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What Value Does Disintermediation Bring Without Expertise?

DIY Market Research is a powerful tool, but a potentially dangerous one - a bit like a chemistry kit that can be bought in a department store. Instructions are needed, as are cautions about the possible dangers and consequences.


Edward Appleton

In many of the Angst-ridden debates about the future of MR, disintermediation seems to be one of the concepts that is much cited as a driving force for structural change. Why pay a Full Service Agency when you have access to a broad range of DIY tools – online panels, DIY Survey Software, Stats programs?

Microsoft’s Excel alone offers a huge array of statistic options:  want to know your correlation co-efficient? Standard deviation? No problem. Plot a Pareto curve? Excel will sort you nicely. And so, for that matter, will which offers a broad range of stats equations at zero cost.

The tools are there for DIY, no doubt.

But what value do any them bring without the people who know how to use them judiciously, for what occasions, under what circumstances? Are we – often client-siders – overstating the game-shifting power of disintermediation, or underestimating the risks? Here’s my take.

1. Tools are only as good as the person using them.

How many DIY surveys are fielded by non-MR professionals? Plenty, I would guess. Which underlines the dangers – if you’ve never heard of the Likert scale, how can you know about its’ shortcomings?

2. De-bundling a value proposition requires skill.

Say, as an MR client, you wish to take a portion of your Insights work in-house. You need to be sure your team is adequately skilled to give the consultancy advice internal clients require. This to me is one of the key questions on how fast our industry shifts on this issue – are our methodological and analytics skill sets up-to-date and road-fit?

3. Badly done DIY Research can be misleading and potentially dangerous.

Ill-conceived surveys, poorly designed questionnaires produce results that can be extremely misleading.

I recently filled in a hotel’s customer satisfaction survey after a trip to Berlin. The main scale was a 5 pointer, but with no mid-point. Instead there were 3 positive options, and two negatives. The lack of a balanced scale suggested that either the hotel wished to get slightly more positive feedback, or wasn’t aware of the inherent bias.

4. High-worth elements in the MR value chain need to maintain their visibility.

Many of the sponsors I see at conferences or events are online Panel Providers. I don’t see many of the Full Service Agencies investing in their brand at these occasions.

If you’re a client, the question being prompted is obvious: why not go directly to the panel providers? Share of mind often equates with Share of Market.

5. We all need to stress that MR is a skill set that needs learning.

Market research is in the first stages of going down with the same illness that advertising has suffered from for a long time – virtually everyone feels they have a degree of expertise, and an opinion to go with it.

There’s no easy answer to this in today’s Wiki-world. MR is an unregulated industry, without the standards and legal requirements necessary for say the legal or medical professions.

Case-related “compare and contrast” is a technique worth trying – take a survey or questionnaire done by a non-MR professional and show the inherent dangers and weaknesses. Insist on good and best practice,

DIY MR is a powerful tool, but a potentially dangerous one – a bit like a chemistry kit that can be bought in a department store. Instructions are needed, as are cautions about the possible dangers and consequences. DIY MR is also clearly here to stay, and seemingly on the increase.

I’d say the onus has to be on Client side Researchers to look to provide the education necessary on what good Research practice is to the various corporate stakeholders that maybe get tasked with engaging, say, with Survey Monkey software. Agencies don’t have the visibility.

It’s an important task. However strong the lure of the Siren’s voice calling “faster, lower cost, more flexibility” , an understanding of where the rocks are in the MR river is critical. Not everything that is fast, cheap and seemingly easy is valuable.

Curious, as ever, as to others’ views.

Please share...

8 responses to “What Value Does Disintermediation Bring Without Expertise?

  1. A few years ago, the safety switch broke on my furnace. The switch is quite literally a light switch, identical to those in a wall plate you use to turn on your light fixtures. I could have purchased it at Home Depot for $1.50. I paid the HVAC company approximately $150. I consider it money very well spent. Furnace repair is not my area of expertise. I comprehended I was paying for safely heating my home, not a part.

    When the stakes are low, DIY may be appropriate. For example, I know one client who used DIY to survey food preferences for staff meetings. I agree that is an appropriate use of DIY.

    Some clients use DIY when dictated by budget constraints. This may sometimes be sensible, but I encourage people to reflect: Is such research necessary? There is still a cost to,such research, as it consumes labor resources? If there is not adequate ROI to enable a monetary budget, is there sufficient ROI to justify ROI on the labor?

    Some clients believe DIY brings them greater job security. My own inquiries lead me to conclude they are misguided. Those clients will find their organizations value and reward their ability to initiate and direct research which enables the organization to make better decisions. The evidence is they will be able to do much less of that if they pursue a DIY strategy. Sure organizations prefer to spend less if all else is equal, but all else is rarely equal. I suggest these clients review their last few performance reviews, and analyze how much the organization rewarded them for savings generated by DIY. I also recommend a proactive approach — ask in advance about what will be valued.

  2. It seems to me that the issues isn’t DIY bad/DIY good, but, rather, how do market research firms adapt to this new world so that we can offer clients, including non-traditional clients, the advice and counsel they need to do DIY better. Stop fighting a trend you can’t beat and start adapting your business to meet the needs of smart DIYers for advice and counsel at prices they are willing to pay. That’s the growth path for the industry outside the top 3-5 mega-firms that will capture the huge global projects.

  3. I think the right response for full service market research firms is to embrace DIY. Encourage customers to engage in DIY research where they can and should, i.e. those areas where a staightforward survey monkey will do the trick. Even offer guidance and mentoring with these. Focus instead on the more complex analysis that requires your skill sets and unique capabilities that do not justify clients aquiring those skills in house. With one of our clients recently, DIY research created an appetite for more customer insights leading to complex segmentation work where we were able to provide our unique expertise. For this client, conducting DIY research created an appreciation for the compexities of market research and an appetite for more sophisticated modeling and outside help.

  4. Edward – I hear you. Underlying issue with your commentary is the assumption that DIY’s are not professionals and MR professionals are. Having been in the biz a long long time…..the level of expertise at some high end, global firms is really only a different version of the DIY cookie cutter. Sorry – but a lot of the for fee work also suffers from routine and lack of understanding of the discipline.

  5. The value created by most of the online platforms out there isn’t exclusively disintermediation. There adoption is driven by being more user-friendly, creating faster cycle times to getting consumer feedback, lower cost (e.g., sample cost), and generally more accessible. These seem to be universal currencies that should be embraced whether you are an MR professional on the client or supplier side. I suspect that most, if not all, of these suppliers of next generation market research technology gladly welcome either side as clients. In the early innings, the clients are leading the way. Why? They have a lot of questions that are going unanswered everyday, and these platforms provide a way to get an answer.

    I’d love to get my furnace fixed by a service provider, but if its cold and I am short money and time…I am heading down to Home Depot.

  6. Edward, nice article and an extremely relevant topic, especially for our business. I think the comments are also fairly representative of the conversation that is taking place out there right now amongst us and our clients. For me, there is a need to define ‘DIY’ though. Most people think of DIY as Survey Monkey et al, which from a survey tool perspective is correct obviously. However, there is an evolution of technology products and platforms that I would position more as ‘digital’/self-service where providers put research tools into the hands of clients that are very sophisticated and incorporate integrated sampling and other features. And what’s interesting from my experience is with these tools, it is professional marketers and researchers that are starting to utilise them, thus they are being used with all the required rigour and framework that one would expect to be present within the research process. So I think we are doing the technology firms and those innovating and investing heavily in tools that are automating parts or entire research processes by labeling them as pitching these to non-MR professionals and building tools for ‘monkeys’, a disservice. Ultimately time, affordability, quality and DELIVERY will win out (no change there), and all that is happening is that this is now being driven by technology in the hands of seasoned professionals than anything else.

  7. @richard – thanks for your comments. What you say doesn’t surprise me at all – that “DIY” is a blanket term, perceptually sits with very simple free tools, and the range of offerings is/has expanded to include more sophsiticated tools. Do you have any examples? Forms of Conjoint, Max Diff? Online ethnography? Curious. Sounds potentially game-changing stuff.

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