Victoria Zagorsky

Last week, I had the great pleasure of attending the ESOMAR Best of MENAP conference in Dubai. It was anticipated eagerly by research professionals in the region looking to understand the latest industry trends and how to use innovative approaches to deliver insights. This was the third such conference and was attended by 180 research professionals from 24 countries. It was an energising event, with the theme of radical changes in the industry running through all presentations and discussions. Companies were very enthusiastic in showcasing some interesting examples of how emerging research methods are used in the Middle East to maximise research ROI.

The consensus was that the industry is undergoing a major transformation that will affect the way we collect, analyse, and use data for decision making.

Today, face-to-face data collection remains prevalent in the Middle East, but thanks to growing internet penetration and smartphone usage, this will change dramatically in the next five years, as Steve Hamilton-Clark of TNS said in his introduction to the program.

Finn Raben encouraged research professionals not to be afraid of the change but to embrace it to ensure our industry stays relevant to all professionals who use information for decision making.

New data collection
It was very interesting to see how agencies in some countries (including Palestine, Pakistan, and Iraq) overcome data collection challenges related to the poor infrastructure, lack of census data, and other factors.

Challenges that make traditional research problematic give rise to innovative approaches to data collection, and the Heineken case study in Africa serves as a great example of how mobile technology can be leveraged to deliver insights.

Miguel Ramos of Confirmit provided an overview of the mobile trade census approach that helped Heineken develop an understanding of the markets it planned to enter. This approach involved the use of a mobile app with data pre-loaded, such as location, competitors, and a survey to record information. During fieldwork, the GPS locations of all outlets selling beer were captured. Additionally, pictures of the outlets were taken and questions were asked to obtain information about pricing and stock. After rigorous back checking, data were aggregated, analysed, and correlated with population to help Heineken find additional markets and make effective distribution decisions.

While mobile technology proves to be very effective in research programs such as the trade census, its applications are much wider. Stan Sthanunathan of Unilever shared staggering statistics that made researchers think of the increasing role of mobile phones in collecting consumer data. Currently, 6.6 billion people own a mobile phone, but only 4.2 billion own a toothbrush, and by 2020 every person in the world will have five connected devices. Mobile phones are going to be the primary devices for collecting information, and our industry needs to be prepared for this change. Stan Sthanunathan summed it up nicely, saying “go mobile or lose mobility”. Mobile phones will also be an enabler of real-time insights that businesses require in an increasingly complex marketplace.

Big data
Big data is undoubtedly a game changer. Extracting insight from an immense volume, variety, and velocity of data has become possible, and this creates an enormous opportunity for researchers.

We should not feel threatened by big data. On the contrary, John Carroll of Ipsos believes this is the “era for our industry to lead”. Market research professionals are best positioned to take a lead in the space, as we have the right skill sets to analyse and interpret data to solve business problems. The focus should not be on the volume of the data but on the types of data and their sources that enable us to perform new analyses and to uncover new insights that can inspire changes in organisations.

One key challenge we face is that data sets exist in silos, and market researchers should become “brokers of integration”. Researchers need to have an integration mindset and to ensure they bring different data sets together effectively to tell a holistic story.

Big data is already making an impact today. For example, hotels are using big data to empower their front-line employees with the information they capture through a variety of sources, including surveys and social media.

Two detailed case studies (Nielsen – Vodafone and ARA Research – Al Sayer Group) were presented to showcase how agencies helped their clients synthesise diverse sets of data to develop a holistic view of their customers and to gain a competitive edge.

Research without asking questions
Obtaining information without asking questions is likely to gain momentum. Retailers collect massive amounts of data to deliver personalised promotions, such as in Target’s case of sending an offer for pregnancy-related goods to a teenage girl before she informed her parents of her pregnancy. This is set to re-define the whole area of shopper insights, as researchers now have a unique opportunity to merge retail and consumer data to tell a holistic story of their brand.

Wearable devices will provide a stream of consumer data that will fundamentally change the way insights are generated, and researchers need to be prepared.

Social media represents another unique way to obtain deep insights without asking questions. Consumers use social media to share information and to discuss aspects of their lives that can be extremely important in developing a deep understanding of their needs, preferences, and behaviours. For example, social media helped uncover that consumers use Listerine against dandruff, an insight that was very unlikely to be found using traditional research methods, such as focus group interviews.

And while doing research without asking questions will undoubtedly become increasingly more popular, we continue to rely on surveys to obtain consumer insight. When it comes to surveys, the message that Sawan Prasad of TNS delivered resonated well with me. He emphasised the importance of getting “more with less” through shorter and more predictive surveys. It is very important that we design engaging, relevant, and smarter surveys and ask only those questions that truly matter to our business.

New role of researchers
Industry transformation requires a mindset shift, and researchers need to develop new skill sets.

So what is the role of researchers? It is critical to remember that insights and not data are the drivers of business, as Federico Trovato stressed in his presentation. The ultimate objective of the effective research function is to become a strategic partner of the business and to put insights at the core of decision making in the organisation.

To stay relevant, researchers must transition from their data collection role to that of consultants who can effectively use insights to guide businesses in their decision making. In his presentation, David Smith suggested that researchers need to learn to become panorama thinkers who have the ability to frame the choices generated by insights.

Researchers also need to become the agents of change, and this requires a shift from presenting facts and numbers to telling stories that inspire action. Stan Sthanunathan delivered a very simple yet powerful message to researchers, summarised as “tell impactful stories or you will lose impact”. Martin Luther King changed the world with one speech, and market researchers often forget their ultimate goal is also to inspire change, albeit on a smaller scale. Stan Sthanunathan demonstrated how boring and dull Martin Luther King’s speech would have been if it was presented in a typical market research format with a bar graph showing the gap between the dream and reality, best practices, geographic implementation, and action recommendations. In our industry, we tend to hide behind the numbers, “using the data as a crutch”, but we must remember it is vital to build impactful, visual stories.

As the research industry is growing at 7.1% in the GCC, the constant stream of young professionals will be required to fill the new positions. What can our industry do to attract the best young talent? Tanmay Dhall of The Fringe Factory shared recommendations on how to revamp the image of the market research industry and how to increase its attractiveness. To increase the visibility of the industry and the awareness of careers in market research, we need to connect with marketing and share the successful research stories behind successful services, products, and campaigns. Another way to increase the appeal of our industry is to demonstrate the use of digital and social media tools. It is also critical to communicate about the variety of career opportunities to attract graduates with unique backgrounds and distinct skills. And finally, we need to cross the bridge between the industry and education. We should increase the awareness of market research at career events and bring research professionals into the classroom to paint a realistic picture of the industry.

In summary, the ESOMAR Best of MENAP conference brought together research experts from across the region who shared inspiring stories of innovative research approaches and the latest industry trends. We are witnessing a radical industry transformation, and while change is frequently met with fear, research professionals are in the best place to make the most of the enormous opportunities these changes bring.

Victoria Zagorsky is the Editor-in-Chief of Insight Middle East and Africa