In one of the keynote speaker sessions at the recent 2011 Market Research Association Annual Conference, in Washington DC, a delightfully loud and dynamic banter went between Marshall Toplansky from Core Strategies and Bill Neal from SDR Consulting trying to answer questions such as:
Is marketing research really able to deliver on the critical needs of today’s (and tomorrow’s) enterprise?
Most of the discussion revolved around the pros and cons of using social media in market research. Toplansky focused on the need for a real-time flow of data, which social media can provide, while Neal called researchers to be the voice of the customer and make sure the data we gather, no matter the channel, represents the target market.
According to Toplansky, the type of information the traditional market research provides is irrelevant to decision makers. Big corporations, which are responsible for 85% of the market research expenditure, are funding real-time, continuous flow of information on which they can make decisions on (e.g. lead generation, sales, promotions, competitors’ impact, etc.), which has been made possible by technology. For Toplansky, it is about harnessing technology and providing daily information at a cost that is equivalent to years of doing tracking research.
Neal, on the other hand, argued that our role as researchers is to find out what is going on in the market place and why. According to Neal, the” why” is not being addressed by the new technology. He is also an ardent supporter of sample representativeness. No matter how large the amount of information we may be able to collect via social media, we always have to ask if it is representative of our target market, which Neal claims, it is unlikely to be.
Our role as market researchers is, said Neal, to be the voice of the customer, but unfortunately market researchers don’t have a place in the C-suite. Most researchers work for the CMO, but the money is managed by the CFO. This is often reflected in research guided by the “I have to have it now” mentality which often leads company astray. Unfortunately, the people who are users of consumer data are not able to judge its quality, said Neal. Corporate researchers have to act as the guardians of data quality.
For Toplansky, representativeness is more about finding consumers who are engaged with a particular brand or product category than demographic representation of the population. Companies don’t care about the general population, but about the consumers who will buy their products.
Since many companies are run quarter to quarter, argued Toplansky, it is about building the business around empirically read mass observations, and correlating sales numbers, channel-through sales numbers and other relevant metrics. The reason we are not in the C-suite, said Toplansky, is because researchers don’t speak that financial language. We fail to translate consumers’ preferences and understanding into a continuous flow of data needed for decision making.
For Toplansky, traditional market research is too slow and expensive, so finance managers default to the information they have at hand under the mantra that “some data is better than no data,” and “it doesn’t have to be perfect.” This attitude is very detrimental to the perceived value of the market research function.
Although both speakers sounded like coming from opposite points of views, I found that their arguments complemented each other:
- Social media can provide invaluable consumer data, but we need to make sure that what we hear in social media represents our target market, that is the consumers we are after, which may or may not be representative of the general population.
- Social media research can be a source of valuable insights to explain the results from traditional research and even help to design better data collection tools (i.e. surveys, discussion guides, IDIs).
- Social media can help to explain the “why” behind sales and market share data. This requires better text analytics tools that allow us to dig deeper in the content provided by social media.
- Triangulation of different data sources, including social media, is needed to translate consumer research into financial terms and increase market research’s predictive power. There is not a research method that can do this on its own.
- Market researchers need to find ways to provide more timely and relevant information to support decision making.
- Market researchers would benefit from learning more about marketing and the company’s financials to be able to make market research more actionable.
In my view, the market research industry has not missed the train. The train has just arrived and we are all trying to figure out how to hop onto the wagon without leaving valuable knowledge behind at the same time as we inspect how this new train works and where it can take us.