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Screw Loose! Market Research as a Commodity?

Can over-simplification cause complications? Stephan Teuber gives a strong case for the value of opting out of standardization in the fight for quality research.

Editor’s Note: Recently, GreenBook came to an informal agreement with Marketforschung in Germany to occasionally share blog posts with each other.  This will allow readers in the US, Germany, and the rest of the world to get a wider view into the latest thinking in the global market research community.  Today, we are publishing our first article in this series, by Stephan Teuber.  We look forward to a long, cooperative association with our friends in Germany.

We all know about the trend. Market research services are increasingly traded and valued as industrially manufactured bulk commodities. Take screws: largely identical, most distinguishable by quantity and size, by material (for connoisseurs!) or by the certified manufacturing process. Apart from that, the only true differentiation dimension remains – the price!

The challenges of the “Metric We”

Of course, as an incorrigible optimist, I assume that some of those responsible for purchasing know deep in their (perhaps not so far away from research) hearts that research and consulting services differentiate on more than just price. There is more to it than purely metric dimensions that can be directly compared. This makes it difficult for research buyers to line up and score one research consultant’s ideas with another’s (even as they are pressured to do just that, a conceptual “metric we”, to quote Steffen Mau’s great book).  Some buyers try to deal with any latent discomfort in comparing apples to oranges by simply “equalizing” individually designed services.  This forces price to take on a much greater role in differentiating proposals than it really should.

Researchers who emphasize creative thinking are well aware of the conundrum that sometimes happens: we propose to clients our most creative possible solution, and they then may come back and say they want us to propose a more standardized method. Or you find your own ideas have been used in a re-briefing, which goes (in the best case) to all participants of a briefing, or in the worst case, only to the cheapest.  This practice punishes ideas – either by expropriating original ideas or by excluding them from the process! This raises the question: how much of a commodity is market research actually or how much should it be?

The impossible standardization

As a researcher I can’t help it: research can’t be a commodity. The social, cultural and psychological reality we explore is too complex, dynamic and unpredictable. Each question requires concrete solutions; every situation requires unique approaches.

And our clients? They come to us with different concrete and specific problems. Normally these cannot be approached with “standard solutions”. In the course of my many years of researching, I have come across thousands of customer questions. In retrospect, I hardly remember a case in which we could have adequately satisfied the research interests of the customer with exactly the same design or exactly the same method.

A lose-lose situation for everyone

In addition, it also appears that while providers of so-called “products” had these in their portfolio of services, in practice their success was limited – of course, with known exceptions. Customers asked for answers to their questions and did not want to be directed on how to ask their questions according to the products. This seems to be changing now – in two directions: through the commodification of research on the demand side (purchasing) as well as through its standardization on the supply side (DIY, etc.).

Some shopping logic prevents or punishes highly individual solutions. Those who go very “far out” in preliminary stages of the tendering process, jeopardize their position in the later stages of the process; at the same time they take an economic risk, because they may not fully compensate when a client may feel that a certain “type” of study should cost a certain amount in principle. Ironically then, client constraints may be preventing themselves from being offered a range of ideas.  All in all, that sounds like a lose-lose situation for everyone involved. Unfortunately.

Wanted: knowledge at the touch of a button!

Following this logic, it is not surprising that many suppliers have now lost their belief in “custom research” (perhaps never having had them) and, thanks to digitization, seek new business opportunities. Standardized and automated tools should make it easy to get answers to any conceivable question, preferably at the touch of a button. The compromises that have to be made in formulating the ideas and operationalization of the tools can easily be guessed at. This applies equally to questioning and observational methods. Even more ambitious are the attempts to automate the entire market research process and to select and correlate the data from a predefined data stream.

Operationalization paradox!

Experiments such as these “challenge” convinced researchers. There are many questions one could ask: Do fixed instruments and samples actually get at the problem of interest? Does the built-in data stream actually contain the data needed to answer a question? And one could then answer: Probably not! In the first case, we know how difficult it is to operationalize any problem. To apply standard solutions to a specific question might lead in practice to fitting the problem to the solution rather than fitting the solution to the problem.

And in the second case, we know (not only since Steffen Mau) that a date is not simply a date, but it only becomes such through meaning and interpretation: Only by referring to the specific business question one is trying to solve can you finally decide whether “available” data are the appropriate ones. If you are not careful, you can get stuck in a real operational paradox!

Tighten the loose screws from two sides

In both cases, the answer to the research question decouples from the original research interest. In both cases, this tends to lead not only to the standardization and commodification of research but also to the standardization of knowledge itself. One could also say: standardization obscures the view of the empirically essential. But this actually justifies the expenditure on research. Our ROI is measured by the value that research delivers for successful business decisions. The commodification of research threatens to reduce that value and erode the substance of our industry. 
I hope that this insight would prevail on both sides: on the demand side through intelligent purchasing strategies (which, of course, still exist).

There is a real need for a sound competitive purchasing process that gives the business valid research.  It doesn’t mean that price shouldn’t matter, because there are real constraints on what companies can pay. However, price should – unlike screws – not remain the final decision criterion. We need to provide the best solution that fits the problem, and that just may not be a standardized approach for all.

This article was originally published on Marketforschung. 

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2 responses to “Screw Loose! Market Research as a Commodity?

  1. Fully agree. However, we should probably abandon the old world.
    – Probably, standardization is a necessity in the modern company culture. Teamwork requires always compromises and a common ground.
    – Probably, the modern MR buyer is a young professional with less than 5 years of experience. The less experience people have, the more they rely on “most popular” solutions.
    – Probably, we meet with a particular problem of client-side MR departments. They have to follow rules – and rules are usually based on standardizations.

    Probably, MR companies should re-invent themselves and act like “unicorns”: Come up with new business ideas instead of new research methods. Without abandoning our knowledge, wisdom and research principles. Unicorns don’t suffer from commoditization. They may not follow standards – they SET standards.

  2. On the other hand, Stephan, sometimes a standardized DIY tool is exactly what’s called for to answer a research question. And therein lies the weakness in current marketing research thinking that you are referring to. We may have lost, or we may be losing, the ability to select from the vast array of tools at our disposal, either because or price, as you suggest, or because we don’t know any better. I’ve had numerous occasions where I’m asked to define the benefits of VR for marketing research, but rarely am I afforded the opportunity to compare it to other options under consideration, and it’s not always clear the potential client understands that comparison, except for price and duration.

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Stephan Teuber

Stephan Teuber

Managing Director , GIM Gesellschaft für Innovative Marktforschung