How much should clients know about New Market Research?

The other day I saw a comment that clients have a duty to keep themselves up-to-date with all the latest changes in market research, to make sure that their organisation is getting the benefits that are available. However, as soon as I read the comment, I was troubled.

After some thinking about the proposition that clients need to be up-to-date I was able to isolate my concern. It is unreasonable to create a duty or expectation that is not possible. It moves the blame from somewhere else to an unfair location. And, I believe that it is not possible for most clients to be up-to-date, or fully informed, about all that is new in market research – not even all the major trends and changes.

Nobody is fully informed
The first point is that it is not just clients who are not fully informed; providers and researchers are not fully informed either. No researcher I have ever met or heard of is fully up to speed on:

  • Social media monitoring, mining, and research
  • Neuroscience
  • Discourse analysis
  • Gamification
  • Computer Aided Qualitative Data Analysis
  • Big Data
  • Adaptive discrete choice modelling
  • Smartphone, participative ethnography
  • Predictive markets
  • Behavioural economics
  • Virtual focus groups

To name just a few!

The Vendor
Nobody really expects a vendor to understand all of these fields. It is, usually, sufficient for a vendor to fully understand their proposed technique, and its direct alternatives. For example, we look to researchers utilising predictive markets to say, here is how it works, these are the problems it tackles, here is its academic/practical/philosophical underpinning, and here is how it compares with other, major, alternative solutions to the problems it is suitable for.

The Buyer
For most research buyers, market research is only a part of their job, often a fairly small part. As well as market research, research buyers may need to be on top of advertising, marketing, production, NPD, logistics etc. If vendors can’t be fully briefed on what is new and available in market research, how can buyers be expected to up-to-date?
Wolves nearest the sleigh’s, fashion, and favourites

I suspect that the right strategy for buyers, and a strategy that many of the buyers adopt, is based on three elements:

  1. Tackle the wolf nearest the sleigh first
  2. Check out what is fashionable
  3. Do a few things just because you like them or you are interested in them

The wolf nearest the sleigh
Most research buyers have some problems that are more pressing than others. Examples are research programmes that are not delivering insight, research programmes which are too expensive or too slow, or new research needs that are not being met. Getting information on new solutions to the most pressing problem is a sensible and common way of prioritising time and effort.

Vendors need to realise if they have a research solution that is 25% better (e.g. 25% cheaper, or faster, or broader) a buyer might not be interested if it addresses a problem that is adequately being tackled. Buyers have to prioritise, and a better solution to a solved problem is rarely a priority.

Keeping an eye on fashion
This might initially sound a little lazy or shallow – but there are two good reasons for adopting this as part of the research buyer’s strategy.

  1. Failing to know about something your boss has heard about can make you look foolish and ill-informed. At the moment Big Data is in the mainstream press, it is in the business press, there are radio and TV programmes about it. A wise research buyer will want to know enough about it to be able to say “We are not doing it now because …”, or “We are particularly interested in … – and we have a trial underway”.
  2. Things are often fashionable for a reason. Moving surveys from telephone to online was a fashion, but it was also the right solution for many organisations. Being late to implement a good and well known solution is more likely to be damaging to a career than being late to adopt a little known innovation.

Following your interests
Most of the really interesting client side researchers and research users spend a small amount of their time (and sometimes budget) looking at things they find interesting. These people are indispensable to the research industry and progress, these were the first people to try semiotics, MROCs, implicit association testing, etc.

Talking to these research users, the key benefit seems to be the creation of a better and wider context. The new system they try often does not deliver ROI, it is often not repeated (at least not by them), but the experience, and in particular the identification of what it answered and what it did not, help frame future projects and thinking.

Ask for the possible
So, I feel that it is lazy and unreasonable to say ‘clients should keep abreast of all the new developments’. Clients need to do that which is possible and that which generates the best net return for their business.

Vendors of new ideas need to do more to make their case, probably by tending to work with other similar vendors (as opposed to bad mouthing them). The number one task for a vendor of a new technology should be to grow the sector, unless they are happy with being a niche player I a niche market. Vendors need to realise that even if their system is better, it may not be the buyer’s top need or priority.

Comparisons and Guidelines
One way to help clients be more informed is to provide good comparisons and guidelines. The ARF studies into panels and into neuroscience were great for the industry and for clients. ESOMAR’s 28 Questions for Panel Owners are a great aid to clients. The study that Freshminds published in 2011 comparing several social media monitor tools was another good initiative.

The ARF study into panels was largely driven by research buyer concerns about quality – perhaps the answer is for buyers to fund comparative studies. Providers could fund it, but why would buyers believe a vendor funded report?

So, what are your thoughts? Do you think it is reasonable to expect buyers to be aware of every major new tool, technique, and approach? What strategies do you use, or would you suggest?