When I was nine, our English teacher asked us if we fancied having a pen pal. We’re talking about the real deal here – proper letters, handwritten with a fountain pen and sent by post, with a stamp. I immediately signed up. And a few days later I was given a light blue piece of paper with the name, address and a short introduction of the girl who would become my Swedish pen pal. Her name was Andrea and over the course of the following years we exchanged close to 50 letters. We would write about our favourite (and less favourite) teachers, exchange ideas for pranks for our younger sisters and discuss the many merits of Gareth Gates’ dimples.

I’ll never forget the day my dad brought home a funny beeping, little black box – a “modem”. It wasn’t any little black box, but a gateway to a whole new world! My free time was spent in endless web browsing sessions filled with feeding my Neopet, looking for information about Spice Girls and chatting to my newfound online friends. Talking about friends… What happened to Andrea? Well… as exciting as the internet was, it was also the slow but sure end of our pen friendship. Although we exchanged email addresses, it didn’t work out.

There was definitely something special about the whole pen pal ritual that the internet could not replicate. But who had time for that, now that you could have your message sent and received a hundred times in the time you had to wait for one letter to arrive. And on top of that we now had DVDs to rent, Tamagotchis to feed, Walkmans to listen to and Sega game levels to complete. I changed. Andrea changed. Technology changed us.

Fast forward to 2013. The world is very different to the world I lived in when I was a teenager. Gareth Gates is now doing pantomime in Dudley and Tamagotchis are going unfed gathering dust in drawers across the world. As my associates Andrew, Job & Jess, and Ludwig have blogged about previously, “social intelligence” is increasingly important for businesses. We live in an age where information flows faster, and more and more value can be created outside the walls of the organization. The consumer is being recognized not just as a passive purchaser, but a co-creator, a source of improvement, innovation and – above all – promotion. Companies are increasingly recognizing how their brands are not in fact theirs to make or break – they’re the customer’s.

So how does the social intelligence revolution change the way the market research industry operates?

1. From Questioning to Listening

As an industry, market research used to be heavily skewed towards asking people questions. Lots of questions. But with the rise of social media listening capabilities and passive data collection methods, we can now tap into millions and millions of conversations already taking place or explore the vast amount of metadata generated by the ‘Internet of Things’.

Which leads to less intrusive, more intuitive ways of doing research. The rise of behavioural economics, facial coding, and neuroscience in the last few years is a proof point that listening & observing is starting to be as important (if not even more important) than direct questioning.

2. From Artificial to Human

Consumers are not limited any more to the corporate messages pushed down from Big Corporations, but have access to other consumers’ experiences as well. Nowadays, consumers embrace brands that have a strong personality, show empathy, and are funny, transparent, caring, trustworthy and generous. The implication for market research is that there is an expectation from both clients and participants to make research a more integrated part of what people do naturally. Essentially it’s about making research feel a bit less like research, a bit more like… real life.

3. From Offline to Online

It’s no news that online communities are now the fastest growing market research method in our industry. We also see more and more groups being run online either via online community platforms or Skype/Google +. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe face-to-face will always have an important role to play in research. However, no one can deny the benefits of online – a medium many participants feel very comfortable with, that removes the need for physical proximity, can allow participants to share more intimate stories with less embarrassment – and is more cost effective. And given that people now talk, buy, date, and play online, it is only normal that market research joins – and dare I say embraces – the online movement.

4, From Quant/Qual to Hybrid Research

Traditionally, our industry has been very black and white about the way it defined its work, by placing it either in the qual or in the quant basket. What we at FACE are calling “socially intelligent research” brings with it a new way of looking at the way we interact with consumers, by smashing the walls between qual and quant and adding a new group to the party: social data. I believe we will see increasing numbers of hybrid research studies that blend qual, quant and social in a seamless approach aimed to bring us a deeper, more complete understanding of the consumer.

Which leads me to the next point…

5. From On/Off to Continuous Research

The typical research project cycle has traditionally led to long lags between research being refreshed – and consequently insights that may be long out of date. Segmentations in particular may be 2-5 years old, and out of touch with people’s contemporary lives, especially technologically. Focus groups may focus only on a very narrow aspect of people’s lives, with little room to contextualize how the product fits into people’s wider lives (and spending priorities).

But emerging technology platforms are giving researchers the capacity to deliver a more continuous model of research. Longitudinal online communities provide the chance to dip into customer insight and refresh knowledge throughout the year. Mobile research lets us reach the consumer where they are, within the context of their regular daily lives – not in a sterile focus group facility. And social listening provides both context and continuity in its realtime stream of consumer opinion.

So these are my thoughts on the major shifts that the social intelligence revolution brings. Just as the internet once changed mine and Andrea’s lives, social intelligence will change business and market research for ever. Things will never be the same again. Exciting, isn’t it?