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Riding The Whirlwind: Observations On The Pace Of Industry Change in Market Research

An acceleration of change seems to be occurring. I think the flood of change has already started, and over the next 2 years we will see a seismic shift occur within market research that will leave many gasping.



The last few weeks have been a whirlwind in more ways than one; between a burst of intense travel for various conferences, multiple new business opportunities and consulting engagements, and a non-stop barrage of data regarding the current state and likely future of the industry it truly has felt like Pecos Bill trying to ride a tornado. The analogy is particularly apt when applied to the deluge of information that continues to inform and shape my thinking about where the market research industry is today and where it is likely going; just when I think I have a handle on things it twists around and I have to scramble for a new hold!

Some of you may recall a series of predictions I made around the time of the New Year. You can find the complete list here, but below is a short recap:

1. Surveys get smart: The survey will get a lot more than a facelift as we move away from discrete ad hoc surveys to broad tracking systems that dynamically create targeted questions based on the synthesis of consumer data from social media, panelist profiles, CRM, POS, and any other data source we can get our hands on.

2. Qualitative plays connect the dots: Qualies rejoice; your time to shine is nigh! The skill sets of storytelling, connecting disparate data points to form recommendations, and applying the social sciences to understand human behavior will grow in importance.

3. Once more, with feeling: As technologies that help us understand emotional decision making mature and new approaches come to market, the merger with behavioral economics models will become the norm.

4. Google gobbles up data collection: To be precise look for major IT players like Google, Salesforce, Facebook, Microsoft, IBM, Adobe, Amazon, Yahoo, HP or Zynga to continue to make acquisitions and strategic investments to capitalize on using their vast data resources for insight generation.

5. Text Analytics reads between the lines: Not only will advances in text analytics increase the efficacy of this approach, but look for text analytics to also emerge as a game changer in both online search and big data analytics.

6. Brands put their money where their mouth is: In 2011 we had many senior leaders of global brands like P&G, Coke, Microsoft, Volkswagen, PepsiCo, and Reckitt Benckiser fire warning shots across the bow of market research, challenging the industry to evolve to meet their needs. In 2012 this trend will speed up and brands will be looking for more partners that offer increased value beyond data collection and analysis.

7. Going glocal: Social media and mobile technologies will continue to work in tandem to connect herdsmen in Africa, Wall Street executives, factory workers in China, shop owners in Germany and farmers in Brazil with each other and the wider world around them.

8. Big Data = big bucks: The science fiction of Isaac Asimov’s Psychohistory and Phillip K Dick’s Minority Report is the science fact of  big players like HP, IBM, Google, Apple, and of smaller firms like Palantir.

9. Mobile, mobile, mobile: If you don’t think mobile will continue to be THE defining technology of the next five years then I don’t know what else to tell you.

10. Research is redefined: The narrow definition of market research that our industry has operated under for many years simply isn’t appropriate anymore. New client demands, business realities, social trends, technology, business models, competitors, and advances in understanding human behavior are redefining not only how research is conducted but also it’s applications.

My travels this Spring have afforded me ample opportunity to talk to many people about the state of the industry and their businesses, as well as to do some new thinking in support of my own business endeavors and consulting engagements about where I think things are going. With that in mind it seemed worthwhile to reexamine those predictions to see if anything had changed. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Another prompt to revisit my thinking was the set of predictions made by Stan Sthanunathan, VP-Marketing Strategy & Insights, Coca-Cola Co. These predictions were the centerpiece of his keynote at The Market Research Technology Event. Here is a slideshare embed of his presentation.


And here are his predictions:

  1. The market research industry will not exist in its current form by 2020. Even by 2013, significant, clear signs of evolution will appear…

  2. One or two new players will emerge and become a big industry force by the end of the decade

  3. Technology will dramatically shape the way the insights industry evolves

  4. Big search engines and social media companies – with access to millions of individual insights – will become strong insights industry players

  5. There will be increased emphasis on on technology-enabled observation and listening type research

  6. There will be a dramatic increase in the use of Smartphones

  7. Big Data Analytics – led by consultants and IT giants – will amp up the pressure on traditional full-service industries

  8. As representative samples become impossible, MR will abandon that idea for most research studies

Now, when no less an august personage than the global head of research at one of the largest companies in the world arrives at pretty much the same conclusions that you had earlier in the year, that is a pretty good sign that you’re not totally nuts! I admit that when I heard his predictions I felt pretty good about myself and experienced a real sense of validation. That said, I think both Stan and I underestimated the pace of the changes occurring and which direction some of these events would lead our industry. Consider these developments:

  • Google has made their market research play and continues to roll out related new products that clearly position them as a major player within the BI and Insights space.
  • The Pew Research Center reports that telephone response rates are now in the single digits, and my bet is that traditional online panels are not much different, making the idea of a broad based representative sample in the Western World nigh unto impossible.
  • Facebook launches the second biggest IPO in history based on the idea that they can leverage behavioral data to drive advertizing and consumer choice.
  • New entrants with new methods come (and usually no research background)  into the market almost daily and are making solid client inroads and gain significant valuations (see the $70M investment that just went to Qualtrics)
  • Most of the new product launches within the MR space are focused on some combination of mobile, communities, and social media integration/analysis
  • Some of the largest brands in the world are actively evaluating new vendors and approaches. They have decided to move away from “business as usual” and simply expect “cheaper, faster, better”; whoever can deliver on those three criteria is winning the business, past relationships be damned.
  • Behavioral economics and neuropsychology are now mainstream. Articles on these topics appear regularly across media, some of the “stars” of the field are bestselling authors and fixtures on TV, and brands are increasingly embracing this model of understanding consumers. Emotional and behavioral measurement is now big business.

That’s just off the top of my head, but I think you see the point. An acceleration of change seems to be occurring. I think we have reached the tipping point already, and the flood of change is about to be felt by us all.  I don’t think we have until 2020 for these changes to take place; I think they have already started, and over the next 2 years we will see a seismic shift occur within market research that will leave many gasping. We live in the Age of Disruptive Innovation it seems, and since data is the fuel for the engine of innovation it is now MR’s turn to find a fit in the changing marketplace or face increasing irrelevance.

So, are there any predictions I would change other than the overall timing? Well, yes and no. I stand by the broad outlines and remain convinced that we’ll see all of these things happen in the near term. I do think that the framework for some of this is becoming clearer. I am increasingly convinced that behavioral economics will provide the context through which we’ll analyze data and deliver real insights. This model of understanding human behavior has such versatility and efficacy within market research that I think it may be the foundation for a new model of MR that leverages data from disparate sources (including “big data”) which is then analyzed based on neuropsychological  principles. With data collection being commoditized and traditional models of “asking” either being abandoned or morphing into new methods with little in common on the surface to traditional research,  this new “emotional science” will be the saving grace of market research and will provide more of a viable path forward for the industry than just about anything else.

Now to be clear, I still see opportunities for many niche services, technology applications, consultants, syndicated data providers, etc… However, I think any firm that generates the bulk of their revenue from “traditional” full service OR  field & tab work is going to have a very tough row to hoe in short order. My suggestion to these firms is that you need to start transforming your business NOW before you are completely taken unawares by the increasing pace of radical change that is occurring.

I think we are all going to be attempting to ride this whirlwind over the coming months, and I will continue to share my thinking on what is happening until it becomes apparent that no one cares to hear it anymore. If you want to talk to me about these issues in person, there are a few opportunities coming up.

First, I will be discussing these general ideas during my keynote presentation at the MRIA Annual Conference May 30 – June 1st in St. John’s, Newfoundland. This promises to be a fantastic event in a truly wonderful location, so whether you want to come and heckle me or learn from all of the brilliant industry leaders participating, I encourage you to take a risk and “sample the edge”. The program is great and the location is beautiful, plus it is true that Canadians are the nicest people in the world, so I hope to see you there!

Next is my own baby, the North American edition of The Market Research in the Mobile World conference. You can join me and almost 90 other thought leaders, visionaries, innovators, influencers and change agents on the agenda for a jam-packed two days of intense knowledge sharing and collaborative co-creation of the future of market research. We’re holding the event in Cincinnati July 18-19 and I can tell you that we are working closely with the CMK and PR folks at Procter & Gamble as well as many other leading client and supplier organizations to ensure that this conference is unlike any you have  been to before. If you want to help chart the course of the future of market research you MUST attend this event. You can use my discount code of SPK20 to register!

Finally, for my friends in Latin America and in Oceania I’ll be coming to your regions in August and September (respectively).

The fine folks at AIM in Chile have invited me to Santiago for their first annual congress and I am very much looking forward to chatting with my colleagues in Latin America about the state of the industry in their region. You can register for that conference here. This promises to be a small but intense event focused on adapting to the trends in emerging markets; I think it will be fascinating and impactful.

Shortly thereafter, my friends in Australia graciously invited me to come to the AMSRS  Annual Conference and discuss the future of the industry with them. Again, I can’t wait to sit down and talk with folks face-to-face about what changes they are experiencing in their region and comparing notes on some of the global trends I have been observing. Of course who can say no to going to the Land Down Under for any reason, but considering that Australia is a hotbed of innovation in MR and some of the foremost thought leaders in our industry call it home this is sure to be an outstanding conference.

Of course, with ESOMAR World Congress being held in my own home town of Atlanta, I’ll be there as well as an attendee, not as a presenter. After the crazy year I am having that will be a very welcome change indeed!

So, look me up at one of these events or feel free to reach out to me via email, here on the blog, etc.. and tell me your take on the changes the industry is undergoing. Until then, thanks for taking the time to read my own ramblings on the topic.

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5 responses to “Riding The Whirlwind: Observations On The Pace Of Industry Change in Market Research

  1. Hi Lenard,
    Very interesting insights and conclusions and ones which make it very interesting for research supplier companies.
    Given you’ll be in Australia in September, can you bring your answers for the futures of traditional supplier companies, please, as I suspect there will be considerable interest in that from the AMSRS conference delegates!
    With best wishes,
    Philip DERHAM.

  2. Another great post, Leonard. I was unable to find Stan”s presentation on slideshare. Do you know if it is available somewhere?

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