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5 Ways to Fight the Market Research Industry’s “Global Warming” Problem

While different in scope, the market research industry faces its own "global warming." And, like its climatological cousin, it too carries warnings of an impending crisis that will shake the foundation of our discipline.

Copy of polar bear


By Greg Heist

Gradual. Subtle. Insidious.  And, ultimately devastating to life as we know it.  This is the picture painted by climate scientists to describe global warming. Interestingly, it is also these characteristics that make it so easily mocked by critics.  In the end, scientists foretell humanity will look back on these warnings and realize the irrevocable damage that has been caused by our inattention to this threat.

While different in scope, the market research industry faces its own “global warming.”  And, like its climatological cousin, it too carries warnings of an impending crisis that will shake the foundation of our discipline.

What is the MR industry’s “global warming”?  Quite simply, it’s the decline in consumer interest and participation in traditional research.  Like the actual global warming problem, the initial warnings have been subtle:

  • Mail and phone surveys — response rates began a long decline starting in the 1990’s, which was shrugged off as a knee-jerk reaction to the dot com craze
  • Focus group recruiting — it has become increasingly difficult to secure participation for in-person studies…with a commensurate increase in the average incentive required to secure their attendance
  • Online surveys — A very strong decline in response rates over the past five years, coupled with decreases in data quality and difficulty of getting panelists to go “off-line” and “on-site” without paying a high premium
  • Hard-to-reach participants – male & high income/high education participants have become increasingly difficult to engage in traditional research. (To wit, the annual snarky comments from my doctor about being pestered to participate in long phone surveys regarding medications he prescribes to patients)

In short, as we look back on these subtle and not-so-subtle hints, we realize we have a looming problem of epic proportions on our hands.

What caused this?  It would be easy to simply blame consumers for their lack of altruistic zeal for sharing their opinions.  However, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we—both vendor and client side MR professionals—have ultimately created this crisis.

Frustrated womanWe’ve done it with our 30-minute surveys, painfully worded questionnaires and awkwardly constructed scales.  We’ve annoyed 90% of potential respondents because we’re our obsessed with finding the proverbial needle in a haystack, i.e. the “low-incidence consumer.”  In short, we’ve made the entire experience about as much fun as a trip to the DMV.

And, arguably we threaten our industry and livelihood because we’ve treated respondents more like lab rats than the beautifully complex humans that they are.

We need to put a stop to it now, before the lifeblood of our profession dries up to a meaningless trickle.

To do this will require a re-visioning of our discipline. We’ll have to bring forth a truly innovative mindset toward gleaning insights amid the “noise” of consumers’ lives.

Here are five things you can start doing today to help avert this calamity:

1)  Cut, cut, cut – Take out 20% of the questions you ask. Then take another 10% out of that.  Odds are you are asking them “just in case” or because it would be “nice to know.”   

2)  Get to the point – Use fewer words for each question. Think of each as a tweet—see if you can do it in 140 characters or less.  Ditto for responses.

3)  Take your own medicine – Put yourself in the shoes of your respondents. Take every survey you create and ask yourself, “would I want to thoughtfully respond to this?”  If you find it painful to take your own survey, don’t ask anyone else to take it either.

4) Get mobile…now – Let’s face it. Consumers are nearly too busy to sit in front of their computers to do anything these days.  As researchers, we need to get in sync with this, and use the screen they are using all the time—their smart phone.  Yes, I know you can’t replicate a traditional online survey on a smartphone.  Guess what?  That’s a good thing.

5) Jump into the river – Get your organization to break out of the traditional ad hoc research paradigm. Stop focusing on large, sporadic research initiatives and begin embracing a river approach to engage consumers.  Think about a series of six three-minute “research snacks” instead of two big online surveys.  If you have a community, you’ve already begun to embrace this river approach to qual.  Take the leap with your survey research too.

Some of these actions are relatively easy. Others are more challenging and will take time to implement. Just as we find ourselves instinctively recycling flip charts after a brainstorm, these behaviors will not only preserve our discipline, but help re-engineer it for the future.

Greg recycling


Me doing my job for the greater good of the Earth. Yes, I’m feeding these flip-chart pages from a focus group straight into our office recycle bins. 🙂

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8 responses to “5 Ways to Fight the Market Research Industry’s “Global Warming” Problem

  1. Terrific article – I especially enjoyed the tips at the end and wanted to suggest one more: what about giving something back to respondents – an incentive more powerful than money, i.e. self-knowledge? We recently did a neuro-qual study where respondents got to see their neuro data within minutes; they were highly engaged in follow-up qual and wanted to participate in more studies. The desire to learn more about themselves was a powerful motivator in this case and my sense is it would be in others as well.
    Thanks again for your thought-provoking article.

  2. Excellent suggestion, Stacy! I completely agree that some consumers are clearly motivated for more intrinsic reasons such as self-understanding, altruism or feeling directly “engaged” with a particular company or brand they are passionate about. In our MROC’s we’ve found that members love feedback about how their collective insights are creating some kind of an impact within the client organization. Of course, in many cases that information is confidential, but even small nuggets of feedback like that create an entirely different dynamic than the strictly anonymous model used in traditional MR.

    Thanks again for your thoughts!!

  3. For complex focus group, IDI, and ethnography recruit–with online hybrids–specific to difficult, complex, emotionallly evocative projects, we are finding that adding more incentives and giving the fields longer lead time are very helpful strategies. This means getting go-ahead on projects earlier so that recruitment can start earlier, with needed changes at midpoint to motivate consumers. However, if we pay what is suggested on the high side from field recruiters and make the invitation enjoyable, we are discovering that high quality respondents are excited to attend. A 5-7 day turnaround is impossible, however, while 2 full weeks for a complex recruit does give optimum results. The last minute recruit we will, of course, try if the client wants it, but then we have to pay overtime and much higher incentives…and perhaps lower the past-participation to the past 3 months or less. I am curious what other qualitative researchers find when money and time are adequate to recruit.

    As for recycling Easel sheets, that’s a wonderful ecological move. What I find is that scheduling 2 debriefs for each project is useful; one is at midpoint between regions so that we discover what we are learning and can make revisions before the next or final field. The second is an all-hands debrief immediately after the last field back at client headquarters (or at the very least, a long phone call with everyone on it), to be sure we coalesce findings, gain early hypotheses, and bridge the gap between what we just saw and heard and what the final report will convey. Often, this 4-hour debrief at headquarters is the most valuable experience of the entire project. There are lots of Easel sheets which can be worked from for the report, and then, of course, recycled properly.

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