Scott Christofferson

Sources and methods in the knowledge era. Business leaders and market researchers are showing intense interest in new sources and methods for learning about customers and consumers. 

Among the most widely cited are social media, web site data, neuroscience, mobile surveys and transactional data. These sources promise information that is more accurate (for being “unfiltered”) and typically more quickly available (even “real time”) than traditional quantitative and qualitative research techniques.

When we talk to the researchers experimenting with these sources and methods, their usual aim is to find “better” information: faster or more accurate answers, or ways of answering new questions. While they have met with some success, researchers more often conclude that traditional techniques like surveys and focus groups – perhaps subject to relatively minor adjustments to leverage new technology (eg, conducting IDIs over a webcam rather than in person) – still represent the most effective way to answer customer-related business questions.  As a result, actual use of new sources and methods by market researchers remains very limited.

The far more worrying problem is that the goal of tapping better information sources largely ignores the greatest opportunity and threat presented by these new sources: business partners’ evolving use of information in making customer-related decisions.

From a research client’s perspective, the decision-making environment has become exceptionally volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous. 66% of marketers responding to CEB’s 2012 Marketing Agility Diagnostic believe that, as a result, they have missed some, many or most major opportunities.

In response, decision makers try to act faster. This quest for speed has, in turn, two effects on their use of information:

  1. They use less information. Our 2011 survey of nearly 300 business partners found that, when their perception of a decision’s urgency moves up one notch on a seven-point Likert scale, their decision will be grounded in 16 percentage points less new information.
  2. They seek faster information sources, and are willing to trade quality or insight to get it. As technology enables companies to track and analyse more and more aspects of customer behaviour, business partners consult these sources directly, using whatever seems helpful, without taking the time for synthesis or for in-depth analysis and insight generation.

Chart 1 – Make sure accreditation

Market research does not occupy a privileged position within this decision-making environment. Indeed, our business partner survey showed that formal market research represents just 5% of the input to the average customer-related decision.

This state of affairs isn’t good for the business. A separate 2011 CEB study suggests that just 22% of marketers (and just 38% of knowledge workers overall) have the analytical skills and judgement required to make wise use of data. Marketers (relative to knowledge workers generally) are especially prone to apply incorrect assumptions to data, use data out of context, and rely on inaccurate data. Additionally, a 2012 survey suggests that only 9% of marketers tend to think through issues thoroughly and prioritise depth of focus over breadth.

Research functions that don’t adapt to internal partners’ new ways of informing and making decisions fail in their mission to enable action based on a consistent, insightful understanding of customers/consumers and the marketplace. That means becoming partners’ preferred source of expertise on customers and all the ways one can learn about them, not just the highest-quality source of customer insight.

One pharmaceutical company has taken a couple of key steps to move from customer insight to customer expertise:

  • They consolidated market research, secondary research, and scientific knowledge on the 15+ therapeutic areas in which the company had in-market products or R&D investments into a single, wiki-style “Foundational Knowledge Platform” accessible via the company’s intranet. The comprehensiveness, navigability and ease of accessing this resource make it indispensable to customer-related decision making, increasing the number of use occasions for market research nearly thirty fold.
  • They trained key members on each of the brand teams to collaborate in insight generation. This training included a guide to more than a dozen categories of customer-related data sources (for example, primary market research, analytics, field sales and web data) arrayed along two dimensions: susceptibility to bias and credibility with leadership.  Co-creating insight with them leads to greater resonance within the business and develops natural advocates for insight within brand and business teams.

What to do?
What can you do in the absence of such a comprehensive program? A good start would be a quick-fire synthesis process, like one recently developed by a high-tech company. Its insight was to make synthesis more efficient by designating specific roles for different team members to play, getting in and out of the effort very quickly. This company’s specific roles are:

  • Business perspective: clarify what will suffice to meet the business partner’s need.  This role is typically played by the lead consultant who ordinarily works with the business partner.
  • Subject knowledge: lay out what we do/don’t know from past studies. This role is typically played by the researcher with the most relevant topical experience.
  • Analytics: re-query available data sets to fill knowledge gaps quickly.
  • Communication: put the resulting story in writing in a clear, compelling way. For quick efforts, this role can be played by the same person who supplies business perspective; larger efforts merit your best storyteller.

The team’s ability to respond to needs in just one to five days has reshaped partners’ decision-making habits. They went from being consulted on about 35% of major decisions to 90%. A critical enabler of change for both of these companies is that individual researchers no longer see their role as generating new insight (or analysis) in response to business questions and challenges. They see themselves as experts in customer and consumer knowledge, equipped with a mandate to maintain and enhance that knowledge proactively.

Scott Christofferson is the managing director of CEB’s Market Research Executive Board in the USA