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Research & Technology: A Marriage Made in Hell?

Perhaps it’s inevitable the first uses of new technology are in the service of existing approaches, just as early television and the first internet surveys were.



By John Kearon and Tom Ewing

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.

The ARF’s re:Think conference last week showed that our industry finally seems to have taken to heart that familiar refrain, “Market research needs to adapt or die”. Research companies old and new are reacting to changes in technology and the entry of new players into their market. They are adapting and adopting new technology.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that more often than not the new research technology is being used to peddle old research ideas. Just as the first television programs were little more than radio with pictures, breakthrough research tech is hampered by old models. Here are three examples of research innovation using technology on show in New York last week. See if you can spot what they have in common.

First up is Google Customer Surveys, who are revolutionizing the idea of sample sourcing in research by creating “surveywalls”, asking single questions of participants looking for content. Among their projects, they announced, is a 150-question tracking survey for an unknown client, broken into bite-size chunks for later reintegration.

Second we have Millward Brown, who have partnered with facial recognition firm Affectiva to try and measure real-time emotion in advertising. They deliver facial coding at scale, used as an adjunct diagnostic alongside Millward Brown’s unchanged, persuasion-based model of ad testing.

And finally there’s Locately, a start-up acquired last year by SMG, who specialize in location analytics – tracking GPS data and using it to serve micro-surveys via mobile. Locately uses this to ask about recall of particular promotions in-store..

So what do these have in common?  They’re all using exciting new technology to service research ideas long past their sell-by date.

Is a 150-question survey really the best use of Google’s tools? The company themselves are scrupulously neutral about uses of their surveys. But even if technology means that a long survey is no longer boring individual customers, it still speaks to a lack of focus by researchers – an obsessive desire to collect data rather than a clear view on the issues that matter. Google customers would be far better off using simple but revealing questions like, ‘how do you feel about XYZ?’ or ‘to what extent would you recommend XYZ to a friend’?

Then there’s facial measurement. Study after study has shown how crucial emotional advertising is to business success – check out the most recent IPA work by Les Binet and Peter Field on the long-term benefits of emotional ads.. But if put in service of a persuasion-based model of advertising centered on metrics Binet and Field show do not correlate with the biggest business effects, facial coding risks being merely decorative. Measuring emotion should be at the heart of any modern predictive advertising testing tool, not merely an adjacent diagnostic.

And finally, using location analytics to serve up prompted recall questions relies on our famously unreliable memories. Much better surely to use the amazing potential of GPS-triggered surveys to capture action and emotion, not just recall.

The marriage of new tech and old techniques is an emotionally tempting solution – enough innovation to feel like change is happening, wrapped around a fundamentally conservative core.

So the risk is that we see a repeat of the shift from telephone to online surveys in the early 00s, where the main concern was to adapt the old methods as precisely as possible. It led to a “lost decade” of overlong surveys, falling response rates and a loss of faith in research data. It’s only really been in the last few years that the industry has begun to explore the potential of online-only methods – there’s no technical reason that MROCs couldn’t have reached their 2013 position by 2003, for instance.

What I realized at the ARF is that we’re at a similar inflection point now. The research industry is adapting to new technology – it has no choice. The future involves faster research, more DIY research, more passively collected data, and new entrants with new money and new business models. These are good things. But there is a real risk that this new world will bake in some of the failures of the old – like its faith in self-reported data and the power of rational messaging.

Notable by its absence at ReThink 13 was any mention of behavioral science and the new understanding of how people really make decisions. Technology and psychology must go hand in hand as research evolves. If they don’t, the question ought not to be “Will research adapt to technology?” but “Can researchers be trusted with it?”

Perhaps it’s inevitable the first uses of new technology are in the service of existing approaches, just as early television and the first internet surveys were. Let’s hope the generative cycle of experiment-test-fail-and-learn works quickly to turn the likelihood of a quickie-divorce into a sustained love affair with the business advantage these new research technologies can bring to our clients.

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6 responses to “Research & Technology: A Marriage Made in Hell?

  1. Think you are right on target with your assessments. We continue to create new technologies to serve old ideas rather than accept that mass surveys don’t work when you don’t have mass marketing to measure. Even with facial recognition, etc. we are trying to quantify response based on outward ques rather than understanding the decision process. Tried and true still works fine for post measurements but that’s not what most people are looking for in multi-channel, real time communication.

    The reality is that people often make decisions for less than rational reasons and they are often inconsistent with those decisions. Advertisers used to say their job was to get people to recognize a brand/product and marketers job to get them to like the product. When it was a 30 sec flash that was probably true but now we have continuous stream media and real time comments from people who have tried the offering. In short they make up their own impression cycles.

    Marketing today is like designing an ad for a magazine – visually stimulating with a tagline – just delivered digitally. People like to “discover” the value and they will promote it if it is there. Spend more time thinking about the product and benefits and less time thinking about cells of people who are fickle under the best of circumstances! Were you ever successful trying to control your image with the “popular” people in high school? Did you find you had new “friends” when you scored the winning basket, wore that cool pair of shoes or made the highest grade in the class? Did they go away if you failed to maintain the cache? The reality is that most people have a loyal circle of friends and lots of transient connections. The same is true with companies and customers. Great advertising/media doesn’t sell a product, it just makes it visible. Oreo eclipsed the originator of the cream filled cookie (Hydrox) with brand image. It’s attributes created sustainability and it continues to be a major brand because it’s brand centric and it delivers on its promise. Look at Samsung or Google or Ford who have all included features that benefit the user. In 20+ years of this business I have never had a client who was more interested in technique than results. We need to find consistency by listening more to clients and respondents and relying less on stats.

  2. Tom Ewing and I discussed this a bit at the ARF conference. Too much about marketing channels, portfolios, tools, reach, frequency, integration, big data, digital, location, mobile — and he list goes on. Almost nothing about the end customer or her experience. Seemed a bit surreal.

  3. Saturday Rant: Adapt or Die

    As a former executive in the Information Technology sector and having followed developments in the research industry closely over the years, I couldn’t agree more with the core idea of this blog post. It is a scary fact that the level of technology maturity and technology adoption in the research industry is significantly lower than any other business support industry out there.

    Many agencies, including the big 5, still believe that buying third party applications and systems makes them ready for the Digital Age. Yes, the functionality and features of the applications they have been using has increased; and yes, some companies have made interesting technology acquisitions recently to bolt on their existing legacy apps and systems. They have fostered the false belief amongst themselves and many of their clients that they are cutting edge and make the most of reaping the benefits of what the Digital Age has to offer.

    High-up sits the agency’s CEO looking at the bleak reality: The Digital Age is already here! And has been around for some time!

    Many agencies invested what must have felt like a large part of their capital and operational expenditure to buy, develop and keep applications and systems running. The large spend over the years combined with overcomplicated IT architecture and rigid organizational structures gives them little choice but to sell this mishmash of legacy technologies and services while trying to make them sound sexy by using buzz words. Excuse me, mister account director, but a Flash scale slider or face recognition isn’t cut throat new technology.

    Legacy agencies will need to break the deadly cycle and morph their entire organization, processes and offering to fuel the new strategic thinking that is required to be able to continuously adapt to the endless possibilities and change the Digital Age brings.

    This harsh reality was the driver for me to co-found B&G IMR with a very talented and experienced research and sampling executive over 3 years as both of us are passionate to assist agencies to make the most of the Digital Age.
    Over the last three years we’ve helped many agencies in need fieldwork fit for the Digital Age, We re-engineered online panel build and sampling and launched SmartSampling and we’ve helped many Fortune 500 corporate insight departments and legacy research agencies to develop the strategic thinking needed to succeed in the Digital Age.

  4. The distinction between “old” and “new” research methods is, by and large, overstated and over-stressed in the dialog about evolution in the market research industry. Not all things “old” will become irrelevant to the process of strategic business analysis; not all things “new” will represent revolutionary improvements. A sensible and careful evaluation of all of the tools and traditions of the market research industry will doubtless offer the surest path to continuing positive evolution in our industry. We need to make sure we are leveraging established tools to maximum advantage as much we move to openly embrace the research innovations that are coming our way.

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