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I’ve worked in market research for over 40 years. It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that I am set in my ways and don’t like change. Actually, I am the opposite; I dislike people who are not open to change. However, I feel more comfortable about working in an industry with market researchers than I do in an industry of insights professionals.
There has been a steady move to call the market research industry the insights business. Something doesn’t feel quite right with this term to me. I find it hard to explain why, but I am going to try in this article and make my stand against this change.
My first issue is the implication that market research has grown from being ‘just doing market research’ to providing ‘real insights’. ‘Real insights’ is a term I have seen on PowerPoint slides and spoken in presentations on several occasions. To me, it intentionally or unintentionally takes the emphasis on collecting data and ensuring accuracy towards what is delivered. That’s fine and I can see why our business is sold that way because data is cheaper than it used to be, but quality and meticulous work are key components of what I believe to be market research.
My second issue is closely related to the last one, but I am in doubt that if a market researcher found something ‘insightful’ ten years ago, they would have told the client about this ‘insight’. So, what’s new? Haven’t market researchers always passed on as much knowledge as they can to fee paying clients?
I’m left wondering if it is all just a marketing exercise – a way to make market research sound better. Market research sounds passive, insights professional sounds active. That’s all fine, but marketing in 2019 is more and more about honesty rather than the ‘sell, sell, sell’ mentality of previous decades. In fact, at MRDC Software, we try to tell potential customers what we don’t do well as much as what we do well. Why? Because it makes us more credible. More and more successful companies are working this well. So, why do companies claim to provide ‘insights’ if their main business is conducting ‘market research’.
In my view, to be credible ‘insight professionals’, agencies need to have client-facing experts who understand business and, almost certainly, the particular sector they are researching in sufficient depth to not only understand these ‘insights’, but to know whether they are of any value.
Let’s wind back a bit now. What is an insight? The Oxford Dictionary helpfully defines it as:
The capacity to gain an accurate and deep understanding of someone or something. An accurate and deep understanding.
An insight to me is something that gives the buyer some information or business advantage that they wouldn’t otherwise know. I suppose an element of surprise. Does market research really do this? Surely, some surveys are valuable because they confirm what everyone thought – there are no insights! And, most importantly, are most market researchers equipped to know what will improve a client’s business?
Maybe, it comes down to whether insights professionals are conducting projects or acting as business consultants. I truly believe that for years some market researchers have been highly effective business consultants – long before insights professional was even thought of. This has tended to be on long term, tracking type projects where the market researcher has had the experience and time to absorb himself or herself in what their research means to the business. But, and it’s a big but, much of the market research carried out is a project. Once it is carried, delivered and reported, that is the end of it. It is not the beginning of some long-term business consultancy service.
A high percentage of research is carried out with tight margins, competitive tendering and too little time and money to spend days or even hours looking for insights. Again, I am not talking about every project and every researcher, but most projects.
With the ability to crunch big numbers and real transactions, much of the insight business is in the hands of data scientists as they are called. A supermarket chain recently learnt that if it put beer near the baby section that it could sell more beer. Why? Because babies mean less nights out, meaning for some that an extra beer or two in the fridge was useful. Big data produced this genuine insight; I doubt market research could find it.
I’ve already mentioned current thinking in marketing. I’ll go one step further. When websites first appeared in any numbers, it was fashionable to list all the services you supplied – some still do this. Modern marketing tells us that saying why you do something and what you excel in is more important. Claiming to be experts in ten things is simply not credible unless you are a huge multinational – and, even then, it is dubious.
I would like market research as an industry to market what it does do well and for each company to show off its specialist skills. That needn’t be selling insights. It might just be collecting data accurately, offering practical ways to deliver data or making it more accessible to clients.
One reason for the change of focus from ‘market research’ to ‘insights’ is the need to distance ourselves from the non-experts. Students with no knowledge of market research can carry out a survey using Surveymonkey or one of the free platforms and reports some data. Should we feel threatened by that as an industry? Well, if we do, we should give up because I see it as a benefit rather than a threat.
The reason that it is a benefit is simply that it increases the awareness and value of surveys as a tool in business. This leads to a greater chance for good market researchers to show what they offer over and above someone with no experience. If we can become teachers, our business will grow not be threatened.
In today’s world, access to data is high on my list. If I want to know something, information is usually available whether it is football scores or the ridiculous rate my bank will charge for a currency transfer. Market research needs to do the same. As an industry, it was one of the first at being good at providing data. Now, others have overtaken market research in terms of data delivery as it is a smaller industry than others. However, let’s make sure we are good data provision professionals and make our accurate market research data available as easily as possible. That’s my goal.