I must admit that I only had a vague idea of what to expect when I took my first position in market research. This seems to be a common theme among new researchers—we have a loose feel for what market research does and the value of research in business but little practical insight.
Although my time in research has been short, I thought I would share my thoughts on what I have learned so far, but also contrast that with what I haven’t learned. Neither set should surprise anyone, but hopefully I can provoke a little frank discussion about the industry without invoking too much navel gazing.
Three things I have learned from Market Research
- Everybody lies to police, priests and pollsters
I was surprised to find how much respondents “lie” in surveys. It’s easy enough to anticipate that respondents will get bored with a long survey and answers questions randomly, or will lie about personal finances or credit scores. What I failed to anticipate was how unreliable statements around future behavior can be. Maybe it’s just human nature to generate stories about ourselves that we wish were true (“I am moderately likely to buy a new truck in the next year!”), rather than admit to the truth (“My wife will never agree new truck until the kids are out of college”).
- Data and insights are not the same thing
Data represent a mix of hard and soft realities and untangling fact from fiction more involved than I ever imagined. I would never have guessed at how delicate survey research can be. Insights flow from data (among other things), but data can more of a backdrop than a story.
- Intuition is critical
Call it sound business judgment if you will, but you need intuition in research. Since data are not enough, real insights are made from intuitive, non-random connections between both qualitative and quantitative elements of research based on experience, subject-matter expertise, and a good gut feel. This is the value that market researchers bring to clients. This is why we strive to be market experts. This is what I am enjoying the most about market research.
Three things I have not learned from Survey Market Research, and probably won’t.
- The optimal anything
Despite all of our modeling and forecasting wizardry, market research cannot provide more than guesses about the shape of the future. Highly-educated guesses, for sure, but guesses nonetheless. Market research remains just one framework among many used for aiding business decisions. The biggest issue that I see with forecasting and modeling is that every question, every test, is necessarily observed out of context. Real market decisions are made with the full context of each participant’s actual situation, complete with financial, marketing, social and demand pressures layered on top of the final form and function of the product. Research design cannot replicate this context.
- The shape of disruptive innovation to come
The successes of iPhone and the iPad could never have been predicted without the full context of each product within in the marketplace. Market research will never tell us what the next disruptive innovation will be or where it will come from. It still takes good business acumen and strong intuition to gauge the future of markets—and a whole lot of luck. If reliable predictions were possible, then a very few of us would be exceedingly rich and the others would be out of business. Good research can reduce the risk of bringing new products to market but disruptive innovations are usually predicted by the likes of Verne and Da Vinci, not researchers.
- What people will actually do
Given the swirling vortex of influences on markets and the fickleness of human nature, can we actually ask people what they think that they would do and learn anything meaningful from it? The ability to silently observe behavior and listen to freely generated conversation is the most powerful new outlook in market research right now. I feel the weight of big data pressing itself into the marker research industry already, as we seek increasingly granular data to improve our analysis. Social media research, in particular, can suck in more nuance than anyone could have imagined possible even 5 or 10 years ago. Yet I don’t believe that market research can forecast markets any more accurately than meteorologists do the weather. Markets are giant, organic, living things. The heartbeats of markets are felt as much as measured, motions are anticipated as much as predicted. We can know very accurately where we have been, but only vaguely where we are going.
Market research is an interesting space in which to work. After years as a product development engineer and investigating many business ventures both during and after business school, I was excited by the prospect of being able to put hard numbers to market forecasts and round out my understanding of new product development. Research, design, finance: isn’t this what successful products are built on?
After the honeymoon phase with market research was over, however, I accepted that while market research may have all the data, it still does not have all the answers, and is but one of many inputs to good business decisions. The business world is full of well-tested and heavily-researched products that belly-flopped in the market, from apps to cars to television shows. Pontiac Aztec or “Life on a stick”, anyone? Our great value lies in helping clients navigate our research arc to discover insights of their own, informed by their own business context and expertise. Personally, this is my biggest struggle in research, because I want to provide definitive answers to clients and it is rare that the questions are simple enough to do that. Instead of being the carnival fortune teller who can look into a cup of tea leaves and tell an adventurous young lad where to go find his pot of gold, we’re more like the sage old lady in the village next door who says useful but frustrating things like “well, you might want to try Ireland because it rains a lot there, and you need rain to get rainbows.”