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Connecting The Dots…

So much of the work we do in market research is connecting dots. We take data points (our dots) and develop a coherent picture by tying them together to tell a story on most any given subject. Often the data points come from multiple sources and may at first seem unrelated, but we are supremely skilled at tying these seemingly disparate facts together to create actionable strategic insights. That is the nature of modern market research.

What strikes me as interesting is that as good as we are at connecting the dots for our clients, we seem to have a pathological inability to apply that skill to our own industry. Of course, that doesn’t apply to everyone; there are many firms out there right now that are boldly acting on the picture they see from their own analysis of these rapidly changing times. That said, there are many more, especially larger organizations, that blithely carry on, ignoring the signs that are all around them. Is it inertia that keeps these firms from making the needed changes to thrive in the “new reality”, or a type of tunnel vision that limits their ability to see past their own global business P&Ls? Regardless, I continue to be disappointed by what I perceive to be a lack of  vision coming from the largest organizations in our space.

Nature abhors a vacuum though, so this curious situation has created  an unprecedented opportunity for smaller, more nimble, and imaginative firms to fill the gap. True leadership in the MR space is coming from the smaller firms that have connected the dots and see a picture emerging of a radically different future for us, one that is based on new models of business, consumer & client engagement, and insight collection. These emerging leaders are leading the charge in crafting a future industry that is as different from what we see today as can be.

Don’t take my word for it. Here are some of the dots I’ve connected recently. Take a look and tell me if you agree!

First, we have the 65 synopses submitted for consideration to the NewMR Virtual Festival. Not a one is based on “business as usual” ideas. No mentions of  ISOs, panel quality, or best practices for CATI. Instead, these trailblazers are discussing “serious” gaming, predictive markets, social media research, and mobile, mobile, mobile. All of the submissions have been made by small and relatively new players, and it is these firms who will drive our industry forward with or without the assistance of the global leaders.

Next, Merrill Dubrow, CEO of M/A/R/C Research posted a blog titled Attention Researchers What Do You Think These Announcements Mean To The Research Industry?. In it Merrill listed a few really interesting recent announcements from outside the MR industry that could have a profound impact on our traditional business models. Several folks commented on this post, and the consensus is that Merrill has connected the dots well and the picture that we see is both a challenge and an opportunity for our industry. M/A/R/C is certainly a venerable and quite large company, but they seem to be bucking the trend and are embracing change, which is heartening to see. Michael Braunberg’s comment on Merrill’s post sums it up well:

The only thing that is certain is that things are going to change, and the difference between opportunity and peril will as always be a matter of insightful thinkers seeing and seizing opportunity, and a bit of serendipitous luck.

Another example of a large firm that seems to see the writing on the wall is Toluna. Last week they convened a summit of leaders from across the globe to “chart the course of the research industry”. While I am skeptical that they accomplished that mighty feat, the brains in that room certainly seemed to have generated some great insight into what the future holds for us. Research magazine reported on the event and here are a few takeaways on the vision that emerged from the meeting:

If consumers want to know what benefits they’ll get for sharing their social media data with market research agencies, one answer might be ‘more relevant surveys’. Equally, agencies might be able to offer clients ‘more relevant respondents’ – but they’ll need to offer both more besides. Rowan made the point that not only is the web permitting direct consumer-to-consumer connections, it also allows people a direct line through to companies, and vice-versa.

The future is one in which the research agency has to justify itself as a valued partner of both respondent and client. In a world where technology enables consumers to trade their personal information direct with a brand, research agencies need to position themselves as a more convenient intermediary for both sides of the transaction.

Rowan cited Apple and its success with the iPod and the iTunes store as an example of how people put a premium on convenience. Amid a culture of free, albeit “messy”, peer-to-peer file sharing, Rowan said Apple triumphed because what they offered was easier to use. “We want simplicity, reliability and trust,” he said.

And therein lies the future of the market research industry.

WARC is a veritable waterfall of data points on a daily basis, and over the past few days a few things jumped out at me that are worth sharing. Collectively they paint a picture of brands relying on new technologies and skills to gain insights, engage with consumers directly, and develop winning strategies in high-growth emerging markets. What’s interesting is that they are not relying upon traditional MR firms to help guide them, but are increasingly utilizing new partners and internal resources to help them connect their own dots.

The first example comes from Coke, P&G, Cisco, and LinkedIn in an article on how Brand owners target social media insights. Here are a few key excerpts:

“Brands don’t become great by monitoring the past,” Sthanunathan added. “The challenge is to have a point of view on the future.”

“Consumers know what they want and are giving their opinions in an unconstrained fashion.”

Constructing dedicated procedures to mine material is increasingly crucial as individuals are no longer able to perform these tasks.

“Very often, you end up boiling the ocean,” Sthanunathan argued.

…Last month, P&G utilised a more official approach, partnering with TwitterMoms, which offers the “world’s first social seal of approval programme” from such a key audience.

P&G’s Ultra Concentrated Dawn dishwashing liquid was subjected to a “blind study”, with 100% of the panel saying it met or exceeded expectations, and 93% displaying a willingness to recommend the product.

“We were excited to give this new take on the traditional seal program a try,” said Susan Baba, Dawn’s external relations manager at P&G.

Jeff Weiner, ceo of business-orientated social network LinkedIn, stated this kind of model is becoming vitally important.

“People are sharing their identity, building their networks online – sharing information and knowledge at rates never seen before,” he said.

Weiner is also participating in groups on the site which are relevant to his own firm, acquiring news about the main issues facing staff.

“I can only spend so much time physically walking the halls. But with these tools in place, I can actually take the pulse of the company,” he said.

John Chambers, chief executive of Cisco, the networking specialist, predicted that truly integrating social media within corporate structures and decision-making could have a profound impact.

“I think it would turn organisation structures upside down,” he said. “I think it would turn dramatically how you make decisions and drive productivity.”

As an aside, the  comment from LinkedIn is particularly important; the flood of data generated online can be difficult to manage for senior executives. I make it my business to mine the online ecosystem for data points to help me run my own businesses and it can be a time consuming, onerous task. Recently I’ve been involved in the development of a tool to help manage that process for myself and the MR industry as a whole called Researchvibes; it has changed how I manage my digital life and I encourage you to check it out as well!

The next dot from WARC is a report on how Emerging market consumers go digital. It demonstrates the rapidly changing technological sophistication of global consumers and indicates clearly that in order to meet the needs of both brands and consumers, MR has to embrace whole new models of digital engagement. Here are some stats:

Research firm TNS surveyed 48,804 web respondents from 46 countries, and found 61% used digital media each day, falling to 54% for television, 36% concerning radio, 32% for newspapers and magazines’ 14%.

More specifically, 82% of North Americans utilised new media on a daily basis, measured against scores of 83% in Northwest Europe and 69% in Southeast Europe.

The Middle East and Africa (MENA) posted 62%, followed by Developing Asia – encompassing Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan – on 57% and China on 56%.

Latin America hit 53% and Emerging Asia – Cambodia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand – delivered 42%, with sub-Saharan Africa on 23% and India on 22%.

…At least a quarter of participants wanted to increase their social media activity ranging from streaming music and video, downloading apps, uploading photos and sharing links going forward.

A similar number viewed user-generated material to inform purchase decisions in categories such as computers mobile phones, automotive, video games, real estate and baby care.

In all, 53% of the Chinese sample joined brand communities to find out more about products, reaching 48% in Emerging Asia and 44% in Latin America, beating the 40% global average.

And one final piece of evidence from WARC to help complete the picture. In an article titled Digital shoppers crave customisation we get more information on how consumers expect brands to engage with them via mobile devices. Of course, mobile research is a rapidly emerging methodology with diverse potential applications, so this information is particularly important to pay attention to.

GfK Business & Technology’s report suggested that as subscribers demand greater levels of customisation from applications, retailers and brands must keep pace.

These “Digital Drivers” not only view, create and share content, but now expect to receive “a personal … experience through both online and mobile platforms,” said David Krajicek, managing director at GfK Business & Technology.

…”Smartphone users are increasingly willing to pay for applications, but those applications need to seamlessly integrate with their lives and streamline the tasks they’re currently using other technologies to accomplish.”

The new consumer mindset will influence the in-store and mobile shopping experience, requiring brands to tailor apps based on an understanding of how people utilise these tools, GfK predicted.

It also believes that finding the best value for money, along with heightened convenience for completing transactions, will shape where and when “Digital Drivers” make acquisitions.

So there is my summary of some of the dots I see impacting MR. I think the picture is pretty clear: the industry is changing dramatically, innovation is coming from smaller firms, clients are demanding that MR deliver more valuable foresight, and global technology adoption is creating new paradigms of consumer engagement.  At least, that is what see; what do you think?

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