“New” is one of the most powerful words in the marketing vocabulary. It makes a promise of something better. It sells hope. Everyone wants something new so it follows that we market researchers are obsessed by innovation. It is a serious preoccupation in our industry.
As a background to this preoccupation it has to be said that there are aspects of the market research world that have not changed in years. For example, we still like to ask the right question of the right person. What is more, the means by which we do this haven’t changed much either. Around two thirds of all market research is quantitative and a third is qualitative and this has been the case for many years.
What has changed has been the methods by which the research is carried out. In quantitative research, the business to business market research industry has morphed from one that originally carried out face-to-face interviews, to one that uses the telephone and nowadays has more than 50% of interviews online. The ubiquitous use of computers and iPhones in business has made this possible.
Online research enables business to business market researchers to collect more data at a lower cost. With more data, we can make more use of analytics. We can carry out conjoint surveys to obtain insights into how people value certain aspects of an offer. A few years ago such surveys had to be administered face-to-face and, because of their horrendous cost, were as rare as hen’s teeth. In fact, the real cost of market research has declined significantly over the last two decades because of technological innovations.
In qualitative research, technology has also had an effect. Consumer market research has seen the rise of “communities” whereby groups of people are recruited to report on a topic in forums, blogs and diaries. Getting business to business decision-makers to join such communities has not proved easy and they are still something of a rarity.
The considerable amount of open-ended comments generated in qualitative research is still waiting for a technological breakthrough. Text analytics have made some improvements but wading through verbatims is still largely a manual job. The relatively small sample sizes in business to business studies mean that this is not a huge problem.
A very evident trend in qualitative research has been the increasing use that is made of mixed methodologies. Market researchers have become more innovative in the way they address business to business studies. Instead of hitting the problem with a couple of focus groups and 200 interviews, they may well build in ethnography, desk research, and expert interviews (cost permitting!).
The reporting of market research is still heavily dependent on PowerPoint. There have been innovations in dashboards for quantitative studies that track customer experience, and infographics for people who need a high-level view of the findings. Workshops are now common at the end of business to business projects allowing everyone to get their hands dirty in data and work out what action should be taken.
Despite our opening comment about the importance of “new” in marketing, we have grown suspicious of the word. There is an old saying that there is nothing new under the sun. A disturbing trend in the market research industry is the branding of processes and procedures that are not new but are given a fancy label and presented as a magical black box. As market research companies fear commoditisation of their services, they are tempted to call their bog standard analytics offer or online community “the new whizbang”. As Tim Macer and Sheila Wilson said in a recent article in the Proceedings Of The Association For Survey Computing, unless market researchers drive technology trends rather than ride them, they will be open to threats from outsiders who will find technology solutions to answer the research questions themselves.