A New Beginning For Market Research
By Jill Larson, XM Platform Product Manager, Qualtrics
Quality research is an essential investment for good decision making, but nevertheless it is a cost. The pandemic of 2020 has upended millions of lives and businesses like nothing else in our lifetimes. Companies have been fighting to increase their shares of a shrinking pie, and make their products and services more affordable, all while standing up digital innovations like automation, machine learning, and artificial intelligence systems that can make better use of customer data.
As part of pandemic cost-cutting, market research budgets shrank, with indirect effects in companies that sell market research services. As individuals, we have generally gone through three phases of response, which largely parallel what we’ve seen on a worldwide business stage:
- Sudden shock
- Mixed recovery
- Using technology to do more with less
More with less is the new imperative in market research. Here’s how we get there.
Initial Shutdowns and Tentative Recovery
As the pandemic exploded and much of the world shut down in response, market research seemed to seize up. Programs that were in the planning stage were frequently put on hold, and in-person qualitative research was basically impossible to do. The common refrains:
- Is this appropriate to do now? Or is it insensitive?
- Did it make sense to test a planned new product concept?
- Should we continue with a new advertising campaign?
- How do we evaluate what is “good” in the new environment?
As people started to adjust to a new way of life and a new way of working, the industry started to awaken over the summer as clients needed to understand what to do moving forward in the “new normal.” While research industry revenue recovered somewhat, it was not near pre-pandemic levels. Even when clients commissioned new work (or restarted existing programs), they were now dealing with the demand to do more with less, and do it faster than ever before.
Fast Adoption of Technology
Historically, market research has required an operational army and about 6-8 weeks from approval to final report. Leading technology companies have been advocating for a digital transformation shift for years, but with the pandemic, the transformation happened nearly overnight. Organizations had to think quickly and make it happen, and the technology was ready for them. This new technology has enabled fast study design, intelligent insights and actions, and can be done completely in-house.
Rather than seeing the pandemic as the beginning of the end of market research as we’ve known it, think of it as the “end of the beginning” phase
Since the pandemic began, these features of automated technology platforms have become critical for even more client companies.
- DIY – Companies that have a strong tradition of market research with large programs like concept screening, ad testing, or even brand tracking to easy-to-use software.
- Remote Control – As the pandemic took hold, employees were forced to work from home, and rely more on technology to do their jobs. For research and insights functions, working with an automated technology platform to execute research became a distinct advantage.
- Cost Savings – Companies that have historically shied away from market research because of time and expense now have an easy, inexpensive option they can run themselves without research consultants on staff.
- Flexibility – One of the trends in the industry over the past several years has been the move toward more agile approaches. Instead of doing one big survey, it can be more cost-effective and productive to break it up into a series of sequential smaller, faster studies, with each small component “learning” from the prior component.
Doing More with Less with Tech
Over the past ten years, the digital revolution has changed the market research industry fundamentally. The challenge for corporations is less about getting new data, but rather about how to make the best business decisions from diverse streams of data, where customers and employees now prefer to engage (e.g. social media data, online search data, mobile location data).
By leveraging automation platforms, every single department and employee can make business decisions led and backed by data
This kind of “multi-channel listening” has been an ongoing challenge. The questions are now: how to use all these diverse data streams, and what role new survey data needs to play within vast sets of operational data. These challenges are both technical and organizational:
- Some organizations have tried to build data lakes that bring all these streams together in one place that can be analyzed together. This has proven to be a major technical challenge, made more difficult by a lack of vision about the strategic objectives.
- Experience management platforms present a solution to this challenge, as they are able to democratize data, run advanced analytics, display key insights, all in one centralized location.
- New data analytics departments have been created, but one could argue that “insights” is not the job of just one department anymore, given all the critical data being generated elsewhere in the company – insights is the job of the entire organization.
- By leveraging automation platforms, every single department and employee at an organization can make business decisions led and backed by data, allowing improvements to move faster and more efficiently.
Rather than think about these structural changes that have been compounded by the pandemic-based recession as the “beginning of the end” of market research as we’ve known it, we would be better off thinking of it as the “end of the beginning” phase of the industry. The new phase still uses some of what has come before but requires new skill sets in terms of technological prowess, “hard skills” like data science, and “soft skills” like storytelling. More difficult will be adjusting attitudes about creativity, agility, and thinking about how to find the right data set (or sets) to drive action, not just insights as an end to itself.
To read more about the history of the market research industry and where it’s going next, download Market Research in 2020: The Year That Changed Everything.
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