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The 4 Futures Of Marketing Research



Editor’s Note: It’s been a while since we posted a good “future of research”  piece here, but it was worth the wait because Kristof De Wulf, CEO of Insites Consulting, has delivered a doozy that I think is very close to the mark. I would add in a few gradations of new sectors I think will begin to emerge in a more fragmented data rich future, and I think we’ll see consolidation from platform players, consultancies and marketing agencies that will usurp the role of many MR firms, but overall Kristof ‘s 4 futures scenario is a great road map of where the industry is heading at a very fast pace.

This post is important folks, and I hope you give it the attention it deserves.


By Kristof De Wulf

We all know the future will be fast and furious. It is fast, knowing that according to Richard Foster from Yale University the average lifespan of a company has decreased by more than 50 years over the last century, from 67 years in the 1920s to just 15 years today. It is furious, as new technologies are expected to further drive massive economic transformations and disruptions in the coming years. There is no escaping it: no matter what industry you are in, you can run but you cannot hide.

So how is the marketing research industry doing when it comes to adjusting itself to the ever-accelerating changes in the marketplace? Not all that great. Just recently, McKinsey reported that the research & consulting industry is at the bottom of the list in comparison with other industries when it comes to economic mobility. With traditional surveys and focus groups still dominating the scene, the speed at which our industry is changing is similar in many ways to the speed at which companies adjusted to the invention of electricity. It took well over a decade for companies to realize they no longer needed to build their factories near water, still considering water to be their prime source of power. We cannot afford a similar slow response now, with the speed of environmental change being far higher today than at the time electricity was invented.

Using data from the most recent GRIT study, Bottom-Line Analytics derived an interesting mapping of the top 20 innovators in marketing research.[1]



This mapping tells us something important about the most likely scenarios for the future of marketing research. I expect the industry to take 4 possible strategic directions over the next years, adjusting itself to the conditions of today’s economy:

  1. Lifting on DIY tools, driven by speed and tech infrastructure
  2. Making sense from ever bigger data, driven by size and tech infrastructure
  3. Bypassing the rational brain, driven by methodology
  4. Tapping into consumer collaboration, driven by trust, diversity, innovation and creativity


  1. 1.    Lifting on DIY tools

Being in the midst of an unfolding economy of individuals, anyone being talented and creative can make it happen, with money nor power standing in the way. In an age of unprecedented power to individuals where we can 3D-print just about anything, we are about to witness a wave of disintermediation in our industry with clients taking over tasks directly that used to be performed by marketing service providers before. Many of the presentations shared at the latest IIeX conference in Amsterdam touched upon powerful new technologies which enable clients to do just that, shaking up the entire industry. Google Consumer Surveys is a striking case-in-point, currently rolling out its business model across more than 40 countries. Lifting on a huge base of more than 1 billion Android users who get the Google Consumer Survey application pre-installed on their device, Google claims that its approach generates more reliable data as it taps into audiences which are less skewed towards market research (compared to research access panels) and as it demands less fill-out time from consumers given the limited number of questions. No wonder Google has just popped up in the top 10 GRIT list of most innovative research agencies in the world.

  1. 2.    Making sense from ever bigger data

The speed at which we collect new data is several times faster than the speed at which we can structure, analyze and interpret that same data. Until 2003, mankind collected about 5 ‘exabyte’ of data bytes during its entire history. Today, we collect new data at a rate of about 10 ‘zettabyte’ a year or 2,000 times more in one year than in the whole of human history. Gartner just recently published a study forecasting that about one third of the Fortune 100 companies is about to face an information crisis by 2017, not being able to convert data into insights. They may be right. Just think about the mysterious disaster of Malaysian flight MH370 acting as a symbol of violation of our faith in the information society. While we are flooded with satellite data, we struggle to get to the right type of information. I expect to see a bright future for companies who manage to find more needles in ever-growing haystacks, applying more creative, sophisticated and powerful techniques than we do today.

  1. 3.    Bypassing the rational brain

As human beings, we are all victims of our own limitations. We suffer from an illusion of knowledge bias, thinking we know more than we actually do. We suffer from a false consensus bias, starting from our own vision of the world, believing that everybody thinks like us and would make the same choices. We suffer from an observational selection bias, making us find new evidence to support our own false beliefs. We suffer from an agnosticism bias, not knowing what we do not know, focusing too much on what we do already know. The Nobel Prize winner and intellectual godfather of behavioral economics, Daniel Kahneman, summarized a lifetime of research on human thinking in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. His groundbreaking work teaches us that people primarily make choices according to ‘system 1’ thinking (fast, intuitive and emotional) as opposed to ‘system 2’ thinking (slower, deliberative and rational). A major part of the future of marketing research will lie in finding new ways to bypass consumers’ rational thinking and uncovering the real reasons behind behavior.

  1. 4.    Tapping into consumer collaboration

In the age of the Consumer-Innovator where consumers in the UK already spend more time and money on innovation than all consumer product firms combined, marketing research can finally benefit from tapping into the consumer collaboration domain. The people who were formerly known as consumers have turned into contributors and volunteers, composing a world full of problem solvers who are creating billions of dollars’ worth in value without even being paid for it. With consumers having increasing access to powerful online, social and mobile technologies, clever organizations can lift upon consumers’ desire, enthusiasm and ability to collaborate with brands if they create the required conditions for it. Research agencies have a unique strategic advantage of having worked with consumers for ages, being in a far more powerful position than any other business strategy consultant, advertising agency or innovation firm willing to jump on the consumer empowerment bandwagon. The expertise and capabilities that research agencies have built over time provide a strong backbone and springboard to claim the consumer collaboration space.

Interested in hearing what you think about the future of marketing research!

[1] Mapping was revamped by the InSites Consulting design team

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22 responses to “The 4 Futures Of Marketing Research

  1. Great post.

    I think MR industry and researchers tend to let those “outside’ of the industry define them and what the scope of their work is. Being on both provider and client slide, its clear that the best, most comprehensive answers to business questions come from a multi-disciplinary approach weaving in analytics, traditional MRX, finance/sales, and strategy.

    Feel like MRX should not let itself be limited to just running surveys and focus groups, and seek to engage others groups to integrate data and information that resonate across different groups. E.G., Consumers may want lower prices, but what does the business need to stay profitable, etc.

    A very tall task indeed, but it feels like the expectations of MRX are becoming greater and greater. Collecting and summarizing data may have limited value for a business. People want info integrated into their jobs with recs. Thats why a lot of consultancies are taking on insights.

    I would imagine “Big Data” will also face this challenge once the honeymoon is over.

  2. The 4 Futures of Marketing Research – this is our future, it is a given. What else may become a part of this future? Will there be a #5? #6? No clue.

    How we will each individually and as companies/consultancies/client departments participate and find salient roles in this future is the key. This is a dynamic future, changing ongoing, as are the expectations of our clients, be they internal or external. We may try to manage these expectations but we can not necessarily own or manage them.

    Which will become the dominant components? Clearly, some are new tools that empower us to do what we have always done and done well with far less now more easily and more quickly – and some are new tools that truly are innovative.

    We have much data with which to work, to conduct analyses even more robust, to help to make sound business decisions with and on behalf of our clients. Add to that consumer generated data/insights which is exciting and we have even more with which to work. I view this as very exciting.despite the fact that some of this is frightening to consumers. Please see a special study recently released by Radius about Privacy, Data Security and Brand Differentiation for more on this subject.

    We need to be careful that the temptation on the part of some to automate, be carefully managed so that we as an industry do not end up sacrificing iterative analyses that can yield so much more that is truly of actionable and meaningful importance.

    Speed is great but when clients begin to expect that everything be done in a day on an automated basis, it becomes problematic. Fancy bubble charts and maps are very impressive but they can not replace the process of discovery.

    There is a beauty to looking at data, staring at it, running it three ways to Sunday and then looking again to see it open up, almost shimming to tell its story to those who can see and listen. There is magic to rereading watching or listening to words a second and third time that all of a sudden from nothing yield an ‘aha’ that becomes a new clear path of thought and hypothesis from a qualitative initiative. This can not be sacrificed for an automated next day set of results.

    We know that analytics, be they qualitative or quantitative are a combination of art and science with objectivity and there is a beauty in discovery. To lose this to speed and automation would be as if amputation of a component of our value as serious professionals.

    My personal take –

    1. We need to include new tools in this future. We already are and to do otherwise would be insane. We need to actively search for more new tools that will help us do what we do even better, but not to do what we do faster but yet not as well – differently perhaps but not cutting out thinking. We will, in the end not be doing ourselves or our clients a favor.

    2. We need to be open to using crowdsourced and social media based consumer-generated information and insights in our work mindfully, understanding that until we can control and validate it, it stands on somewhat skaky ground since it can be manipulated, seeded, etc. and can also release to the universe confidential information.

    3. We need to focus on innovation, while doing all else that we do. But not look at innovation simply for the sake of innovation.

    4. We need to decide what can be done on DIY basis and be partners with our client on these initiatives rather than view it all as us/them – be colleagues – it is inevitable – so let’s use the opportunity to continue to build relationships, know that with strong relationships clients will accept a comment such as ‘I think this one needs collaboration’, and sometimes depending on company structure the internal research departments will be strong and then be deemed not best business model and partners again become key resource.

    5. We need to find new ways to conduct analyses that may be faster than in the ‘old days’ but stand steady on the need for such – and not bend to automation when it does not best serve us collectively – as in text/sentiment analytics may be great but looking at crosstabs on an iterative basis and conducting choice models and simulators should not be replaced by a ‘press the button’ automated tool.

    6. As researchers, we need a seat at the table, to help determine what the future of MR is to be over time.

    Your thoughts and comments would be greatly appreciated.

    Judy Hoffman
    SVP, Radius Global Market Research
    [email protected]

  3. I enjoyed reading this, but I’m bemused by several points the author makes, most particularly the need to bypass the rational consumer mind to discover the real reasons for behavior. An alternative school of thought suggests that human actions are based on receiving some kind of reward for the action, even if the individual is unwilling to articulate what that award is. Thus human actions (including participation in research) are always rational even though the basis for the reasoning involved may not be obvious to others.

  4. Enjoyed this very much. #3 trumps the rest and #5 will be the neuro-scientific ways we get to know ourselves better. The Google part? Check with Eric Clemons to see how we are being bamboozled by Google. They would have us all believe the final click is all that matters; whether from a click farm or bot, it matters not!

  5. I am not so impressed with the article. I have been in the MR business for over 40 years. So-called experts have always been willing to predict the industry’s future; and some have been more right than others.. We have gone from door-to-door, phone, online, and mobile interviewing, and other interviewing and utilization of data base techniques will come along in the future. In addition, some people deliver data and others deliver insights and recommendations. The only things we can be certain of is MR is always evolving, changing, but will always be here, the entrepreneurs among us will find ways to make money, and new and better interviewing and analytic techniques will be developed. Finally, clients will also continue to need and to hire us to deliver on our expertise.

  6. I’m with you, Nicholas – less than impressed. Who says speed of evolution is good? Not saying we can’t do better, but faster evolution is less likely to be favorable compared to effective evolution.

    Disintermediation may be a trend, but it may conflict with the growing dissatisfaction executives feel about their marketing research function, and oft-discussed topic in Greenbook and Linkedin. Yes, you can do it yourself, but if you’re not great at design or statisticis or data interpretation, you’ll come up with a less expensive crappy answer.

    More data faster is just more data faster – it’s not more information. Gartner is manufacturing a crisis by assuming all this data is relevant and you need large departments with large computing capacity to handle it. This just isn’t true.

    Knowing the real reasons behind behavior is (a) often unneccessary and (b) no guarantee of a successful marketing initiative. That doesn’t mean the search for real reasons is not a worthy effort. But sometimes, the real reason we buy something is it tastes good or it works well, and there’s nothing deeper than that.

    Our industry has been talking about consumer collaboration for years. No where near the potential people think it has.

  7. Great post, enjoyed reading it very much. I think that the four futures of marketing research De Wulf has developed are strong and very insightful. I particularly believe that his introduction citing that “we all know the future will be fast and furious” is of particular importance. I believe that the fifth future of marketing research should be speed. To keep up with the changing pace of the business, the marketing research community must increase our speed in technical adoption, data collection and analytics – while still maintaining the a very high standard of quality. For more, please check out my recent blog post:

  8. Wow! There is certainly a lot of pain showing in these comments. When information was pushed and the owner largely controlled content there were a lot of ways to measure the data every way to Sunday.

    Today we live in a world where data is pulled and it is apparent that choices are fluid and often not logical. We know too much to go back where came from and in some cases not enough to know where we are going. The real answer is that we only have control over what we do, not how it is perceived.

    Like it or not, data is a real world, real time cross sectional measurement that is reflective of the complex nature of the eco-system. Is it perfect? No. Can you rationally determine a margin of error or validate it? Is it right all the time – no – but neither is any tracker.

    Kristof is right that we need to focus more on innovation and use the knowledge we have and the knowledge of “human limitations” to innovate and keep developent fresh. The combination of big data and crowd sourcing is critical to success. Most importantly, the box research sits in today is ruling out, not providing direction. Insights became a by product for most researchers when tools became more sophisticated and data collection was the money maker. DIY is no going away and in fact, much of the analysis in the future will likely be done alogrithmacally without anything more than human oversight. It’s simply not where the money will be made. As for understanding motivations, while baseline motivations can be defined, the in the moment decision process is complex and often not driven by logic.

    The real future is in the fluidity of human design. Working with invested groups who have a vision on improvement will be key. Understanding how that vision can be a reality will be the real challenge. Diversity not segmentation is the key to understanding and that’s a tough one because nobody seems to do that well. We can however, create a hypothesis and a process for exposure that allows for input from a variety of perspectives. The real value of research is in providing equal playing fields for all ideas. Not all girls want Barbies and not all boys want GI Joes but a lot of kids want to role play.

  9. Fab post,and an enjoyable read. My own particular clients expect a quick turnaround, and speed is particularly important to them, especially as they are usually outsourcing due to lack of time and capability within their organisation. They need to effect a swift turnaround on research, but do not necessarily have the knowledge in house to ‘tap into’ data collection and analytics that an outsourced specialist might have and still be able to produce credible research of a high standard of quality

  10. The approching closer new year seems to be an energizing time for economic scientists and customers alike. As customers expect a perpetually custom-made experience what they watch and how they shop online and in-store, the examination giving profound bits of knowledge into the customer world should be more adaptable, adjustable, and concentrated on the “experiencing-self.”

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