Editor’s Note: It has been my great honor and privilege to call Larry Friedman, CRO of TNS, a friend over the past few years. He’s one of our most seasoned, erudite, and visionary leaders. I am pleased beyond measure to feature his first contribution to GreenBook Blog, and it is a doozy.
Larry cuts to the heart of the challenges facing the insights industry today: in a world where we don’t necessarily need to ask questions to get answers, what is the role of the market research industry?
I think his thoughts on that core issue will challenge, surprise and perhaps even inspire you. It definitely won’t bore you. This one is absolutely required reading folks.
Larry Friedman, Ph.D., Chief Research Officer, TNS
When I was a college undergraduate, I took a class in Advanced Social Science Methodology. One of the books I had to read had the rather imposing title “Unobtrusive Measures: Nonreactive Research in the Social Sciences.” First published in 1966 by Webb, Campbell, Schwartz and Sechrest, the book became a classic text, and has undergone several revisions and stayed in print since then. A couple of passages early in the book never left me, and I’ve been thinking about them increasingly in the past few years as I’ve thought about the current state of market research, and where we are headed:
“Today, the dominant mass of social sciences research is based upon interviews and questionnaires. We lament this overdependence upon a single fallible method…”
“…But the principal objection is that they are used alone. No research method is without bias. Interviews and questionnaires must be supplemented by methods testing the same social science variables but having different methodological weaknesses.”
Now, if one examines the history of market research in the century since its birth, one thing that has been constant has been change. Over the years, new methods grew up and replaced old ones, and these could be pretty wrenching changes for some. The transitions from door-to-door interviewing to phone interviewing to online surveys caused some pretty fierce debates, not all of which have died down to this day. We continue to see new significant developments in survey research, particularly in the mobile arena (which gives us new abilities to understand the “here and now”), in questioning approaches that make use of the latest insights from behavioral economics and neuroscience, and in “micro surveys”. Google Consumer Surveys has certainly caused many in the field to re-examine their attitudes towards survey length, and what they can learn through a handful of questions.
While all these changes have been important, they haven’t really challenged the fundamental premise behind the existence of the industry in the first place. Market research began nearly a century ago to fill a very specific need: marketers needed information to make good business decisions, and that information largely didn’t exist. The market research industry grew up to develop that information. As we’ve seen, the methods we’ve used evolved over time, but the basic reason for being for market research never really changed.
Until now, that is.
We no longer live in a world where information is rare. In contrast, we are overwhelmed with data, Big, Medium and Little. This represents the most fundamental challenge to the business model of market research since its inception. After all, right now, nearly all RFPs can be summarized as “we have a problem; we want to field a study to find an answer.” If we no longer necessarily need to field a study to find an answer, does the basic reason for being for the industry largely just melt away? Do the consultants just take over “our” space in the Insights field?
There are many in the market research community who are frightened of questions like these, but I think we should feel liberated, not scared. We now have an opportunity to face head on some core problems with surveys (for example, some “standard” metrics like purchase intent for established FMCG brands, have a zero correlation with behavior – why are we still using it?) and move into a more exciting future based on developing insights through different forms of data integration. Getting to this new place will require fundamentally different mindsets and skillsets on the part of market researchers.
The mindset of Old Research is fundamentally around asking questions. There are an infinite number of questions we could ask in a survey, and we narrow them down before we start to collect the data. The skillsets developed over the course of your career focus on data collection: sample design, questionnaire design, banner and crosstab specs. You then go on generally to perform a pretty descriptive analysis of the findings.
The mindsets and skillsets of New Research are more around exploring and interrogating existing datasets. There is a huge amount of data available from multiple sources, but they are not tailored to answer specific questions, so we need to be able to think through how to answer business questions with the data we can get our hands on. These steps require very different skillsets – how do we find relevant data? How do we make connections among these different data? We can approach this from a “soft integration” type perspective, where we line up different sources of data and “triangulate” in on an answer. Or, we can approach it more from a “hard integration” type perspective and model and derive predictions using very different kinds (and volumes) of data. The latter is the province of the now famous (but rare bird indeed) “data scientist”.
This is not to say that survey research will disappear; it will be part of the larger ecosystem of data that we will employ. But, we will need to first accept that old approaches aren’t always the right approaches, and to acknowledge that what people tell us in surveys isn’t always true. For example, my colleagues at TNS have done a lot of work using “passive listening”. Using technology, we can tell whether (opt-in) panelists have been exposed to digital ads. We have recently expanded this capability to include TV ad exposure. In one test, we asked respondents who we knew were either exposed or not exposed to a test ad to tell us if they could recognize the ad – a fairly standard question in ad tracking research. We found that the percentage saying they recognized the ad was basically the same for those we knew were exposed and those we knew actually never saw it before, demonstrating the unreliability of “memory tasks” like ad recognition.
So, not only do we need to do a lot of work as an industry to learn how to use the many types of Big, Medium and Little data available to us, we still have work to do to figure out how and when to incorporate survey-based data. The next five years will be a most exciting time for those with the nerve to help make it happen. As they said in the Sixties, “if you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem.” I invite you to be part of the solution.