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Predicting The Unpredictable: A Call For Reason

Funny thing about predictions, though: they’re often wrong. Some are dire. Some are radical. Many are contradictory. Looking back, they’re often laughably wrong.


By Ron Sellers

“There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.”  Kenneth Olsen, President and founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977

I’ve recently spent some time reading predictions about the future of the market research industry (probably because at year-end, they proliferate).  These predictions are quite varied.  Some are upbeat.  Some are dire.  Some are radical.  Many are contradictory.  Just a few I’ve noticed recently:

  • The market research industry is dying due to DIY research.
  • Traditional focus groups are dying because of the advent of online qualitative and immersive research.
  • Online access panels will soon be dead because of the commoditization of the industry.
  • Mobile MR will essentially replace other forms of fieldwork because “everyone” has a smart phone or tablet device.
  • RDD phone interviewing will soon be dead because of a variety of reasons (declining response rates, landline-only households, etc.).
  • Social media monitoring is essentially going to replace primary market research.
  • Neuropsychology, eye-tracking, “big data” analytics, gamification, behavior economics, text analytics, and (fill in the blank) will each/all replace traditional market research.

“Everything that can be invented has been invented.”  Charles H. Duell, U.S. Commissioner of Patents, 1899

Note that these predictions were generally coming from people who were talking about the very near term, not five or ten years from now.  If you are a purveyor or supporter of such things as social media monitoring or text analytics, predictions such as these probably have you salivating.  If you’re a traditional phone field center, focus group moderator, or online panel provider, it may be best to tell your family to hide all sharp objects – your livelihood is essentially over, and sooner rather than later.  Change, or find yourself living under a bridge by this time next year.

Funny thing about predictions, though:  they’re often wrong.  Looking back, they’re often laughably wrong.

“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.  The device is inherently of no value to us.”  Western Union internal memo, 1876

I remember back in the mid-90s when I was working at Bank One, and a major consulting firm predicted that half of all bank branches would close in the next five years due to the advent of online banking and telephone banking.  Five years later, there were more bank branches than ever.  Soon after, I heard again how brick-and-mortar branches were unneeded, antiquated relics because of mobile banking.  Today, Bank of America alone still has 5,800 branches nationwide, and Chase Bank planned to increase their openings of new branches from 120 per year to 200 in 2011, and “probably more than that in subsequent years.”  As Chase noted, “While use of the Internet and ATMs has skyrocketed, branch traffic essentially has remained steady.”  Basically, instead of replacing one contact point with another, bank customers often just expanded their repertoire to fit their needs of the moment – no matter what the experts predicted.

“Man will never reach the moon, regardless of all future scientific advances.” Radio pioneer Lee De Forest, 1957

I’ve heard steadfast predictions for over a decade now that traditional, in-person focus groups would soon be dead because of all the new qualitative techniques.  I still moderate plenty of those good old fashioned focus groups, and the Greenbook directory shows 42 focus group facilities in the Chicago metro area alone.  Just a few years ago I was repeatedly told that anyone who didn’t Tweet would quickly be left behind…yet here we are in 2012 with only about one out of every ten Americans using Twitter (according to Pew Research Center).  Maybe that’s why, at the risk of being labeled a Luddite, I tend to take some of the predictions of the immediate demise of more traditional methods with a grain of salt – just because one new approach is born doesn’t always mean an existing approach has to die.

“The problem with television is that the people must sit and keep their eyes glued on a screen; the average American family hasn’t time for it.” New York Times, 1939

There are many problems with predictions.  Some people who make them want to promote a particular method that they sell or to which they are partial.  Predictions generally must make a splash in order to get noticed; no one is going to be fascinated by an article about the future of research that says it’s going to be much like last year.  As humans, we’re programmed to pay particular attention to the new and shiny, making it look much more attractive than the tried and true.  Many of these new and shiny methods also have not yet fully displayed their faults and limitations; I expect in a few years to be hearing a lot more about the problems with mobile MR and text analytics, just like we’re hearing about the problems with online access panels today (wait – did I just make a prediction?).

One thing we should all know as researchers is that Aldous Huxley was right when he said, “The only completely consistent people are the dead.”  We can forecast advances in technology, but we can’t really forecast human reactions to those advances.  Maybe corporate researchers will invest in big data analytics only to discover they’re missing a hugely important piece:  the story of why.  Maybe they’ll spend heavily on social media monitoring, and two years from now something entirely new will be quickly replacing social media (when MySpace first became popular, who would have predicted something called Facebook would render it irrelevant?).  Or maybe researchers will take a step back and realize it’s still just a minority of American adults who are on a social network (again, Pew).

It’s also up to us as researchers to communicate and demonstrate the value of traditional research activities, rather than just continuing to rely on them because that’s what we’re most familiar with.  There are undoubtedly situations where social media monitoring is the answer to the client’s information need – but there are also undoubtedly situations where a good old fashioned survey is what will serve them best.  We need to discern the best approach, not the newest or the most comfortable.

“We don’t like their sound.  Groups of guitars are on the way out.”  Decca Records rejecting the Beatles, 1962

Should we ignore predictions about the research industry?  At our own peril.  The world is changing, including the world we work in.  But using predictions about market research should be very similar to using market research itself:  predictions should inform and guide your decisions, not make them for you.  They also must be applied to your individual company, industry, and setting.  We need to think, to grow, to prepare for the future.  What we don’t need is to panic and throw the baby out with the bathwater because a bunch of prognosticators have said the world as we know it is ending.  Maybe it is…but then again, maybe it isn’t.  Or maybe it is, but it will take a whole lot longer than just the next year.

It’s up to you to evaluate the evidence and make informed decisions for the future.  You know, like we’re supposed to do in research, whether we’re using shiny new gamification or a creaky old mail survey.

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7 responses to “Predicting The Unpredictable: A Call For Reason

  1. The corollary of this is that decline is almost always slower than anyone imagines, and doesn’t necessarily align with peak volume. MySpace is still the third (maybe even second) biggest social network. Yahoo! has been in decline for close to a decade but remains one of the biggest worldwide web properties. Britain stopped being a front-rank world power sometime between 1945 and 1956 but retains many of the trappings.

    So pronunciations of death (which almost always really means “decline”) can be wrong in several different ways: just plain wrong (something doesn’t decline at all), wrong about the peak (something declines, but not yet) and wrong about the tail (something declines, but slower than imagined). But someone who gets one of these wrong isn’t necessarily wrong about the others.

    This is why, in prediction terms, you’re generally on wiser ground pointing to things which will happen rather than things which will stop happening!

  2. Many of the predictions you point out in your post are most often made by those who would reap great financial benefit … if only it were to come true! As a researcher who remembers mail surveys, punch cards and the dot.bomb, I’ve always taken the dire predictions of the death of one methodology of data collection over another with a grain of salt. In the end, what matters to the client is the impact of the insights developed by the researcher, not the data, or how the data was collected.

  3. Enjoyed your experienced + historical perspective on predictions. I’ve been doing B2B technology forecasting for years so I tend to use/develop technology adoption models. Are you familiar with Geoffrey Moore’s version from “Crossing the Chasm”and others like it. If so what stage are we as an industry in with respect to adopting the new tech-based methods everyone is so excited about? It would be great to hear your thoughts.

  4. There is a great option to anyone dealing with research today, we are working at times where any question can be answered. Online qualitative research is the main way to to tell your clients the “why” on every research insight, the only common mistake is that when you think of online research you can switch the analyst with an artificial intelligence tools. As a young researcher I can tell you, who ever will trust analysts over “Semantic web” or any other tool will win in the battle that the research industry has just began- research over web content.

  5. Suzanne, as I’m not specifically a forecaster, I’m not familiar with the model you mentioned. My comments came from observation and experience over 25 years in the industry.

    In general, I have no doubt that we are in a time of change, and that new methods are emerging which will add value and insight. Where I diverge from some of my colleagues is A) the view that anything that isn’t shiny and new is old hat and no longer worthwhile, and B) the view that all this change will take place in 2012 and by the end of the year we’ll be in a dramatically different place than we are today. One of the biggest changes in society we’ve seen over the past 25 years has been social media, and we still have under half of all Americans using it today. Things just don’t move that fast, and the introduction of the new doesn’t automatically mean discarding the old.

    Where we are also probably depends on which methodology and which industry/type of client we’re talking about. I work with a number of non-profits that have very minimal information about their own donors, so the idea of “big data” making big inroads into those clients in the near future just makes me giggle – many of them can’t even handle “small data.” Similarly, mobile MR may make a ton of sense for point-of-purchase decisions (e.g. “You just decided to buy orange juice – tell me right now what sold you on that brand and why you’re shopping in this store”), but not so much for other things that lack that type of immediacy. For instance, religious and moral beliefs tend to be developed over time, rather than as a point-of-purchase decision. Exploring those with such an in-the-moment approach as mobile MR may not bring much value to the project and may be too simplistic to be useful.

    I believe there’s a lot that will still shake out with these various methodologies as value and insight (hopefully) start to trump new and shiny. They’re all new and exciting – which ones will consistently prove to be worth the investment?

  6. Great read, Ron, as always. The doomsday predictions seem to be even more dire this year (perhaps due to the Mayan perspective on 2012?), but generally seem as hollow and transparent as ever.

    For me, what will change MR more than social monitoring or online groups or location-based surveys will be changes in research THINKING. Re-examining the underpinning principles of research, which have not changed for decades. I think it was Dina Howell who questioned whether representivity is all it’s cracked up to be… that’s the kind of debate we need to have to move MR forward.

    (Although I was guilty of proliferating some predictions for 2012 on shopper marketing and insights, I tried to resist predicting any top 10 of apocalyptic outcomes and focus on three changes in thinking, mental models or belief systems that might change the way that we operate in 2012. Hopefully, these would make your ‘nice’ list!)

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