Opportunities and threats facing the market research industry – David Smith

DVL Smith

Post by David Smith, director DVL Smith and member of the ESOMAR Council.

Fiedler, in his seminal work on forecasting, said ‘He who lives by the crystal ball soon learns to eat ground glass’ so it is with some trepidation that I outline a point of view on first the threats, then the opportunities, facing the market research industry.

We could be hit by a tsunami of new data and an avalanche of expectations that overwhelm us as data scientists and other specialists step into the space we once dominated, resulting paradoxically in a dumbing down of our understanding of human behaviour.

One future scenario is that the market research industry loses its way as new data owners take over our former territory. The emphasis switches towards setting up instant, large scale experiments to tell us whether we should do X or Y. In this scenario the importance of asking the ‘why’ question in order to provide a richer understanding of people’s behaviour becomes a lost art.
We start living in a culture of experiment: just find the answer and then do it. It doesn’t matter about understanding what could be the subtle and complex reasons and rationale behind this. In this scenario the market researcher’s craft skills of clear, deep thinking to understand the nuances of human behaviour are placed on the back burner.

We enter an era of superficial platitudes and quick clichéd decision-making driven by only a surface understanding of what people are really feeling and thinking. But, as everyone is time pressured and lacks resources, we stop asking those telling and searching Why questions, dumb everything down and settle for second best.

The purchasing process means that market research gradually becomes a commodity which leads to talent not being attracted into the industry.

The way market research increasingly will be purchased could mean that it becomes a ‘commodity’. We start having decisions dominated by people who know the price of everything but the value of nothing – so over a gradual series of salami-thin cuts, we end up with squeezes on the profit margin of ad hoc research.

Agencies will then have to face up to, not the loser’s, but the winner’s curse: if the smallest thing goes wrong on a project they have won, agencies will end up losing money. So it could become better to lose jobs rather to win them! In this environment it becomes difficult to attract talent to the industry because no-one wants to work in such a creativity-stifling, commoditised battlefield.

Playing out this scenario, we see a gradual loss of the craft skills of market research – the ability to join up the dots, see the big picture and provide quality advice. Instead, in this commodity environment with small profit margins, all agencies can do is throw the data over the wall and hope for the best.

Market researchers are their own worst enemy – they ‘self-sabotage’ their own efforts and do not showcase their added value.

Our woes could also be compounded by what we do as an industry to contribute to our own downfall. Seth Godin, the management guru, recently said ‘If you are remaining neutral on any issue, you are in effect taking away value’.

So researchers – both agency and clientside – need to step up to the plate and demonstrate that they are valued ‘admissible evidence’. They need to demonstrate that they are an ‘authoritative prophet’ who can read the breaking news and events. They need to show they warrant the return on investment in insight by constantly alerting organisations to the black swan, whether negative or positive. They need to show how they can bridge the data-decision gap.

But if researchers hide behind their data and methodological prowess – bringing doubt and hesitancy into decision-making – then this self-sabotaging behaviour will mean that market researchers will not get their place in the sun.

The business world is always going to need individuals who see the world through the lens of the customer.

We will always need individuals who have ‘outside-in’ thinking skills and can see the big customer picture. We will need experts who know how to capitalise on ‘new’ behaviourally oriented market research, and those who can frame the decision choices for management. People who can see the big customer panorama and act as the client’s wide-angle lens will remain key to the success of an organisation.

In this scenario there will always be a rosy future for the customer insight professional. This will hold true irrespective of who are the big data owners and what happens in terms of the role played by data scientists, visual analytics experts and others who start coming into the customer insight space. In this scenario the demand for the core skills of the market researchers is never going to go away.

This new world will favour those with the talent to provide penetrating and memorable narratives about what the consumer is feeling and thinking. The business world will continue to need ‘problem simplifiers’ who are comfortable getting into a strategic dialogue with senior management. In this new era, the data landscape may have shifted, but the skills in synthesising the evidence and teasing out the key message for the business will continue to be important. It is simply a matter of customer insight professionals slightly adjusting their current course.

This will mean a move away from traditional market research studies towards accentuating our expertise as lean problem-solvers: individuals who can quickly test the most critical assumptions underpinning a business problem, and then use new, innovative MR techniques to quickly and economically solve this challenge. Essentially, in this scenario, it is business as usual. There will be a slight shift in emphasis, but the core market research craft skills will remain very much in demand.

We continue to thrive by being part of a wider network of related professionals able to help stakeholders make informed evidence-based decisions.

Another positive scenario sees market researchers not attempting to live in splendid isolation. Instead, they will embrace opportunities to work with data scientists, visual analytics specialists, experts on social media, UX designers and developers, as well as others from the worlds of marketing, communications and business consultancy, who also have a strong customer focus.

There is much we can offer these related professions and, in return, they would benefit from our experience in being the ‘voice of the customer’. We could become part of a wider, bigger, customer-focused industry that is all about turning the complex, data-centric problems facing management into instant, intuitive visual solutions.

So, we let go in defending the faith of the ‘pure’ market research craft and embrace a wider, more eclectic world. The customer insight gene remains at the heart of this new model, but we start working harder to hook up our craft skills with kindred spirits.

Playing a key role in a new business and social paradigm in which the voice of the customer could assume a much more pivotal role.

Looking at the Western economies, one can see some tension creeping into how the capitalist model might work in the longer term. We are seeing a squeezed middle class, but the top of the pyramid seems to be getting even wealthier and more powerful. In addition, in the BRIC countries, there seems to be little evidence of much trickle-down of their new-found wealth to those lower down the social and economic order. These trends perhaps suggest that we are heading for a volatile world where there is continuing tension between the haves and the have-nots.

This more divided world could pose a major threat for commercial organisations seeking to engage with customers. To survive in this tinderbox, commercial organisations will need to demonstrate that they are genuine and authentic in the eyes of the masses. So we can envisage insight professionals who truly understand the voice of the customer – together with those working on corporate social responsibility programmes and elsewhere – assuming a more important role within organisations.

We will be operating in a socially networked landscape, where being genuine, authentic and being able to defend one’s actions in the face of tough scrutiny from an ever more demanding and globally vocal customer base will become one of the key drivers of business success. In this scenario, one would have thought that the skills of the market researcher would assume even greater importance.

We would welcome your view

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