Congress 2016: It's all about the people

By Rebecca Heaney

Congress Day 0: The Future of Market Research

Although not technically the first day of Congress, Sunday offered the opportunity for ESOMAR Congress delegates to attend workshops on a variety of topics that served as an excellent introduction to Congress, starting the week off strong with intriguing, thought-provoking, and challenging topics that face the market research industry today. At first glance, the two sessions I attended titled “The Impact of Social Research”, hosted by Gunilla Broadbent (President of the ESOMAR Foundation) and Phyllis Macfarlane (from Gfk and ESOMAR Foundation Treasurer), and “The Future of Mobile Survey Research”, presented by Roddy Knowles and Luke Sehmer from Research Now, seemed to have little in common.

However, the messages of both sessions were largely concerned with the future of market research and both concluded with a compelling reminder to always keep human beings – people, not respondents, data, dollars, or numbers – in mind in the research we do.

The Need to Improve

“The Impact of Social Research” session is premised on the understanding that, as market research professionals and human beings, we have a moral obligation to use our skills and expertise to give back to those who are less fortunate, particularly in developing markets. There is widespread agreement that the market research industry has a lot to offer in the “making the world a better place” space and while there are many in in the industry who are making a difference in a number of different ways, there is clearly much more that we can do.

On a completely different topic, a compelling argument for moving toward fully mobile optimized online surveys was made by Ruddy Knowles and Luke Sehmer, with statistics showing that 40% of respondents in the US are completing surveys on mobile devices (a finding that is mirrored in other countries beyond the US) and research showing that those who prefer to complete surveys on mobile devices rather than personal computers are different in terms of attitudes as well as demographics. However, while it is common knowledge in market research circles that an increasing number of individuals want to complete surveys on their mobile devices, the amount of truly mobile-friendly surveys (in terms of thoughtful questionnaire design, not just technological capabilities) really hasn’t increased much in the past few years.

In both cases, there is widespread agreement – there is no one on the other side of the issue. We all know we should do more to give back and make a positive difference in the world and, on a slightly less solemn note, make it easier for people to do surveys on their smartphones. So why don’t we?

The Need for Change

In the discussion of social research, the tension between what we, as market researchers want to do and what we, as service providers, are hired to do is noted as a common barrier to doing more. Particularly for NGO’s, donors tend to be results-focused, pushing for “hard numbers” rather than “softer outcomes”, and often drive the agenda for how dollars are spent. With so much pressure to get the greatest return on investment, market research plays a more limited role, often restricted to program evaluation, and many feel that it is brought in too late in the game to make a real difference. Many want to market research brought in earlier, in the design or pre-design stages, to help understand they “whys” and be part of the innovation cycle. However, market research costs money, and many donors aren’t interested in spending more on research. If we want to be able to do more to help in the public sector, educating and persuading donors and stakeholders about the value of research is a critical first step. In this case, it is not only the behaviour of the people we are studying that we are hoping to change, it is the thinking and behaviour of those we work with that we also seek to alter.

In the case of mobile survey research, the greatest barrier to change is ourselves. Technology has advanced fast enough to keep up with the demand for mobile access, but the way we think about survey design has not. We, as researchers, have become entrenched in traditional questionnaire design and are failing to adapt to the new ways that people want to interact with us. Knowles and Sehmer argue that we need revamp our thinking, start from the beginning, and consider what it’s like to complete surveys as a respondent – as a person. How would we answer the survey? How would we want to be asked the questions? How would we want to answer them? How can we speak to people like people? Knowles and Sehmer argue for using “humanized writing”, with the goal of making surveys more conversational in nature.

The Need to be “Human-Focused”

For me, the two sessions combined can be boiled down to the idea that market research, at its heart, is all about people. It’s about human beings. Whether our goal is to increase patient compliance or increase response rates, it’s about the human experience and giving people a voice. Sally Panayiotou (TNS BMRB) captured this sentiment when she said “the most important step is bringing it back to the people” but I think Knowles said it best in his closing statement, “the future of market research depends on a ‘human-first’ (and ‘mobile-first’) approach – we have to design research (and mobile) with people in mind.” While it may be challenging, it’s important not to lose sight of what research is for.

Rebecca Heaney, Northstar Research, is one of the official RWC bloggers for ESOMAR Congress 2016.