A New Age for Research

By Chris Wallbridge

At the recent ESOMAR Congress we were treated to discussion around how cutting-edge techniques have already been adopted, rather than predictions about their potential use.

A clear takeaway from Congress is that the best of our industry has already adapted. They have moved away from talking about game-changing methodologies, to having taken the risk, invested, changed, and demonstrated the proven rewards. I can remember in recent years many speakers at conferences waxing lyrical about big data, with hypothetical examples of its potential application, only for little of it to come to fruition. There used to be more ‘what if’ and less ‘we did’. But this year, the tone was braver, more self-assured, and determined.

Smart Clients Make Tough Choices Easily

“Never has a critical decision been taken because of a brand tracker”, proclaimed Andrew Geoghegan, Global Head of Consumer Planning at Diageo on the first full day of ESOMAR Congress. Trackers are the research methodology on which the most money is spent. Considering this, unsurprisingly perhaps, Diageo eliminated their brand trackers. This isn’t the future of how things will be, this is already happening. Clients are looking much more carefully at their research programmes and eliminating whatever isn’t pulling its weight for the business. And it isn’t just a question of budgets, which are under pressure for many organizations, but of time and clarity. If a research method isn’t yielding clear business insight, then why cloud one’s judgement by including it in the mix? More data doesn’t alone equal better decisions.

The following sentiment was reiterated by various clients:

“Unless you can clearly demonstrate the business effects a research initiative will bring then don’t bother.”

Whilst not a new sentiment, never before has it been screamed so loudly and clearly from the industry’s highest podium. Brands are increasingly dealing with complex global changes in society, technology, and even geo-political threat. In today’s world, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a monthly brand tracker asking the same old questions isn’t going to be particularly enlightening, given the scale of challenges clients are being asked to deal with.

Less Data Scientist, More Data Narrator

In today’s age of information overload, answers are available for anyone to access with the touch of a button. This is something that could be seen as a threat; does this make everybody a researcher, of some sorts? Certainly, we need to clearly articulate the high standards and ethics involved with top-quality research execution. This will breed a confidence in the insights we bring to the table alongside the myriad of other business intelligence sources at a board member’s disposal. The future for our industry is, for most of us, going to be much less about data collection, and much more focused on data narration. For market researchers at least, there will be less chatter about data science, and more buzz around data narration. This will involve telling a story that changes a mindset, rather than using approaches to develop sophisticated evidence. Although the latter will of course still have its place, automation is going to supercharge it; there simply won’t be the need for as many of us to be involved in manual processes (no matter how complex and smart they are). Initially, and primarily for quantitative research (but I won’t be surprised if I hear more applications in qualitative research next year), automation will continue to cut time spans for results down from weeks and days, to days and even hours. The best of the industry will flourish as we move to becoming true storytellers and facilitators.

Wake Up and Smell the Deteriorating Data Coffee

The best stories still need solid evidence of course. It would astonish industry outsiders, yet depressingly not surprise us researchers, that most surveys are still taken on desktop not mobile. The proportion of people that agree to take part in a survey continues its decades-long decline. Agencies still write 25, or 30+, minute questionnaires with ugly, inaccessible question formats designed only for desktop. Then when the data comes back, they actually believe its validity! We’ve all had that tricky question from clients; ‘who actually takes these surveys?’ Increasingly, we must move to mobile first survey design. As time goes on, badly designed long surveys meant only for desktop will lose credibility. Gamification and video integration certainly can improve the experience itself. However, we need to start looking at the method too. Virtual reality is now an accepted, proven approach and we must seriously consider how it can start to replace other methods that now start to feel slightly archaic.

The Race to Adapt and Change Already Begun

The industry is going to come under pressure like never before. Consequently, I came away from Congress envisaging a surge in the pace of change and disruption over the next 12-24 months. It is time (and already overdue) to shift ways of working and ways of thinking to:

  • Reflect in our work the new realities, dramatic change, and technological revolutions around the world. We need more culturally meaningful stories relevant to the context against which we live our lives
  • Do more, with less, and quicker, which can be facilitated by growing our talents in storytelling; moving to data narration, helping clients navigate and adapt to increasing change
  • Ensure our design and execution is more authentic; involving looking at the questions we ask, how we ask them, and whether we indeed ask them at all, in today’s digital first world

It’s easier to say rather than do. However, the price of inaction will hit businesses where it hurts; the bottom line. And anyway, doesn’t this all sound more exciting than a brand tracker?

By Chris Wallbridge, Lab Brand

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