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Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

I have read countless articles expressing the view that the new opportunities presented by New Market Research are merely new tools in our toolbox. I think these new tools are the replacements. Which means "the survey" and "some groups" are going the way of the dodo bird.


Editor’s Note: I need to admit that I am jealous I didn’t write this post. Kevin Lonnie of KL Communications is someone in the market research industry that I respect immensely and today’s post is an example of why: he  just nails it in his analysis of where the industry is, the opportunities and challenges in front of us, and where we may be heading.  I’ll be posting my own variation on these themes later this week, although Kevin just raised the bar very high indeed! Enjoy this one folks and take it to heart; as Kevin says it is time for market research to put the pedal to the metal.


By Kevin Lonnie

“The survey” is synonymous with quantitative research.  To the rest of the world, “the survey” is where quant begins and ends.

In a similar vein, “Let’s do some groups” summarizes about 98% of the qualitative industry.  I’m not trivializing the great work by our leading qualitative experts, I’m saying that in the public domain and for that matter, in the halls of business, “Let’s do some groups” is where qualitative begins and ends.

Now, of course, we have online surveys and online groups, but that’s just moving the same techniques to the web.

I would like to personally thank “the survey” and “some groups” for an admirable job.  They have represented us for the past 60 years now and we wouldn’t be a $30 billion industry without them.   But it’s time to break out the gold watch and hold the retirement ceremony because their time is past.

Yet even with the prospect of exciting new technology and prodded by tough economic times, left to our own devices I think we would still be slow to change.  In fact, last month I hosted a table at MRA’s Corporate Research Conference on the impact of social media.  I was a bit surprised that the seven corporate researchers at my table admitted to only the most basic understanding of social media, let alone its potential implications to our industry.  They also shared that interest in social media insights was not coming from the research group but rather from senior management.

I realize that MR is not a technology led industry; our roots lie in the social sciences and statistics.  But when technology affords us the tools to do our job better than we ever have before, it’s time to get on that train.  And technology is affording us the opportunity to become a proactive, rather than a reactive industry.  Sure companies want meaningful interactions with their customer base, but mostly they want to make money.  And our industry can do that not only through risk reduction, but through growth opportunities.  And while “the survey” and “some groups” can help with the former, they offer little for the latter.

I have read countless articles expressing the viewpoint that the new opportunities presented by New MR (e.g. social media listening, mobile, text analytics, MROCs, Crowdsourcing, neuro-monitoring, etc.) are merely new tools in our toolbox.  I don’t agree with that politically correct argument.  I think these new tools are the replacements. Which means “the survey” and “some groups” are going the way of the dodo bird.

As for the timeframe, I think we will have a radically different research environment within 10 years.  And as usual, it will be driven by money.

  • Most expensive surveys will be replaced by social media listening.
    • Attitude & Usage / Huge Tracking Surveys, no reason for them anymore, again replaced by social media listening
      • Text analytics is the engine that will power social media, more and more powerful algorithms will make sense of what today is largely white noise.  The quant jocks of today will be the text analytic gurus of tomorrow
    • Product/Concept Testing Surveys – We’ll now have consumers helping to drive the co-creation process via Crowdsourcing.
    • Focus Groups will be replaced by meaningful, transparent conversations & neuromonitoring / neuromarketing observations
      • Online ethnography will allow for virtual testing centers where passionate consumers provide video feedback
      • MROC forums will provide the same moderator led discussions at a fraction of the cost
      • Neuromarketing will allow us to know what consumers really think about your new product/ad with a roadmap of firing neurons that words just can’t equal

Mobile will become the dominant mode of data collection just as it’s becoming the dominant mode of voice & data communication.   An app driven interactive experience will replace “the survey” which is far too bulky and dull for the mobile environment.

So while I come to bury “the survey” of today, I think like a Phoenix it will rise again.   Unlike today’s self administered boring survey the survey instrument of tomorrow will be greatly augmented via gamification. While social media will replace the huge trackers, we still need an objective survey to cross-validate social media produced findings.    Survey designers will need to become survey engagers in that it will be as important to create an appealing fun environment as it will be to craft questions.  We spend too much time arguing between five and seven point scales (in fact 11 is better yet!) and not enough on engaging the respondent so that they are sharing thoughtful opinions.  Tomorrow’s survey programmers will be more akin to game developers with a strong combination of both left brain and right brain skill sets!

And while we remain reluctant to change, there is finally enough motivation to propel even researchers into the 21st century.  And that’s the prospect of enormous competitors who are quite willing to take our lunch money.  And yes, I’m talking about Facebook and Google.    With their enormous database (Google + puts Google in this discussion) of personal information these Goliaths are well positioned to dominate our industry unlike anything we’ve seen before.

Unless, of course, we embrace change and realize that we have one key advantage that no amount of technology can supplant and that is the intellectual property, the sheer skill to make sense of it all.

We’re moving to an agile, proactive, interactive future.  It won’t resemble the industry we grew up with.  Forces are conspiring to accelerate the rate of change.

Now is the time to put the pedal to the metal, because that car you just noticed in your rearview mirror is actually far closer than it appears.

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18 responses to “Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

  1. I always find it reassuring when I read someone else say things that I believe but that often get laughed off as naive or paranoid. Perhaps the only real point for debate is how long the transition will take and who becomes a Tower Records.

  2. This article starts out bold and brave, but seems to end up proposing new versions of old stuff. Instead of surveys, gamified surveys! Instead of focus groups, meaningful, transparent conversations!

    One of the ideas proposed does match up to the promise of the headline: Social media listening is genuinely different in character to focus groups, because you’re observing natural behaviour “in the wild” instead of artificially structured.

    But if we are going to claim that the era of surveys and focus groups is over, then we should be talking about genuinely new techniques to replace them. I would of course suggest behavioural experiments, or direct cognitive modelling of consumer decision-making, but then that’s what I do. No doubt others will have other suggestions!

  3. I have to confess that whilst I totally embrace the need for a modernisation of our arsenal of tools, a black-and-white portrait of the future, whereby all the past has disappeared, to be replaced by shiny new, of-the-moment toys makes me push back mentally. If the benefits of all the new MR tools are so cogent, and it is so obvious that they are so superior, why has uptake of many of them been relatively slow? Cost? Unfamiliarity? Lack of validation? Concerns about data norms and tracking consistently over time? To me, I have to say that White Heat language, excitement about future prospects can cloud the rational facility – who amongst us can confiidently look into the near, let alone mid-term future and state what will happen? Crystal ball gazing is fun, but change is notoriously difficult to predict. A sense of humility in the face of a degree of uncertainty is warranted.

  4. Leigh and Edward make strong points. Change often requires technology, but at bottom it only happens when people, skills, training and culture arise to support it and shape its applications. A sense of inevitability does not guarantee adoption, as Kuhn advised us over 40 years ago.

  5. It’s a tad annoying when I find myself largely agreeing with the critiques offered by Leigh and Ewdward. But as I’m clearly one not to be held back by humility, let me speak to them.

    I would agree that my vision of the future is not all that radically different than the current landscape. We will still need customer insights, multiple data points to provide any type of clear recommendations to our clients. But I would argue that our tools will be changing faster than you might think. The record company analogy that Jason provided is spot on. I was in a meeting at Sony Records when the VP lamented, “We need to get folks to go back into the stores and buy CDs.” The millennial generation are not fond of surveys and especially tedious ones. But gamification can make the survey taking experience palatable and perhaps even fun. Our clients will always need customer insights but how we obtain them is what is going to change quickly.

    As for the rate of change, I would suggest that senior management is quite willing to bypass traditional MR in favor of faster, cheaper insight alternatives. So will the current decision makers of MR suddenly favor new MR alternatives? No, they will just be pushed to the sideline and eventually downsized.

    And if I am to be accused of hyperbole, I would argue that it’s better to embrace and understand these alternatives than to rely on the comforting thought that change is always exaggerated.

    It is a personal sense of conviction that change will occur quickly that inspired this piece. My hope is that the reader will respond by at least becoming aware of New MR possibilities, so they will be on solid financial footing which ever way the winds of change blow.

  6. HI, Kevin, thanks for a thought-provoking post. I do see the industry changing, just as it changed with the adoption of the online survey. (I am personally very excited about gamification and other efforts to better engage respondents in those same online surveys.) From the client-side, we are using New MR, such as MROC’s and social media listening. I’m confident that as New MR evolves, we will be using the techniques more and more. As awareness grows, what additional steps do you suggest for moving towards adoption? What sorts of things should we be doing, both personally and at a corporate level, to move to the next level?

  7. Hi, Joan,

    Thanks for the nice words. Great to hear you’re already adopting many of the New MR techniques I discussed. To address your questions about faster/smoother adoption and getting to the next level, I suggest you take advantage of your researcher’s twin skill set at being both rationale and creative.

    On the rationale (left brain) front, I would continue to experiment with New MR techniques right along side your traditional efforts. This will allow you to validate & compare the insights obtained via either approach. Social media listening, in particular, requires some good old fashioned analysis (e.g. changing your search words, coding, etc.) to trust and flesh out the listenings.

    On the creative (right brain) front, I would encourage you to take a page from our marketing brethren and promote your new MR tools like a new brand introduction. I’m at a conference in Orlando right now and I’m hearing more and more of the MR Departments bumping heads with a new Social Media and Analytic team. So you want to make sure these new tools fall under your jurisdiction and to achieve that, you need to stake your claim as the rightful home for these new tools. So having a “sell sheet” describing your department’s new capabilities could help speed adoption.

    Finally and most improtantly, these tools need to be in concert with your overall responsibilities/objectives. If your firm is looking for increased revenue through new product development, having the consumer co-create is a powerful new application of New MR. And clearly social media can identify trends in the market before anyone would ever think of testing them via traditional MR.

    So although I would retain your reseacher’s caution towards anything new, I would certainly promote the fact that your team is ready and willing to take on a more proactive role in helping the firm’s overall financial challenges.

    Hope this all makes sense. Good luck and stay in touch.

  8. Wow. Reminds me of the time I worked at a bank in 1983 (!!) and everyone was touting online banking – yet I think it’s only been in the past 5 years that adoption levels reached critical mass.

    Yes, the MR industry must move into the 21st century, but there are several caveats to your predictions, I believe. First and foremost, you are talking primarily about consumer research. The B2B world is going to be slower to move to the “new” methods. Secondly, a lot of text analysis of consumer comments “in the wild” is just a more modern focus group – I would hope that decisions will not be based only upon comments posted in various forums, but include quantitative research as well.

    There are already ways of engaging greater participation in surveys – perhaps we just need to use the more interactive technologies available when programming them.

  9. Hey Jan,

    Well, we may simply be on different sides of the suggested timeline.

    With the banking industry analogy, I think that is akin to the rise of online research within our industry. It did take online about 15 years to achieve dominance in data collection with an even slower adoption curve outside of the US. But that was dealing with limited variables, you still did your banking, either via traditional methods (in person, snail mail) or online.

    But there are other variables in play this time. There’s no assurance that folks will continue to use MR for consumer insights in light of faster, cheaper alternatives. The concern I have about our notorious slow rate of adoption is that it might lead to Social Media Listening Departments literally sprouting up overnight not to mention an opportunity for new competitors such as Facebook or Google to gain traction.

    So am I guilty of some hyperbole? Yeah, left to our own devices, we won’t turn to new MR with any sense of urgency. But my sense of urgency is not based on embracing hyperbole, rather it’s based on my genuine concern that we as an industry need to embrace change or risk irrelevance.

  10. Thanks, Jan, for bringing up the issue of slower adoption in B2B. B2B respondents’ communications preferences vary all over the map. I agree with those who say they will follow those of consumers. Mixed methods will be with us for a long time.

  11. From the 60 year history referenced in this piece, it seems to me that the MR industry has made a case for it’s existence on the back of an accepted uncertainty. Uncertainty about what the consumer will do against our client’s offerings, and their ways of offering product/services. So the statement below caught my attention:

    “Sure companies want meaningful interactions with their customer base, but mostly they want to make money. And our industry can do that not only through risk reduction, but through growth opportunities. And while “the survey” and “some groups” can help with the former, they offer little for the latter.”

    In the context of technology, I understand the MR industry must adapt to the ‘new times’, but as the advances settle down, our relation with MR clients will probably remain on the back of the uncertainty mentioned above; we will help to reduce the risk but will keep struggling to identify the growth opportunities for our clients. The reason being that this is what the social and statistical nature of MR can afford us, and no amount of technology can on it’s own exponentially reduce this uncertainty.

    I would make a case for a distinction in the change we are observing. There is the change of the relation of the MR industry players with their clients, which remains slow and on the back of uncertainty. And the change within the MR industry which it’s no doubt being catalyzed by technology, and therefore urges for quick adaptation.

    Our recent history saw the change of the MR industry to online, and my opinion is that the distinction of change above applies.

  12. Hi Lucas,

    First of all, I very much appreciate your comments and thoughts on the pace of change in our industry.

    If I follow you correctly, you feel that new technologies will not be any more effective at reducing uncertainty than what we’ve been doing. And that marketers will continue seeking research mainly to reduce uncertainty. I don’t dispute this first point, that new approaches may not be any better at reducing uncertainty.

    But, I believe the second point (that marketing research is valued mainly as a way to reduce uncertainty) is self-fulfilling unless we as marketing researchers define our mission more broadly. We shouldn’t accept the notion that our major function is to help mitigate risk, but assert that we can also add value to understanding how to grow and identify new opportunities.

    New technologies will allow us to obtain customer opinions and interactions in real time, outside the more traditional vehicles of marketing research (e.g., surveys and focus groups). By offering more timely insights, research will be used more for product ideation & development and less for simply evaluating developed concepts.

    In other words we expand from the restraints of “risk reduction agents” to also include “growth opportunity providers”. However, the latter model is contingent on an enhanced relationship with the consumer. We don’t expand our reach without also elevating our relationship with consumers from the passive “respondent” to the dynamic “collaborator”.

  13. Poor Tom. Getting thrown under the bus to make an example once again 🙂

    To quote another, temporary, music industry ex-pat:
    1.) Adopt to new tools/channels AND how to best use them. Be tool/channel agnostic; allow the objective and application to dictate the approach.
    2.) Get past the Identity crisis. Your audience is out THERE.
    3.) Researchers are really smart people and typically use a lot of words to be very clear…and usually are. Thing is, these days, no one has the luxury. We live in a 140-character world.
    4.) Engage, instigate, insight…and make’em come back for more.
    5.) Keep your executive advice brief and bold: 5 lines on a Blackberry (or other mobile devise). Fall forward fast!

    (whew did it in 5…even tho lil beyond core topic 🙂

  14. Enjoyed your perspectives very much. (Thank you, Ellen K, for the LinkedIn reference.) Aside from debating the evolution of tools and methodologies, I propose that what has gotten even more difficult to figure out is determining what question to actually ask, what metric to look at. Yesterday we had 10 data points. Today we have a million. Against that backdrop, a behavioral and attitudinal landscape that I’d say is more uncharted than known, more complicated than manageable. I wonder if it’s more than the change we’re accustomed to from one generation to the next. The fundamentals seem to be changing below our very feet as we walk this planet everyday. Reminds of a suggestion from Prof. Martin Block at Nortwestern University in the early 90’s and makes me wonder what we might be able to learn from chaos theory as we wrestle with this opportunity.

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