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Market Research & Technological Innovation: Reflecting on the Journey

Technological developments within market research have transformed the industry over the past couple of decades. The recent ASC Conference, held in the beautiful Cathedral city of Winchester, offered a welcome opportunity to reflect on these innovations.

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By Zoe Dowling 

Technological developments within market research has transformed the industry over the past couple of decades. The recent ASC Conference, held in the beautiful Cathedral city of Winchester, offered a welcome opportunity to reflect on these innovations, posing the question ‘Are we there yet?’ In my opening keynote at the conference, I attempted to provide my own answer to this question – and to do this, I went back to the very beginning.

Where Market Research Began

In the late 1800s, Charles Booth knocked on doors of people’s homes in a concerted effort to obtain a true measurement and understanding of poverty within London. In doing so, he was one of the early pioneers of the social survey and ethnographic methods.

Over the subsequent eight decades, primary data collection methods remained fairly constant with interviewer-administered and mail surveys on the quantitative side and ethnographic methods, focus groups and individual interviews on the qualitative side.

Computer Technology Shifts Market Research Methods

From the 1970s, the growth and ever-increasing availability of computer technology started to open up the researcher toolkit with the development of various CAI (computer-assisted interviewing) methods. The first of these is computer-assisted telephone interviewing (CATI) devised in the early 1970s and during that decade went on become a widely used research tool in the US but it was only in the early 1980s that it gained extensive use in Europe.

The emergence of laptops in the mid-1980s led to the general use of computer-assisted personal interviewing (CAPI) in survey research. The development of CAPI was initially hindered by the limited capabilities of the first laptops in terms of memory and speed, not to mention the size and weight of the machine.

As the technology improved, computer-assisted survey research become the norm in the early to mid-1990s. At this time, Touch Tone Data Entry (TDE) and Interactive Voice Response (IVR) were also introduced. This decade also saw the emergency of email surveys and early online qualitative approaches with bulletin board discussions.

A Turning Point for Market Research Technology

The turn of the century brought perhaps the most transformative method impacting us today – Web surveys, which is morphing into mobile surveys into more recent years. Qualitatively we’ve seen the introduction of activity-based online methods and webcam interviews and focus groups.

Culturally Relevant Ways to Reach People

All of these approaches provide researchers multiple ways to reach people and understand their lives. The evolution reflects changes both in technological developments and in culture around us. A perfect example of this is mobile qualitative that can tap into the mainstream culture of content creators and sharers.

From a researcher perspective: what better way to understand people than through their own lens? Furthermore, the method addresses memory and post-rationalization challenges while also being as unobtrusive as far as research can get.

New Technology Enables Blended Methods, Specifically Quant+Qual

Another important advantage of the newer approaches, mainly web-based ones, is the increased feasibility of blended methods, offering reduced time and costs. This is particularly true of triangulating quantitative and qualitative methods providing a full, rich picture of the research topic. However, other mixed mode approaches, for example an online diary followed by a webcam interview, also yield powerful insight.

New Market Research Technologies Bring New Challenges

With great change, comes great (and new) challenges. The variety of methods now at our disposal brings added layers of complexity.

Technical Complexity: Each new feature added to a software platform increases its complexity, both in terms of the user experience on the frontend and product internals on the backend.

Methodological Complexity: There are numerous design choices when creating an online questionnaire, and at the same time, fully understanding the implications of the design decisions upon the respondents and the results.

Practical Complexity: The amount of data being returned from even relatively small projects, can be overwhelming. Consider that a recent 7-day Revelation study with 72 participants generated more than 1000 unique responses, 1200 images and 170 videos.

Unsurprisingly, these complexities give rise to a number of tensions.

Technical Tensions: We demand a clean and simple user experience but ever-increasing numbers of features. Coupled with this, there’s a culture of free technology (think yourself of how many apps on your smartphone that you actually purchased) and expectation is that technology is, if not quite free, very inexpensive.

Methodological Tensions: Methodologically, design choices are often made (or not made) in deference to our quest for standardization and data comparability. A very current tension is the cultural shift to mobile by our respondents and historical web questionnaire design.

Practical Tensions: Time-strapped researchers are on a continual journey to learn new skills to keep abreast of the new approaches with evermore appearing on the horizon.

Key Takeaways from ASC 2016

Returning to the ASC conference, successes (and there were many of them) were generally coupled with complexities and tensions.Take these three examples:

The One-Question Survey

Geoffrey Roughton and Iain MacKay (X-MR) provided a compelling case demonstrating the value of a one-question Google Consumer Survey for political polling tracking. At the same time, they also noted the practical on-going challenge of building out more such uses and methodologically understand why it is working so well.

A Need for Shorter Mobile-First Surveys

Mike Murray & James Eldridge (Research Now) explored the use of Split Questionnaire-Design (SQD), often known as survey modularization. Within the industry this has long been talked about as an important emerging approach, but as the authors highlighted, a standard methodology for conducting modularization has yet to be developed. Methodologically we are now on the way to finding a standardized approach, the next challenge is for software providers to build out tools to facilitate the easy adoption of modularization.

Social Media Listening

Social media listening is another emerging method, and one that feels that it should be more prominent that it is. One of the most refreshing papers came from Jillian Ney (, who spoke candidly about the challenges facing social listening research, which is currently a very time intensive endeavor with none of the software providers cracking the code.

So are we there yet? There’s no question that we’ve come a long way and have an exciting array of approaches to speak to people and understand their lives. But no, we aren’t there yet. It feels safe to say that with all the existing complexities and tensions, which will be closely followed by new ones, our never-ending journey continues.


First published on the FocusVision blog:

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2 responses to “Market Research & Technological Innovation: Reflecting on the Journey

  1. Lets reflect on what has been happening in research over the last decade. The biggest development was in online surveys which quickly morphed into claims for the death of traditional research. The blogosphere was full of headlines about disruption and “get with the trend or get out of the way”.

    Forrester pointed out that in fact most claims for disruption go through a cycle of over-claiming, non-delivery and realization that maybe the “new, new” wasn’t all that great. This model is now apparent in our industry. Truth is we just aren’t seeing real disruptions that add value beyond lower cost and faster results – with serious concerns about data quality (as seen in declining panel support).

    The next cycle in the online promise was the attempt to give credibility to a failing panel scene by going community, bespoke panels and other value samples. In truth most of the client interest was around DIY opportunities (get rid of that pesky professional researcher!) and the real benefit, hand on heart was – cheaper and faster – not the appeal of new technology promising greater insights.

    Attempts to give further life to online have now segued into that classic mini-survey asking less – again cheaper and faster. Google added impetus with its one question survey. A whole tribe of bloggers started predicting the end of the classic brand tracker as these new short, low cost options became the disruptors. Anyone who went through the age of single source attempts to merge media data with larger data capture studies saw the problem around fusing such data sets. How complex could it therefore get when trying to patch together these nano-surveys? The answer seems to be “impossible”.

    The latest trope to resuscitate the online market is “agile” research. Every time that gets a run the response is – but we have been doing that for years. Does anyone else sense the desperation in this industry? Lets face it online is just old research methods online and the real appeal is low cost and fast, nothing else so far.

    This coverage from Zoe Dowling is the most honest assessment I have seen so far from practitioners on the challenges around new approaches and disruptive opportunities arising form online’s potential, beyond cheap and fast

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