, not methodology and not technology.

For some change is calamitous. For others it is a wonderful catalyst.

Kevin Gray is President of Cannon Gray. He wishes to thank Lee Ryan for sharing her thoughts on these topics.