Market research is attempting to change from an interrogative discipline into one that is more conversational. Instead of asking questions that prove what they already know, canny marketers and their research partners are simply opening their ears to listen to what people are saying.
'Two changes have come to a head at the same time,' says Ray Poynter, managing director of The Future Place. 'The first - a slow-burning one - is that marketers, NPD, innovators, and even sales have been realising that the results of too much market research are slow, expensive, and lacking in the sort of insight that would enable them to make a real difference.
'The second change is that the conversations between customers have shifted from being ephemeral to being indelibly inscribed on the web.'
As most research by value currently being undertaken is quantitative, this raises interesting questions for marketers about how they shape their future approach.
'I don't think the market is necessarily changing directly from quantitative to qualitative techniques, but things such as social media do provide a more immediate temperature gauge and can act as the stimulus for traditional research,' says Katie Streten, head of strategy for the digital division of global branding agency Imagination.
Streten's company recently put this idea into practice by combining TNS data with social-media monitoring to create an outreach programme to bloggers in support of Ford's presence at the Frankfurt Motor Show.
Anna Cremin, head of research and consumer insight at cinema ad sales agency Pearl & Dean, echoes Streten's view. 'The popularity of social networking sites has meant market researchers are now in a prime position to open up two-way dialogue with consumers, who are becoming increasingly comfortable about sharing their experiences,' she says.
Some believe this has solved a long-standing problem for the research industry: while people love to give their opinion, they hate to answer questions.
Royal Mail's head of business intelligence, Sinead Jefferies, points out that customers can become frustrated with brands they feel are not listening to them. 'Companies tend to be led by what they want and their business concerns,' she says. 'However, you miss so much if you don't look at what customers want and what the burning issues are for them.'
The Royal Mail is taking account of this by setting up a customer-led online discussion forum. At the same time, it is also developing a tool to tie its social-media monitoring more closely to its customer satisfaction and experience tracking.
However, while people are talking online, clearly they do not always discuss what interests researchers or marketers.
'If you want to know what people are saying about Cadbury's "Gorilla" ad, for example, that's not a problem,' says Paul Edwards, UK chairman of TNS-RI. 'Yet, some things are simply not spontaneously talked about, and often brands need something that is a bit more directed.'
In response, his firm is exploring how respondents behave in a moderated online research environment.
Down to specifics
Similarly, while techniques such as buzz tracking and search-term analysis are gaining prominence, some believe that there are certain types of research that simply cannot be carried out unless customers are asked specific questions.
'Listening should absolutely be a part of the good researcher's toolbox, but there's just as much opportunity to waste money using these techniques if they are not handled well,' says Anna Cliffe, head of insight at ad agency Brahm.
As an example, she points to studies that test consumer reactions to NPD. 'We still need to use the traditional research techniques; it's just that listening or conversational research will be a bigger part of what we do in 2010.'
The web offers obvious advantages for listening to customers' concerns and ideas, but changes are also taking place in the offline world. These include a renewed interest in the first-hand observation and quizzing of respondents as they go about their daily lives.
In 2008, HSBC embraced this technique in an effort to understand its customers better, with a view to developing a range of products. 'We took away all our assumptions and went back to examining how customers live their lives,' says HSBC head of personal customers insight, Monique Hellel.
This involved accompanying volunteers for up to 15 hours as they went about their daily routine. It was supplemented by a series of interviews with people across different age ranges and demographics to assess their attitudes to the recession.
'We had no specific agenda, but it has helped us improve what we're doing and given us a really good repository of information about customers which we've been able to use on multiple occasions,' says Hellel. 'We've also been able to go back and repurpose and supplement the information.'
Similarly, Standard Life has recently embarked on a face-to-face project with research agency Nunwood, bringing internal stakeholders and potential customers together to co-create a range of saving products for young professionals.
'Over the past 12 to 18 months we've really started doing things in different ways to get over any potential disconnection between what our senior managers and what our customers believe,' says Standard Life's UK insight partner, Carol McCreadie.
Nonetheless, Ian Murray, managing partner of brand research consultancy Hall and Partners points to the tensions created by these ways of listening to people.
'Novel techniques and technological advances give us fresh scope to engage whatever groups we want to talk to and get rich content back quickly,' he says. 'However, quantitative research is not going away anywhere soon, as businesses still want robust, easy-to-digest, hard metrics to measure their return on investment and nail down their research to the bottom line.'
This situation is made all the more prevalent by the rise of procurement specialists, he adds.
However, as the lines between quantitative and qualitative methodologies blur, future research methods are already becoming apparent.
'If you look at online customer communities, where respondents increasingly expect to be able to give feedback on all aspects of a brand and its activities, it is now all about co-creation, with research blurring into brand experience and product development,' says Murray.
This is demonstrated by O2's online community Join In, where members, including non-customers, are encouraged to give their opinion on mobile phones, services and everyday topics in return for prizes such as iPod Nanos, concert tickets and Amazon vouchers.
As consumers become increasingly turned off by long, boring and often irrelevant questionnaires and, instead, share their views freely on chatrooms, review sites, social networks and face to face, so the world of market research is changing.
'The ways we go about collecting and collating information need to change, and insight departments need to become gatekeepers of all a company's information,' says Roger Sant, vice-president of research solutions at Maritz Research Europe.
'This means collecting and collating findings from all different sources and integrating them to uncover key themes, then distilling these down to core and consistent messages and communicating them effectively,' he adds.
One of the biggest complaints about market research is that much of it ends up unused.
Some organisations have a silo mentality meaning data is never shared. Others get locked into ongoing studies that lose their relevance over time as business objectives and the channels for communicating with customers change.
'There is a feeling in some organisations that you cannot give up on tracking studies, and that certain questions have to be asked in a certain way, because that's the way it's always been done,' says Mark Speed, joint managing director of IFF Research. 'Every so often, brands need to sit down and ask themselves why they are doing a particular piece of research and what they're going to do about the findings.'
In some cases, studies are commissioned even though almost identical research already exists within a company but has not been shared.
However, Chris Forbes, co-founder of web-based insight technology company, Insight Marketing Systems, says: 'Unless you have a systematic process for saving and reusing research, it is faster to go out and buy what you need, rather than think through how to use what you've already got.'
To stop research being wasted, organisations such as Royal Mail have set up internal online insight share points, allowing marketers and other decision-makers to access relevant information across the business.
'At the moment, we're also running a project where we've asked our research agency to conduct a review of everything we've done in that area and pull together a synopsis,' says Sinead Jefferies, Royal Mail's head of business intelligence.
However, Forbes warns that revisiting old data rarely provides all the answers to recent problems. 'The role of past research is not to replace fresh research, but help formulate questions that will generate insights for the organisation and help the research team become a source of real competitive advantage,' he says.
Brands need to reassess their research continuously to ensure that what is important to consumers is covered.
AVIVA: Listening to life stories
In 2008, Aviva's life and pensions business moved its research away from specific business questions to focus on better ways to understand customers.
'I wanted to drive genuine insight into the business, that would to go beyond traditional assumptions and not just reside within my insight team,' says Aviva marketing director Anne Filatotchev.
Working with Ipsos MORI, the financial-services company conducted focus groups, ethnographic research and in-depth interviews with consumers across the UK. The aim was to uncover how issues such as divorce, career breaks, starting a family, retirement and care responsibilities influenced their financial decision-making.
'We also looked at how people chose their provider and some of the barriers to becoming actively engaged in the industry,' adds Filatotchev.
To bring the project to life for those inside the business, the marketing and product teams also took part. 'A big finding for them was that we needed to talk a language consumers can engage with,' says Filatotchev. 'Meanwhile, we identified a need to empower our frontline call centre staff to be more empathetic and have more open conversations with people.'
The firm was able to segment its audiences around key life stages and develop a range of products. These include flexible pension options and the offer of 12 months' free life cover for new parents.