In Market Research, what do we mean by ‘Disruption’?

Disruption as a signMost weeks there is something in the MR media about a new force for disruption, which is often followed by somebody else saying ‘that is not disruption, it is X’, where X tends to be one of ‘Hype’, ‘Same old, same old’, ‘Just the continuation of a trend’ or similar. In a recent GreenBook post Jeff Resnick wrote about ZappiStore and its potential for disruption, and this elicited at least one comment from somebody who wanted the word ‘disruption’ to be removed from the list of words used by MR bloggers.

However, I think the attacks on the term disruption in MR blogging probably miss two key points:

  1. When writing about the future it important to alert people to what might happen, to allow people to consider and perhaps plan for such contingencies.
  2. Disruption in MR is both real and frequent.

When we are talking about disruption that has not happened yet, there has to be a probabilistic element. If the commentary waited until disruption had happened, it would hardly be very interesting. However, this means that not every disruption written about will happen, but that does not invalidate the process of looking at changes and considering them. The process of writing about potential disruptions allows them to be considered more widely and for people to decide whether they want to factor the possibility of them happening into their plans.

If we look backwards over the recent history of MR, then I think we can see plenty of examples of disruption. For example, I would say the shift to online was certainly disruptive in the sense of hundreds of thousands of jobs being lost globally and a shift from representative samples of people who did perhaps one survey a year to panel members completing 100 plus surveys a year. DIY MR has increased to the point where more surveys are conducted by non-researchers than researchers – something I would describe as disruptive, even though it may not seem so disruptive to those conducting their surveys inside the MR enclave.

In terms of Jeff’s article on ZappiStore, what I think is potentially disruptive about their model lies in the second part of their name, i.e. ‘Store’. ZappiStore are not a conventional provider of research solutions, they are a shop. People with a business problem go along and buy a solution that has been produced by one of a range of companies, for example by Millward Brown, BrainJuicer, MMR or Added Value. These products have three things in common (when purchased from the store), they are relatively cheap (e.g. a Link test for $3000), they are fast (hours not days), and they do not require market research skills in order to configure them (because they are preconfigured). Note, using these products does require business skills, it does require the user to be familiar with receiving market research outputs, but it does not require the user to be able to create market research – which makes it quite different from DIY tools that allow a user to program a survey or create an online discussion or focus group.

I am writing a paper on automation at the moment (more on this soon) and yesterday I was interviewing a major research buyer who was talking about when he uses this sort of service and when he uses the full-service route – going directly to the agency. For him the lower price of automation is a nice to have, but the speed is the thing that is making the difference. His colleagues are including him (the internal insight expert) in discussions because he can provide results in hours, which fits their speed of decision-making.

My feeling is that automation is going to dramatically reduce the headcount in MR over the next 5 years and automation is going to give benefits to the winners and will really hurt those who do not get it right (which will lead to closures/acquisitions etc). That will be pretty disruptive in my option. Automation may also increase the use of market research, because it is faster, cheaper and less flexible (why ‘less flexible’ is often good is another post). That change, if it happens, will also be disruptive.

What do I mean by disruptive? Probably any or all of the following: 1) lots of people lose their jobs or have to work harder for less money; 2) new companies appear on the scene and become established (which often means jobs and power shifts from the old order to the new order), 3) new uses or customers appear (so when Millward and Brown invented Ad Tracking in the 1980s, that was pretty disruptive – and saw a growth in employment in MR).


Note, ZappiStore are a sponsor of NewMR and GreenBook is a media and business partner of NewMR.

9 thoughts on “In Market Research, what do we mean by ‘Disruption’?

  1. As the writer who challenged the word “disruption” in the context of market research in the referenced Greenbook article I don’t think this follow up makes any further support for disruption. In fact there are enough exaggerations in here to make me wonder about the objectivity of the author. There were never hundreds of thousands of jobs lost because the industry moved to online solutions. Where did that one come from? The shift may have caused a reduction in part time labour but it hardly impacted on the professional levels of the research industry in any significance way, other than to continue the dumbing down process that is surely a product of the whole DIY and Automation trend. Milward Brown’s ad tracking was no disruptor. It may have had an effect in the UK but there were already a number of famous competing brand monitoring systems in place before they became a force. I still fail to see what the disruptive difference is between being able to buy something on Zappistore than going direct to the original supplier? But I guess even that simple logistical change can be branded as “disruptive” if one needs to make a case. I have managed to convince the Greenbook people to include attempts at measuring the uptake of all these new new tools and ideas in their regular industry GRIT survey, because as far as I can see the results to date in 2015 suggests not much in the way of disruption – and in fact an interesting disconnect between what is on offer and what clients use.

      1. The one original theory in marketing is that the function can not be eliminated, it can only be shifted. That in my mind is not really disruptive in the sense that we completely change the way we do something. As you point out, “using these products does require business skills, it does require the user to be familiar with receiving market research outputs”. So we havent really changed the process, just shifted who is doing the work.

          1. That was essentially my point. The actual job does not really go away, just moves. So while some companies might downsize, others will need to grow. DIY research did cause some full service companies to downsize, but not everyone went on to become a Pilates instructor on a cruise ship. Many folks went to work for the end client, the DIY provider, or a panel company. I guess this could be considered “disruptive” to those who find themselves with a new employer, but I’m not sure how it’s really “disruptive” to the industry.

    1. Great article! Glad to see you joining the DIY movement. ?
      I’ve been a believer on DIY research and have invested heavily on the development of our own DIY tools for a couple of years. The combination of DIY tools with mobile and communities is definitely one of the technologies empowering the future of market research.
      Success with the new endeavor!

  2. As researchers we are in a strong position to respond effectively to disruption influences, because a lot of our work involves studying brands and industries that are themselves being disrupted. We’d be foolish not to learn from this, and be scanning the horizon for changes coming the way of insight skills generally

  3. Among all the heavyweights commenting on this thread, allow me to add my 2 pence. I agree with Christopher on the fact that by building platforms that allow access to cheaper and faster insights, you are not really disrupting MR. Disruption is a widely misused and overused term. In reality, a real disruption is almost turning an ecosystem or a way of doing things on its head.

    I have followed the emergence of technology enabled data collection and facilitating platforms in MR. We also now have Google Consumer Surveys, which reportedly has built a panel of more than a million consumers for Mondelez to evaluate and test digital advertising campaigns. So even Google is now getting into community building and management etc.

    For me the challenge with MR is its inability to get a seat in the boardroom or any room where strategic decisions are being made. After years or even decades, and even with the advent of latest products / solutions, new platforms, the emergence of mobile and the whole movement towards shorter & smarter surveys, MR does not drive corporate strategy or brand strategy. The whole industry is still perceived to be data providers. Not only the agencies, but clients are equally to blame for failing to raise the profile of MR within the strategic functions of their organisations. There are a few who have (which probably includes the client that Ray mentions in his article) but majority fail. MR is still a validation tool, and not a guiding tool for strategy.

    In multibillion dollar private equity deals or during M&As (when organisations merge, are bought or sold), is MR a strategic due diligence tool? It is not. How many times do private equity look into the strength of the brands (in the eyes of the consumer)? Very few times. The whole startup revolution is obsessed with building disruptive products, but very few pay genuine interest in understanding the category and its prospective customer. Apple for a long time (till the myth was debunked) was rumoured not to have a MR/insights division. The world’s best futuristic organisations do not use MR to design and launch the next generation products.

    The whole MR industry seems to be chasing its own tail for quite some time now. We have moved from monolithic turnaround times to consumer reactions in a few hours, but we still can’t get the CEO or CMOs attention. How many MR generated figures appear in any organisation’s annual report? Or for that matter, what is MR’s contribution in telling a Board member that this is how he or she should steer the organisation in the next 5 years?

    Please don’t get me wrong. I am not dumbing down MR. I have worked inside and in the periphery of this industry for the last 14 years. It is seriously disappointing when you come to know that your nice and strategic 30 slide deck never made it into the next cycle of strategic business planning.

    For me, disruption in MR will happen when we get a seat in the Boardroom and are treated with the same respect as a strategist from MBB. Any may I ask is there an increasing crop of agencies who position them as ‘research consultancies’? Are you ashamed of calling yourself a ‘research agency’ or are you not quite there yet to be called a ‘consultancy’?

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