by Dale Henry

At this year’s MRS Conference in March, one particular theme caught my attention – it focused on the view that the research industry has started to lag behind other marketing disciplines.

Given that two years ago, 90% of the world’s data didn’t exist (according to independent research organisation SINTEF) and now companies are awash with data that can be analysed every which way, how can research be lagging behind with this scale of innovation?

A clue was provided by former Camelot CEO Dianne Thompson who stated “The very fact that you talk about people as ‘respondents’, rather than having a dialogue with people, needs to change. The whole role of social media has sped everything up.” Now, whilst I wouldn’t necessarily say that this suggests the industry is lagging behind, it could indicate how some elements of the industry have lost touch.

The automation of data collection has led to an almost robotic process of research which, in turn, has marginalised the human element of the process. The notion of understanding consumers on a qualitative level has been overlooked by a penchant for ‘big’ or continuous data.

In my opinion, the spotlight has swung away from qual with some agencies shying away from the qualitative process in favour of big data collection. I might be wrong, but could this be because they have simply forgotten the art, or no longer value the process, of communicating with consumers on a personal level? One doesn’t have to cast the net far to see what effects big data reliance can have on a company.

For some, working with big data might simply be the easier option – stats don’t (particularly) lie and without an accepted consensus in place to judge qualitative research, the process can be criticised for lacking scientific rigor, transparency and sometimes delivering findings which are merely a catalogue of personal opinions swayed by a researcher’s bias.

Perhaps these doubts have led to an unconscious drift towards big data popularity? Perhaps we as research agencies haven’t done enough to convince clients that our qualitative processes do deliver? Whatever the reason, Qual has declined but the fact still remains – purely understanding what consumers are doing isn’t enough. We need to show clients that we can provide the ‘why’ to support their data.

I recently joined research consultancy McCallum Layton. I must say it’s great to be part of a company which continually refreshes the way they interact with consumers, which has led to more than 30 years of success within the industry. The Qual team boasts an intrinsic process which ensures the validity and reliability of any qualitative results they produce.

These processes, which others in the industry may have in place, need to be translated to clients. The value of a good qualitative researcher should not be overlooked. If we can get this message across, more focus might be attributed to the qualitative approach and we can truly help clients get back to understanding the why of consumer behaviour.