By Wale Omiyale

The need for research organisations to deliver results faster and more easily is not new. For years, MR has been under pressure to uncover higher quality insight much more quickly – at a lower cost.

In many other industries, faster and cheaper can suggest poorer quality. But does this apply to research? Many would argue it does. However, software providers are working hard to hone the capabilities of automation tools to ensure this isn’t the case.

In an effort to balance the demands from MR agencies for accuracy and quality with the needs of their clients for instant business insight, automation is now paving the way for accurate, agile research.

Do we really need to automate everything?

Perhaps not everything, but we have to embrace the opportunities that automation delivers, and take a steer from related industries, such as marketing, that have embedded automation with great success.

Of course, automation has already been around for years albeit in simpler forms – questionnaire scanning, for example, was revolutionary in speeding up the data capture process and was created in direct response to the need for faster results.

Modern automation tools have been developed with the same need in mind. The difference is these tools now span the entire lifecycle of market research. As well as automating survey design, sampling, data collection and reporting, tools are available for much more advanced automation techniques, from emotional response recognition, to multimedia feedback, social media analysis…and more.

What about quality?

It is this wealth of opportunity that causes concerns about quality. Such a minefield of technology choices can pose real challenges for data integrity, argue MR traditionalists. Many also still question the accuracy of software-interpreted data.

These are valid concerns, but they are slowly being put to rest as automation matures and more clearly-defined solutions are brought to market. While we are still some way off full automation maturity in research, there are many solutions that deliver proven data accuracy, consistency and faster insight delivery.

A perfect example is text analytics: the increasing volume of social media data has been a key driver for developing automated analysis tools, and social media analytics solutions are now proving their value in delivering insight from vast data sets.

Such tools have the added advantage of paving the way for researchers to become ‘insight experts’. By automating many of the repetitive tasks associated with data collection and analysis, researchers can focus on the more in-depth analytical processes that truly require human interpretation.

The combined strength of people and tools

Indeed, one of the key benefits of automation is the increased need for skilled people. With administrative tasks being capably handled by automation tools, many research teams are evolving into specialist hubs, where researchers become data scientists and reports become strategic business guidance.

At the same time, automation is increasing the requirement for more broadly-skilled project managers, where in-depth subject knowledge is no longer required, but an understanding of the many automated steps of the research process is critical. This certainly impacts the role of the research subject matter expert, but allows research organisations to be more flexible in recruitment and service delivery.

And while some doubters believe automation will eventually sound the death knell for people-based businesses, there is growing evidence to suggest that automation actually improves inter-departmental working and collaboration, both across survey teams and with external partners and customers. This is because automation brings shared ownership to programmes, where access to results is open and continual, allowing clients and researchers to work together to make ongoing refinements.

Widening the opportunities for self-service

In some instances, shared ownership is moving to the next level, where automation is driving MR organisations to deliver ‘self-serve’ research programmes. For clients needing to gather top level insight quickly, this model is proving increasingly popular.

Self-serve allows researchers to select the most appropriate tools for their project, select the audience or sample, and then select the type of reporting they need to produce, all from a single source. Not only can this shorten timelines, but it can also simplify results sharing and analysis through easy-access dashboards.

Self-serve may ring alarm bells for some, suggesting a diminishing need for the skills of the research agency, but I would disagree. What many clients now need is quick insight. This means that sometimes they only want to focus on those questions that get to the heart of their question most quickly. With automation tools to support this way of working, they may still get 80% of the information they need in 25% of the time. And that makes a justifiable business case for self-serve.

This does not negate the need for in-depth research programmes. Rather, it is a new layer that sits on top of substantial analysis and insight. I believe that the developments in automation are taking us neatly towards a hybrid model of research, where the needs of clients are met for whatever level of programme they require – and can be delivered in the time-frames and formats most suited to each.

Driving accessibility and repeatability   

Time and speed of results delivery is not only a factor for clients. Agencies themselves can reap the benefits of automation first-hand, since it leads to repeatability. The more processes that can be set up and repeated, the more efficient an organisation becomes. This boosts productivity and increases the usability of automation tools.

Time and cost savings are magnified further when automation is applied to multiple processes across the organisation, making ease and speed of delivery a differentiating factor against competitors.

Back to the start: quality, quality, quality

While there is still much more opportunity for automation in market research, it’s clear that it is already firmly entrenched in our day-to-day processes. And that’s a good thing, because as we’ve highlighted automation brings a wealth of benefits, not just to end clients but to research organisations themselves.

There is, in my view, one big proviso: we MUST be more rigorous than ever in our assessment of quality.

One of the key benefits of automation has always been seen as cost savings on labour. It should not be forgotten however, that automation is used in many industries to deliver savings in time, materials and resources, as well as a tool to drive improvements in quality, accuracy and precision.

We must ensure that all of these benefits are also realised in our industry. This requires a finely-tuned understanding of how data needs to be accessed, manipulated and delivered. It is by sticking to the foundations of integrity and accuracy on which the research industry is built that automated research tools can help MR continue to evolve in the face of ever-changing client requirements.

Wale Omiyale, SVP of Market Research, Confirmit,  has over a decade’s experience in the market research industry and has a detailed understanding of the issues facing the industry as a result of maturation and technological advancement.

Wale works closely with some of the world’s leading market research agencies, helping them to implement innovative MR programmes using the most up-to-date data collection channels and practices available.