Erika Harriford-McLaren

Working for ESOMAR, I go to my fair share of conferences… market research conferences that is. While I’m at these events, be they ours or others, I’m constantly reminded of how technology is changing the way our industry works and carving out new paths for our future. So, with this in mind, I decided to attend The Next Web Conference in Amsterdam (ESOMAR’s home town) to see how market research and the tech world could be bridged and to see what opportunities are out there that we may or may not have on our short and long-term radar.

So here’s a quick summary of a few things that I found interesting which could be helpful for you and your company and possibly even game changers for our industry.

Innovation and the Future
Gary Shapiro – author of Ninja Innovation – gave his predictions for the innovations that will be big in the future including robotics, the cloud and the internet of things, driverless cars (think of assistance to the disabled and those who have had one too many at the pub) and healthcare. This last area could indeed bring big value for research as populations around the world are ageing, weight and diabetes issues are growing (fastest growing disease in many countries) and the use of sensing devices is increasing. As Shapiro noted, sensing devices are getting easier, cheaper, and quicker and therefore we must ensure we are innovating our tools and services to match where the people are.

Sharing Economy
Lioc Le Meur – co-founder of LeWeb – reminded us that with startups like Airbnb, Kickstarter, Uber and Shared Earth – the concept of the sharing economy is something we can’t avoid. Global recession is fuelling the sharing economy and as mobility issues rise in importance in our lives (physical movement of people, economical rise of the classes and social impact), the idea of too much choice is driving people towards availability versus ownership. Think SoLoMo and adaptive marketing to leverage data from various sources. The impact of sharing will certainly be felt amongst clients who may well find value in this new business model – so we best be prepared for it.

Big Data
Yep, you knew it was coming. Everyone is talking about it, and as Kenneth Cukier, Data Editor at the Economist noted, there is still no real definition of what it is. However, to define may mean to constrain and ultimately, big data is about recognising the value of being able to do things on a larger scale that you can’t on a smaller scale. So far so good…

However, according to Cukier, at the heart of all this big data talk is correlations –not being straightjacketed with small portions or samples and giving up preferences for highly curated and accurate results because the gains are more important with larger amounts of data. He urged the audience to not be bound by the dictatorship of data – fetishing it and giving it more import than deserved – a sentiment which certainly may not be welcomed by researchers, who pride themselves on the accuracy of their data for fuelling insights and strategy. If this is how some experts are viewing the role of big data in the future – where does it leave our industry?

Cukier did note that this approach may indeed have a dark side – privacy issues, algorithms making predictions that may penalise unjustly (likelihood to commit crimes, etc…). However, looking at the dark side from a research perspective, I was left wondering what kind of impact his views had on those in the audience (marketers, entrepreneurs, investors) and how researchers will be able to defend their role in this area. While there may not be a quick and easy solution for establishing our role in big data, it’s something we need to keep in mind for our future, because as Cukier cautioned – by 2020 the low-hanging fruit of big data will be gone.

The role of privacy was viewed at The Next Web interestingly enough through the lens of Google’s latest invention – Google Glass. Aesthetics and small viewing screen aside (tried on a pair – and honestly was not that impressed) – the real buzz around these specs was from the issues of privacy surrounding their use.

Robert Scoble, entrepreneur and tech evangelist, sat with Andrew Keen in a fireside chat to discuss how privacy could be impacted by this new tool. Scoble, who famously tweeted that he wears his glasses in public restrooms (he says he never turns them on), honestly doesn’t see privacy as an issue – and from the straw poll that Keen took of the audience – neither did many in that tech audience. He (and others there) believes that we have given up privacy in so many ways (think social media, CCTV, etc) that Google Glass’ ability to record audio, video and take pictures – possibly without another’s knowledge – will be accepted by and large.

From the research perspective, where gaining consumer trust is key, this struck me as somewhat disturbing.  The idea that when it comes to technology citizens have forfeited their rights or have tacitly given an all-access pass to their privacy belies the importance of informed consent – a principle that is imperative in research and that provides for a trusting respondent relationship and increased consumer protection.

Technology moves fast and people are indeed much more public in what they choose to divulge about their private lives.  However, research is an industry where consumer anonymity is key to ensuring better response rates, willing participation, differentiation from direct marketing and reassurance that data obtained will solely be used for market research.  If people lose faith in privacy from these new technologies, what might that mean for research?

Erika Harriford-McLaren is Communications Manager at ESOMAR