By Andrew Dalglish

Another new year, and another set of predictions about the future of the research industry. We’re about to be transformed by Big Data, automation, real-time insight…the list goes on. It’s all very exciting stuff, and if we look at the Winter 2015 GRIT Report, based on a global survey of 1,497 clientside and agency researchers, it does indeed appear that the research industry is on the cusp of a new era. Two thirds (63%) of research agencies expect that the market research industry will become more disruptive over the next three years, and three quarters (76%) expect that they’ll need to transform their business to remain competitive.

‘Disruptive’. ‘Transform’. They’re strong words.

I’m not convinced. If our industry’s past behaviour is anything to go by then there might be pockets of innovation, but on the whole change will be slow. You see, back in 2011 our peers also used the GRIT Report to voice their belief that the research industry was entering a period of transformation.  Four years ago the exact same proportion of respondents as in 2015 expected to see significant change over the coming years.  So did this change emerge after all?  Well, let’s take a look at the data.

The GRIT Report shows that in 2015 the most widely used qualitative technique was the focus group, with in-depth interviews (both face-to-face and telephone) forming a second tier. In 2011 the situation was identical with the ‘Big Three’ dominant. The only real change has been the rise of online communities and mobile diaries whose usage has grown from 22% to 25% and 17% to 24% respectively since 2011. However, these are still relatively niche techniques which only around a quarter of the research profession use.

What about quantitative techniques? Here again there’s been a shift, but not a particularly dramatic one. In 2015 the most widely used quantitative technique was the online survey, used by 88% of researchers. This was a country mile ahead of the second tier of techniques, CATI and face-to-face, which were used by 39% and 32% of respondents respectively. In 2011, the situation was once again pretty much identical – 89% had used online surveys, followed by CATI (57%) and face-to-face (53%).

An important difference between 2011 and 2015 though is that the use of mobile surveys has moved from a niche status (23% used in 2011) to a more mainstream position (44% used in 2015).

So yes, there has been some change over the last few years – online communities are now an established niche and mobile surveys have become more widely embraced. But the pace of change has been relatively slow and it’s certainly not transformative as the same ‘traditional’ techniques still dominate.

It strikes me then that there’s a lot of noise about radical change, but little action. I also think it’s a bit of a distraction.

I’m a firm believer that we should embrace innovative new techniques if they can provide a deeper insight. However, let’s not forget that ultimately every technique is simply a means to an end, informing better business decisions, and it is here that our industry really needs to focus if it wants to remain relevant. Despite years of talk about being ‘consultants’ and ‘strategic thinkers’ providing ‘actionable insight’, it seems that still only a minority are delivering on this promise.

Let me share another stat, this time from the Spring 2015 GRIT Report. When asked in this survey to name their biggest challenges, top of the client’s list of pain points is ‘getting actionable reports that relate directly to business needs’. So perhaps our industry’s focus in 2016 should be on developing a new mind-set rather than a new tool-kit.

By Andrew Dalglish, Circle Research

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