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From Collectors to Curators: How Market Research Can Maintain Relevance


Nick Palmer of  Hall & Partners | Open Mind has a fantastic piece in the June edition of the Australian Market & Social Research Society newsletter titled From collectors to curators. Similar to the post from Tom Anderson a few weeks ago, it’s simply too good not to post here as well. Nick nails the argument that competitive pressure from new technologies combined with a fundamental shift in client business needs and realities means that market research has to evolve in order to stay relevant. Regular readers know that this is a common theme for myself and others here at the GreenBook blog, and it’s gratifying to hear the message being reiterated from so many thought leaders in the global industry. It appears that it is sinking in, and watching what happens next is going to be very interesting indeed! Enjoy this new contribution to the debate from Nick Palmer; I know it will make you think.

Nick Palmer argues that market researchers risk marginalizing their own relevance by clinging to their traditional area of expertise.

For years, market researchers have concentrated on what we rightly prided ourselves was a unique skill: the ability to fill knowledge gaps by collecting and synthesizing information.

Our credentials have been built through rigorous collection and analysis of data.

As with many disciplines, however, a reliance on our traditional competency leaves market researchers vulnerable to being overtaken by the information and data overload new digital technologies facilitate. While the historical task for a market researcher was to extract information, it is increasingly about working with existing information.

As Kantar Media’s Tom Ewing puts it: ‘Old market research was a solution to a lack of information. New market research is a solution to a glut of it.’

I would go one step further: in trying to make sense of the exploding amount of data for our clients, our focus on primary research, often to the exclusion of other sources, is marginalizing our own relevance.

We must turn the speed with which information is available to our advantage by becoming masters of distillation, interpretation and inspiration. This means opening the door to competing ideas and data sources, and continually challenging our own views.

The alternative is watching our primary research rendered redundant by the time we bring our results to the table.

The challenge, in short, is how we move from being collectors of information to curators of insights.

In today’s digitally connected, always-on world, people are constantly sharing their thoughts, views, experiences, choices, preferences and purchases – sometimes knowingly, sometimes not; sometimes overtly and actively; sometimes as a by-product of their actions.

The number of consumer/brand touch points continues to grow: in-store, out-of-home, TV, radio, print, internet, social media, face-to-face/word-of-mouth…

Each generates many pieces of information, which means data are much more readily and inexpensively available than ever before.

Accordingly, primary research is now just one of many information sources and viewpoints. From Google Trends to Survey Monkey, from social media tracking to ad agency-managed customer forums, to brands talking directly with their consumers, data are increasingly becoming commodities.

But more information doesn’t mean more knowledge – usually quite the contrary. While market researchers can no longer rely on owning the information, we can own the process of turning this information into insight and a sound basis for strategy, a process more necessary now than it ever has been.

It’s not that there’s no longer a place for primary data collection – the control and focus it allows means it will always have an important role.

It is, however, time that we embrace the role that other information has to play.

We have the skill-set, the training, the experience and the credibility to fill this trusted adviser role but we can only gain that trust if we are objective, impartial and source-neutral.  We must embrace multiple data sources to help support, explain and challenge our own viewpoints.

In this respect, market research professionals have an inherent strength: an independent perspective by which we can evaluate data. Moreover, as we work across categories, segments and industries, we have the expertise needed to weave those insights together.

This is a radical departure for much of today’s market research industry; we spend too much time defending the information we generate ourselves and discrediting the information we don’t, citing lack of representativeness in its various forms.

How often do we hear criticism of other research such as: ‘not representative of the whole market’; ‘only covers what’s happening online’; ‘too brand-biased’; or, even ‘lunatic fringe’.

A quick exercise – which of these do you think is more representative: the Census; a telephone survey of 18-34 year-old regular beer drinkers, or a Twitter trend analysis of #Cascade mentions?

That might seem like a silly or obvious question, but I suspect many in our industry would plump for the Census, when in fact all three are representative of something (all data are in fact). The corollary: data are only inaccurate or unreliable when treated as representative of something they aren’t.

Information must of course be evaluated with its source. Part of the distillation process is assessing the relative merits of different information sources to help bring a well-rounded and considered view of what is happening to our audience.

It’s not about being ‘base size police’ but evaluating the information gleaned from these sources together with the source itself.

Coming back to our three example sources, and thinking about the recent Cascade brand refurb and associated campaign, let’s look at the story they build together:

  • The Census would tell us the size of the potential market and available disposable incomes
  • The telephone survey might show us whether people have seen the campaign, and whether they’re thinking about and drinking Cascade more often because of it
  • The Twitter analysis would reveal whether people are talking more about the brand, and what they’re talking about – the campaign, the product, the brand and so on.

Let’s add a couple more data sources that would quite likely feature in the Cascade marketer’s mix:

  • The Cascade Brewer’s Nose app: how many people have downloaded it? How loyal are they to Cascade? Is it encouraging them to try other Cascade varieties? Is it encouraging them to try other beers in general?
  • The Cascade Brewery Visitors’ Centre – are visitor centre numbers up? How many visitors are taking the brewery tour?

This simple example illustrates why primary research cannot exist in a vacuum. The oxygen of other data gives primary research credibility, provides fresh perspectives and creates a more holistic picture.

To achieve this, market researchers must work increasingly collaboratively, embracing the holders of these other information sources.

This means getting to know our clients’ advertising agencies, and expanding our skill base so we are comfortable interpreting qualitative, quantitative, buzz tracking, panel data, sales reports and the like.

It also means we have to be a little less territorial when we share clients with competitors, and try to understand the perspective they bring to the table rather than pick holes in one another’s approach.

This change in attitude is crucial to the survival of our industry. Ultimately it will enable us to provide deeper, more holistic and more strategic insight for our clients – and that, after all, is what our existence depends on.

If we continue to rely primarily on primary, market research will quickly become secondary.

Nick Palmer is Sydney research director at Hall & Partners | Open Mind. This article is based on presentations he has delivered at Young Researchers’ Group (YRG) events in both Victoria and New South Wales in April and June. Join the LinkedIn discussion about this topic at .

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