Jan Hofmeyr challenges the future of market research at MRMW London


Last week, at the MRMW Conference in London, the future of market research as we know it was challenged by Jan Hofmeyr. Although there were many informative and interesting presentations, Jan was that the only person who was talking about a very different way of doing business.

In writing this post I am working from memory, so apologies if I misrepresent anything. The presentation in London appeared to be a continuation of a presentation that Jan made last year in Amsterdam, at the ESOMAR 3D Conference. A continuation in the sense that he had moved his thinking on, and an extension, in that he now appears to be offering a solution to some of the world’s largest agencies and clients.

The main points
Jan Hofmeyr’s main points were:

  1. The existing model of market research, in particular the large trackers, is broken. It is too slow, too expensive, and not sufficiently useful. Not many people would argue with this point of view.
  2. The best device, for collecting tracking interviews is the mobile phone. Jan’s key point is that nearly everybody has a phone and they have it with them almost all the time. And, by mobile phone, he means both feature phones and smartphone.
  3. The core of his suggested data collection should be text based and last about 120 seconds. It should be text based because more than half the world is still using a feature phone, and it can be 120 seconds because it is going to focus on just 3 key products per person (the three most relevant to each person). And, it needs to be 120 seconds to make it affordable and to reach enough people.
  4. Social media monitoring should be added to the tracking mix to make the information richer.
  5. Predictive analytics should be used to look at the data to predict what is likely to happen next – rather than reporting what did happen weeks or months ago.
  6. Artificial Intelligence or Expert Systems should be used to analyse the data, to produce reports that have not been written by people and which are automatically translated into the client’s preferred languages.

The key benefits
The research will be much cheaper, more insightful, predictive, and faster.

The implications for the MR industry
The MR industry would need far fewer employees. These employees would mostly be experts, salesmen, and accountants.
Presumably, the sort of process Jan is talking about would not affect the small ad hoc projects, especially the qual projects nearly so much. What he is mostly talking about are the big projects; the brand, ad, and customer satisfaction trackers, the places where clients spend most of their money, and where most market researchers are employed.

However, if the big stuff were to change to the extent that Jan is forecasting, then there would surely be implications for other types of research too?

The reaction in the room?
Most people in the room showed no reaction to Jan saying they may not have a job within a year or two. Did they not believe him, not understand him, or not really listen?

My initial reaction was to focus on the bits of his plan that, as described, do not seem possible with current technologies. However, I do accept his central points about a) the need for change, and b) the possibility for change.

My reservations
My key reservations were, that on the evidence presented, I do not feel that the following items will work as well, or as accurately, as he intimated:

  • Collection of emotional data about brands, from short surveys or from social media.
  • Predicting brand movements. Jan seemed to be suggesting he could predict the score a brand would get in the future. I think that predicting a cloud of possible values is more realistic (a point covered by both Nate Silver and Nassim Nicholas Talib in their books The Signal and the Noise and The Black Swan).
  • The ability to create expert systems that could automatically produce non-trivial reports.
  • The ability to automate the tailoring of reports to different clients and languages.

What’s next?
From what I hear from the US and from Europe, Jan Hofmeyr has some very interested major clients/potential clients. So, some people are taking it very seriously. Perhaps some of the wackier elements of his presentation are not part of what he currently plans to deliver? Perhaps the core of what he is suggesting is more limited and more practical?
Although I have some major reservations about what Jan Hofmeyr presented, I suspect he is closer to the truth than the majority of the room who seemed to believe that the MR industry in two and five years will be much like it is today.

5 thoughts on “Jan Hofmeyr challenges the future of market research at MRMW London

  1. Ray: do you really feel there was no reaction in the rooom to Jannie’s piece? A few people I chatted to immediately were negative – as was my initial reaction. Jannie hardly talked to the “you can’s” and almost 98% to “machines will do this better” in future, which perhaps made the message a tad unpalatable, choosing to focus on the need for radical change, which is threatening. What part of his message was new? Not predictive analytics, surely. The ability to generate automated reports – yes, but what would be the quality? I’d like to see some proof. Google translate? last time I checked, the quality was lacking – perhaps they’re improving daily. I have insufficient evidence to make a judgement, but coming from Jannie – to me an excellent thinker – I’d take it very seriously.

  2. Hi Ray and Edward:

    I wasn’t there but based on the summary I would say that all presentations need an Ah Ha moment to be memorable. That said, the discussion was much like the elephant in the room and some form of what he described will likely evolve – remember when we first thought internet research would never take hold because of the sampling? Trackers are largely gone already and qual is dominating most research budgets these days but however brilliant the analytics, the data is only relevant in context. The message there should be use the tools and become information czars – it’s about the insights now and not the data collection – our industry has always been good at figuring out what’s next – now we just need to self medicate. I’m quite sure that hardware manufacturers never thought the end of the world would come from telephony and who would have thought giants like Cisco could be tumbled so quickly? It’s all about adjusting and letting go of old ideas and using your knowledge to make new ones more viable. A half full jar can go either way – it’s your prerogative to decide

  3. Jan Hofmeir is in my humble opinion a research genius. I had the opportunity to work with him when I was with MEMRB and then Synovate. His conversion model change the way the world views the elusive notion of Brand Equity.

    I am totally in agreement with him about the combination of asking questions and social listening. Not so sure about whether text messages will be enough to synthesize insights. I do know one thing though : by 2017 5 billion people will subscribe to broadband acess using a smartphone. Given this prediction I would feel comfortable to do more utilising the functionality of smartphones which are effectively small size computers and be prepared for the imminent future.

  4. Morning Everyone

    Thanks for paying attention! It’s become clear as the days have passed that the silence in the room was not a sign that people weren’t thinking. Just a few observations. First, we should not underestimate what smart people can do with machines. Second, I agree that this isn’t the end of the world – but we are someway through an industry transformation that will see the end of many kinds of work. Particularly what I call ‘factory market research done by humans’. Third, I agree that change tends to come slower than people think – typically at the rate at which people die.

    Perhaps two last comments. First, I think there will be more work for humans, not less; but that what people do will be quite different as will be the skills sets required – sorry, there’s going to be a lot more room for geeks. And second, in case the point hasn’t been made often enough: don’t underestimate machines.

    Today we launched ConversionModel Express through ZappiStore. It’s a good example of what I mean when I say ‘research without researchers’. It’s still new. Like early planes or computers or Google translate, it’s still basic. But there’s a lot in it that’s better than what humans produce, even after three years of training.

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