Advances in technology are disrupting many industries. Lyndall Spooner believes market and social researchers are not immune – nor should they be. Feel free to disagree. Disruption to the market research industry is likely to have a devastating effect. Maybe it’s time; maybe I’m being too pessimistic. But unless we wake up to the disruption that is already here, I fear our industry will experience a race to the bottom, culminating in our irrelevance. Is that our destiny? Like most market researchers I didn’t start my career thinking I was going to work in market research. In fact, I barely knew it existed as a profession. I’m a biologist – and in biology one of the primary theories you learn is Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and the mechanism of survival of the fittest. In nature, if there is a fundamental shift in an ecosystem that influences the way animals compete, evolution speeds up, favouring those animals that are the fittest to compete in the new environment. The ones that survive are not those that are the strongest or the most intelligent, but those that are best equipped to deal with rapid change.
Going vertical
So, what has happened to the market research ecosystem that has caused a fundamental shift in how we compete? It isn’t design thinking. It isn’t customer experience (CX) or user experience (UX) design. It’s the evolution and integration of survey technology platforms. These survey platforms have resulted in vertically integrated market research ecosystem. Users can select a survey template, populate it with the brands and variables they want to track, set the sample size they want and click a button. Instantly the survey goes live, respondents are sourced from panel suppliers (or an integrated panel), the software cleans and weights the data, and then reports it live in the custom-designed dashboard. With another click, more advanced analysis including segmentations, driver analysis and text analytics are added. The market research industry is not the one driving this new ecosystem. Companies with far greater reach, resources and influence than we have, are the ones that are. These companies, like SAP – which in January acquired Qualtrics – specialise in integrations that build upon the operations and analytics ‘data lakes’ and slowly weave in voice of consumer (VoC) research as another data point. We are already seeing this unfold with Qualtrics recently unveiling their integration of 42 completely automated market research studies into their survey platform.
Competing in the new ecosystem
So how do market research companies compete in this new ecosystem and maintain relevance? One option is to compete head-to-head in the automated insights space. This, I believe, is professional suicide. Some companies have invested in building their own platform, while other companies have chosen to partner with open platforms such as Zappi. Their commoditised IP is now delivered with the click of a button, fast and cheap. Consider this from a client’s perspective. Client companies are investing in a VoC platform that contains integrated and automated research tools at no additional cost. Given most VoC platforms are a significant investment, there will be a strong desire to derive greater value from the VoC platform and to use the tools with which it is equipped, making it less likely for the internal insights team to search for alternative sources of automated research. And let’s be honest, one of our industries Achilles’ heels has been a significant variation in the quality of market research deliverables. We often scoff at the quality of work we see from a competitor compared to our own. Yet, as an industry, we have failed to set a benchmark of quality. And this is why automated insights and technical disruption are so powerful. Automation raises the bar: it provides consistency; it makes life easier, simpler and often cheaper. Sure, you trade off some creativity, but for many it’s more than good enough. Don’t forget, these VoC platform companies have plenty of marketing dollars to spend to convince users there are no trade-offs. SAP purchased Qualtrics for US$8 billion. Its growth strategy is to own ‘experience management’ (XM), and it is pushing its automated solutions hard. SAP even has people like Barack Obama spruiking its credentials. Market researchers are now the premium option for insight development. If ‘speed and cost’ was your positioning, you have been replaced. In fact, software and machines are now essentially market researchers – they conduct the function of market research. The software that served us has replaced us. If machines are market researchers, what are we? What are clients paying a premium for? As an industry we need to build IP and skills that can’t easily be replaced by artificial intelligence. We need to prove that a market researcher brings creative thinking and insight development that has a tangible impact on a client’s bottom line and is worth investing in – it is worth the premium. We must:
  • Utilise automation extensively where possible to create operationally lean and data-innovative companies. While we fight to demonstrate our value over automated solutions, we should take advantage of their benefits where we can.
  • Foster creative and collaborative work environments to relentlessly develop new IP. For now, the intelligence part of AI remains a fallacy, and we have a greater capacity to be innovative than any software does.
  • Become the leading human consulting industry that facilitates fact-based decision-making. We must move beyond thinking of the process of market research to adding value through consulting and integrating our insights into our client’s business.
We won’t win unless as an industry we finally move up the value chain and compete at a level above the machines. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so. LYNDALL SPOONER, MANAGING DIRECTOR, FIFTH DIMENSION RESEARCH AND CONSULTING