Last week ESOMAR held the annual MENAP Forum in Dubai, bringing together the best in research knowledge and beyond to share cutting edge techniques and strengthen the local industry as a community. RW Connect blogger and Managing Director of our media partner Insight MEA reports on the event.

The goal of the ESOMAR MENAP Forum 2015 in Dubai was to provide the platform to bring together experts from the region and to challenge the status quo.

This year, the forum was attended by over 180 research professionals from 25 countries across the entire region.

As Finn Raben and John Presutti said in the introduction to the programme, we are living in the times of transformation and our survival depends on being prepared to embrace the disruptive change.

It was inspiring to see many transformational practices and examples of innovative research that the region’s agencies and client organizations showcased at the forum.

Social Media Analytics
What were the top 10 issues that were discussed in MENAP in Arabic in the past year? Finding out an answer to this question may pose a challenge given the size, complexity and diversity of the region. Traditional research is not always able to effectively address the business challenges due to the cost and time implications. Marketers increasingly prefer to use social media analytics, and this is not surprising given the staggering statistics that Fadl Al Tarzi of Social Eyez shared in his keynote address. In MENAP region, there are more Facebook users than newspaper readers, and Saudi Arabia has the highest Twitter penetration in the world. Social media analytics provides marketers access to insights from millions of users in the MENAP region at low cost. While a number of challenges exist, including substantial volume of data to capture and analyze, lack of dataset boundaries, inconsistent methodologies, rapidly evolving sources and user validation issues, social media analytics is gaining momentum in the region as Fadl illustrated through a number of examples.

What is the role of market researchers in the social media analytics era? First of all, social media analytics enables marketers to understand consumers without asking them questions. It will become increasingly more important to complement the existing research offering with the social media analytics solutions, and in future, as Fadl pointed out in his presentation, there will be no boundaries between the two – social media analytics will become an integral part of the research mix.

Another important area of using social media for conducting research was highlighted in the presentation of Amit Sahni of Feedback Market Research. It is widely known that in more conservative countries of the region, such as Saudi Arabia, conducting research among women may pose a challenge. Feedback Market Research leveraged social media for one of the product test studies in Saudi Arabia, and found their methodology to be effective in engaging female consumers, encouraging their participation and interaction as well as obtaining richer feedback. Respondents also rated this approach more favorably as compared to traditional research. Social media, in the words of Amit Sahni, “is an effective tool for connecting with Arab women in traditional societies.”

Mobile Research
Mobile is another important driver of digital transformation that affects market research industry.

In the region, Mindshare pioneered the use mobile technology for data collection. The company has developed its own proprietary mobile panel covering 5,000 consumers in 10 key markets in Middle East and North Africa. Rabih Soueidi of Mindshare shared a number of interesting case studies on how mobile research enabled Mindshare to deliver real-time insights to their clients.

Discussing Mindshare’s journey to adopt mobile technology, Alistair Hill of On Device Research highlighted some challenges that the company faced. The Middle East and North Africa region is very diverse, with smartphone penetration varying sharply across the markets. While in some of the countries including the UAE and Saudi Arabia, smartphone penetration is among the highest in the world, other countries such as Egypt, Morocco and Iraq have a low smartphone penetration. Speaking of the mobile panel, some of the barriers in the region include limited loyalty of respondents who tend leave the panel after 2-4 surveys, and skew towards male respondents. According to Alistair, introducing MENA-specific incentives and female-focused recruitment of panelists helped the company address these challenges. He also emphasized the importance of keeping the surveys short, asking succinct questions and providing fewer response options to ensure success of mobile research programs.

Another interesting example of using mobile technology in market research was presented by Nisha Kumar and Girish Sangtani of Market – I.

Their presentation, which won an award at the forum, illustrated a highly effective use of the innovative research methods and cutting-edge technology.

Girish emphasized that research moved into a digital era, and the real-time dialogue with consumers was critical.

Nisha presented McDonald’s case study to illustrate how mobile technology enables marketers to develop a granular understanding of customers and to obtain real-time insights.

Market-I developed a customized mobile app for their existing brand community comprising of 3,000 active users. This app uses the geo-targeting platform and pushes notifications to participating consumer panel members based on their location or proximity to a restaurant. During their visit to McDonalds, panel members complete the experience survey, and OCR is used to scan receipts and to capture the transaction value as well as to enable visit authentication. The app also enables panel members to communicate with community manager through instant messaging.

Market-I uncovered that behavior and satisfaction of McDonald’s customers were driven by day of week, party size and order complexity, among other factors. Such insights could not be obtained in a traditional research program. Use of technology does not only help gain in-depth insights into customer behaviors, but also gives access to real-time data.

When it comes to surveys, Caroline Frankum of Hall & Partners and Ziad Skaff of Omnicom Media Group MENA discussed gaming as the powerful technique to engage consumers. As attention spans are shortening and the demand for something that is truly interesting and entertaining is increasing, consumers no longer want to answer half an hour surveys. Lengthy surveys do not only lead to high drop-out rates but may also result in poor data quality. Caroline and Ziad demonstrated how gamified surveys can create more entertaining experience for respondents, as well as produce richer, more actionable insights by revealing hidden motivations and feelings.

While surveys remain one of the key data collection methods, the importance of consulting multiple data sources and integrating them together was emphasized by Jeffrey Hunter of Market Framework. Synthesizing multiple data streams from both traditional and non-traditional sources can be particularly important in the Middle East and North Africa region where some countries are data-poor. New data types such as social media, videography, geo-location, the quantified self and the Internet of Everything can be integrated with traditional data to produce in-depth insights. Jeffrey offered an interesting example where this approach delivered richer diagnostics and proved to be highly cost effective (research in 16 markets was done at the cost of 4 markets) without compromising reliability and validity.

Measuring Emotions
How to effectively measure advertising effectiveness? Emotion is the single most important determinant of advertising effectiveness, and evaluating emotional response to advertisements therefore is critical. Traditional research approaches focus on asking consumers questions to capture their reactions. Mohammad Amin Piracha of Nestle and Amol Ghate of Millward Brown discussed the advantages of combining traditional research approaches with a neuromarketing solution for recording consumers’ emotional response to advertising using facial expressions. They showcased a number of Nestle commercials in Pakistan that were evaluated using this approach. Integrating traditional datasets with facial coding results helped provide more powerful insights into consumer reactions and optimize commercials.

Client Expectations
In the panel discussion “Straight from the Client”, research department leaders shared their thoughts on what changes they would like to see in field of market research in the MENAP region in the coming 5 years.

Catrinel Lyon of Electrolux recommended agencies to go beyond the research brief, to immerse themselves in the client business, to seek to understand client organization, and to be open to change / embrace new technologies.

Mahmoud Aburayyan of Etihad Airways wants to see more online panels and online communities introduced by the agencies in region. He also stressed the importance of agencies translating their findings into actionable recommendations that can help provide guidance on how to improve performance.

Federico Trovato of Toyota mentioned understanding of Arab customers, relevant industry trends and market, as well meta-analysis at the country / region level and data synthesis as some of the expectations for the market research agencies.

Tarek El Nagdy of Unilever emphasized the importance of providing answers to business challenges rather than delivering research findings. He wants the agencies to act as business consultants that can effectively communicate a story for every business challenge and deliver a full picture / integrated perspective. Tarek also wants to see the greater use of digital and online platforms as well as the faster research turnaround with answers to business challenges being provided in less than 24 hours.

ESOMAR MENAP Forum 2015 created an important platform for research professionals from the region and beyond to showcase the best practices, discuss challenges and opportunities and provide directions for embracing the disruptive change and staying relevant in the times of transformation. The examples and case studies that were presented at the forum demonstrated that despite the challenges, complexity and diversity of the Middle East and North Africa region, the technology and innovative research methods can be successfully leveraged to improve the quality of research and to deliver faster, more powerful insights.