Market research in today's climate is a complex business. The internet and rise of social media have resulted in a proliferation of data, consumer comment, opinion and brand interaction. Sifting through data, no matter what the source, to determine genuine insight requires new methodologies and intellectual rigour - and all this at a time when marketing budgets are under pressure.
So the research community's role is expanding with new techniques and tools to help marketers understand consumer behaviour, allowing them to work as genuine partners with clients. This means priorities are changing as brands and businesses meet the challenge of collecting, measuring and acting on market research to get closer to their consumers - affecting both qualitative and quantitative research.
However, despite the complexity of the environment, clear answers and insight can be gleaned with the right planning and application, helping businesses grow and develop.
What is the current state of the research market and what has changed in the past 12 months?
Matthew Sell, managing director, Northstar Research We are in a transition phase. We've gone from a clearly defined group of market researchers to a group of insight professionals. There is a step-change in our perceived value. Insight helped us puff out our collective chest: we became more relevant, more contemporary, more engaging, but we've done a pretty bad job of protecting that label and there's insight fatigue.
Roger Sant, vice-president, Maritz Research Europe I feel we could refer to a transition at any point in the past five or 10 years. The technology revolution and the economic climate are having a big impact. Customer experience is playing a more important role in brand image.
Carol-Ann Morgan, director, B2B International A lot of our clients are thinking very seriously about the customer experience because loyalty is so important. Customers can be a long way down the line in B2B and now they have become a boardroom consideration. Budgets are squeezed; there are new methods, and a lot of clients are uncertain as to what the methods deliver. You have to put that into a language that means your clients see the value they will get.
Izzy Pugh, director, cultural insights and creative, Added Value I have had two big declarations from clients in the past year. One was: 'We're not going to do any more focus groups.' I think that was a plea for more inspiring insight. His feeling was that the focus group was not an experience, but a process. Focus groups do play an important role, but I agree with the challenge: we want insight, but also inspiration.
Morgan:The focus group always has an element of post-justification behaviour; it's subject to dissonance theory where we rationalise what we've done to make it seem OK, whereas if you experience or watch the behaviour, it may be quite different from the way it's recounted.
Is the focus group also skewed by members who have an influence on the opinions of others?
Pugh: Sometimes in a group, one person says they like a thing that everyone else doesn't like - and then everyone decides that actually they do like it, depending on the strength of that individual.
Morgan: I don't think you see that so much now - people are more confident generally. Focus groups are very popular in B2B. For a lot of our clients, it's the only time they ever hear a customer. They are often people in very senior, decision-making roles and to hear things from (the customer's) perspective live is powerful. But do you want qualitative insights or measurement? There's no point of a focus group if you want measurement.
Pugh: The other provocative declaration that came from a client was: 'Facebook and Google will make all of you redundant.' I have heard this a lot, particularly this year. People say they've got all the data and own all the data now. So what we deliver can no longer be the data - we've got to be able to do something else. But it's a matter of 'how' - and that's not new. The world has gone online, but it's not necessarily that different - it's just in a different place.
Sell: We have to get smarter at protecting our ideas once they're delivered to an organisation. Historically, the presentation to the client has been the end. For us to add value, we have to make it very easy for the client to replicate, communicate and inculcate that finding into their organisation.
Morgan: The traditional research agency was about producing data, and then consultants delivered insights, often in the absence of data. The new hybrid is the combination of the two - the successful agencies combine those two and work with clients to develop methodologies.
So do clients want you to represent yourselves better and deliver insight and data together?
Sant: Clients have wanted that for many years, and generally we are good at that. It's about helping them communicate that internally; helping them make it noticeable and take action on it.
Morgan: CNN has done a consumer segmentation. The way it's presented on the website - and, presumably, how it was presented internally - is really innovative. Research agencies have to increasingly work with media agencies because they have the capability to turn the insights into interactive communicative tools that can bring a segmentation to life.
Sant: It even works in large customer-satisfaction tracking: we take videos now of people who've done well, the top 10% talking about what they've done to create that level of customer engagement. And then the hard part is interviewing the branch managers or dealership managers who are at the bottom 10% talking about why they think they are there. It has real communicative value.
Pugh: From the very beginning of the research process, make it an event. Even if people in the business aren't part of it, they will want to be part of it and will talk about it.
What are the big changes in consumer behaviour? Are these affecting clients and what can they do about it?
Sant: The way people make decisions has changed; the purchase funnel is no longer relevant. You do need awareness and interest, but it's not a funnel any more - people go a certain way down the line, then look online and their consideration will expand again, then it might contract. The way brands move in and out of consideration along the journey is completely different.
Sell: If you want to use the funnel as a construct to help deliver some information, that's fine, but it's not an accurate representation of what's going on any more.
Morgan: Consumer behaviour is quite tricky at the moment because there's a real age-adoption curve going on. Different segments behave in very different ways. You saw this with online check-in for the airlines: the biggest spenders on holidays are the 'grey pound', and a lot of them aren't on the internet. You almost need an offering for the different channels to market.
Is there a point where you can get too much information from the consumer?
Sant: Social media is useful as an early warning system if you have an issue. You can also enrich a problem with examples and get more emotional content. But while people talk about the positives of going viral, the negatives also go viral, and that doesn't mean they're representative. For example, the United Breaks Guitars (protest song and video, made available on YouTube and iTunes in 2009) - it doesn't mean the airline has got a serious problem in baggage handling, all it shows is that someone made a clever video.
Morgan: Research is systematic, but social media is a skewed audience. For example, when the government talked about abolishing child benefit for high-earners, from the blogs and the papers you would believe the country was against it. But then the poll stats showed about 90% of the country were in favour of this action. Social media monitoring is qualitative, not quantitative; it raises issues, but it doesn't measure them.
What about the tools that help you communicate with clients?
Sant: The global delivery systems for clients - one had 65,000 outlets across 55 countries - mean that any manager can now log on and find out what someone said about their experience within a week. We have become as much an IT company as a research company, delivering that global, immediate feedback.
Sell: We're becoming information chameleons; we sit there in the middle conducting information streams.
Pugh: It's about curating information, rather than gathering it.
Sell: Our business has been changed from the bottom up. People at the lowest level, who historically have offered the least intellectual value, now have the best combination of skills.
Morgan: Everyone talks about how (young) people can't spell, but they don't talk about what they can do. Graduates can change your business - the skills they bring are incredible.
So how do you see the next 12 months?
Pugh: I'd like to get more briefs to help clients understand their consumer in the cultural context, to see how the world is changing and live that change.
Morgan: Research will increasingly be blurred with media. I'd like to see research implemented at a strategic level so it works for the business.
Carol-Ann Morgan, director, B2B International
Izzy Pugh, director, cultural insight and creative, Added Value
Roger Sant, vice-president, Maritz Research Europe
Matthew Sell, managing director, Northstar Research
Philip Smith, head of content solutions, Marketing, Brand Republic Group, and chair
TIPS FOR MARKETERS FROM THE RESEARCH COMMUNITY
Look at the wider world consumers are living in; don't just talk to them, observe them and what's going on around them.
Think of social media activity as both brand relationship-building and research. Don't just be outside looking in; be part of it.
Break down company departmental silos so that everyone talks to each other to deliver a consistent customer experience.
Plan with your research. Ensure that all data captured - social media, questionnaires, complaints, etc - is structured in the same way so it can be accurately compared. Pick common categories that apply across all data so you can simplify it from all sources.
Recognise the difference between online conversations, viral activity and endemic service problems. Clever virals can gain momentum - this isn't proof of the severity of a problem, it is a PR issue.
Use your research agencies and partners to help you manage data to avoid data overload.