How relevant is your research?
By Jeroen Rietberg, Co-Founder of Intellex Dynamic Reporting
It will not come as a surprise to most readers that the Western world has been suffering from a financial crisis for the last seven or eight years. Some say there is light at the end of the tunnel, others claim a new crisis sparked by China is already on its way. Many of the bigger brands seem to agree with the more positive view and are starting to make room for investments. If we read interviews given by CEO's of the top global brands, we see that the focus of these investments is almost completely on one thing and that is 'customer centricity'. To understand the client, their needs and wants, and to put them at the heart of the organization is the way forward for most. A recent study presented by Christina Jenkins and Frank van den Driest at the annual ESOMAR congress, shows that the fastest growing brands are those that are ahead of the game when it comes to customer centricity.
The question who is going to help the brands to increase their understanding of the client should be of great concern to the market research industry. If customer centricity is the main theme of the coming years for global brands, investments should find their way to the MR industry and the future looks bright.
The truth however is that a large chunk of current investments seems to go to alternative technologies. In the year 2014 investments made in technology other than MR were almost a factor ten higher than what was invested in traditional MR. Whereas the volume of data that must be analyzed and understood is growing exponentially, the global turnover of the market research industry is a flattening curve. If we push this development into the future, the gap between the amount of available data and the role that MR is playing in their usage is rapidly widening. So what is going on?
Let me take you back a couple of years. In 2009, Intellex did a small quantitative survey amongst research buyers. We asked around 100 buyers how they felt about the research they bought, the quality, the impact etc. At the time, two things clearly stood out. First, a majority of respondents said that although the quality of the research was good, the information they received based on this research was not. The second point that stood out was the fact that senior management was unconvinced of the strategic relevance of Market Research. Sadly, this sentiment has not really changed. If we speak to MR professionals now we can see that they are all seriously worried about the strategic relevance of market research. So what do these professionals see as the main threats to the relevance of MR?
The threats most mentioned by those interviewed are similar in character: customer owned panels, mobile platforms, social listening and big data are all so called 'disruptive innovations' that are hitting the MR market sideways.
In general, innovation is based on an industry's core strengths. Data collection has always been a core strength of MR and, over the years, we have seen many innovations in this area. An important characteristic of a 'disruptive innovation' however is that it tends to come from outside the industry. It is developed 'on the sidelines' and the industry tends to not see it coming until it is too late. More importantly disruptive innovation can make your core competences – your strengths – into weaknesses. Take customer owned panels as an example. These have now been around for years, but the MR industry has been disputing them as long as they exist. Arguing from one of their core competences – statistical analysis – market researchers have been trying to explain to clients that there might be a problem with the representativeness of these panels and that the results therefore might not be correct. Brands in general have been ignoring these warnings and have moved full steam ahead with the panels, simply because the benefits outweigh the possible problems with the statistics. To say it bluntly, they could not care less about representativeness and what was once a strength of the MR industry has suddenly become irrelevant, a weakness.
Another characteristic these threats have in common is that they are all active in the area of data collection. However, much of a landslide big data and social listening will turn out to be, in the end they are an alternative way of collecting data. The question we must ask ourselves is, if data collection is the only core competence of the MR industry?
The answer, of course, is no. If customer centricity is the main theme of the coming years and if the relevance of market research is under threat from disruptive innovation in the area of data collection, it is time we start to look in a different direction. First of all, we should ask ourselves the question what strategic relevance depends on most. The answer to this question is almost too simple: strategic relevance depends on usage. I can't make it more complicated than that. If the result of all your hard work is not used by your clients, then you can never be relevant.
Many clients have a definite need for advice in the area of data usage. They tend to sit on so much data that it is no longer clear to them what to do with all of it. Internal sales data, social media data, market data: it is one thing to collect as much as you can, it is another to effectively use what you have. While the MR industry is focused on a whole set of traditional core competences and worried about its relevance, the client is in need of a different competence: an understanding of how to best use the data they have. At this point, the question to ask is, which market research competence lies at the heart of data usage?
Of course the answer is reporting. In this context, reporting refers to the delivery of market data in the widest sense of the word. If there is a need for the MR industry to increase its strategic relevance, it must make sure that the results they deliver are actually used. In order to make sure that the results are used, it must focus on a competence that is called 'reporting'. As mentioned above, already in 2009 research buyers where telling us that the quality of the reporting did not live up to the quality of the research itself. A missed opportunity if there ever was one! Reporting, is more than writing a PowerPoint report and delivering this to your point of contact. If you do this, the chances that you will find out if your client is using your work are rather slim.
If you want to create a 'ripple' with your research results, if you want to make sure that your work is actually used so that it will be relevant to your client, you must facilitate this usage. This 'facilitating usage' is what can be referred to as 'data operationalization'. Data must be delivered in such a way that they become part of the day-to-day process in your client’s organization. Therefore delivering results is NOT just about what you can do for your client. It is about what your client can do with what you can do for your client!
In what ways can you add value when you are reporting?
First of all, I would like to mention the fact that every single research agency sits on a goldmine of data. In general, they have only scraped the top layer of information from the data they have collected. Rather than leaving it at that, would it not be highly relevant to your client if you tried to do more with what you already got?
Every agency should ask themselves what percentage of the data they sit on is actually used. Is it 20 percent, 10 percent, 5 percent? If they could increase this percentage, would it not be possible to increase their relevance by doing more with what they have?
I also like to compare market research professionals to chefs in a Michelin kitchen. They are very good at what they do. They know where to find the best ingredients, they know the best recipes and have the skills to prepare delicious food. There is a lot of high quality work going on in the ‘research kitchen’.
Based on these skills you would expect the output of this kitchen to be a range of different – Michelin worthy – little delicate morsels of food. What's on the menu caters for everyone's taste. There is something for the market researcher, something else for the marketer and something else again for the senior manager. They all get what they like best and will keep coming back to the restaurant of their choice.
Most of the time this is sadly not the case. Instead, all that high quality work in the kitchen is presented in a report that in presentation and diversity resembles “sausage and mash”. Of course the point that I’m trying to make here is that the market research industry does not pay enough attention to the delivery of their work, thereby ignoring an enormous opportunity to remain relevant and secure a place at the table where the decisions are made.
It is time to rethink our core competences. MR is not only about data collection, it is all about facilitating the usage of the results in such a way that your data becomes part and parcel of the client’s operation.
In order to operationalize your research results it helps if you take the following steps:
First make sure that the different data streams that you are dealing with are brought under one 'central command'. When you are pushing results from different data sources to several user groups it is of great importance that the management and control of data at the most detailed level is very high.
Second, it is important that you take 'one step at the time' and don't complicate matters more than necessary. Broadly speaking, since data management is considered to be a technical skill there is a tendency to try and cater for the most complex situations. One should be trying to simplify the data flows as much as possible instead with the goal of showing results quickly. Once the first results are shared and used, commitment will build and more complex steps can be approved next.
Thirdly, it is of crucial importance that you understand which users are 'behind' your point of contact in the client organization. It might take time, but it must become clear who is using your data as a source of information: why are they doing so, when are they doing so and what do they do with the information you provide. Only when you have a clear understanding of this 'usage pattern' you can move forward and build a delivery platform that provides everyone with what they need and when they need it.
Last but not least, make sure that your delivery is geared towards the user groups you have defined. Make access as easy as possible, preferably using mobile devices that can be accessed at any time and any place. Make the user experience straightforward and make clear choices in what to present.