The Myth of Market Research’s Failure

I am a professional market researcher and proud of it. The biggest value our firm offers is well-crafted, custom designed studies focused on helping clients make better business decisions. We are not one of the biggest market research companies, but we compete with the best of them by bringing senior level experience and marketing knowledge to our work.

That’s why it pains me to read pronouncements of the demise of traditional market research. Every week seems to bring a new declaration of the death of the focus group, survey or IDI, in favor of new approaches.

There’s nothing wrong with getting excited about the potential of technology to grow the size of our MR tool box. We were among the first to leverage online focus groups and we have a research community.  But embracing new tools doesn’t make the old tools irrelevant. It also doesn’t diminish the importance of the professional researcher.

I firmly believe that who is drawing the research blueprints and doing the carpentering matters far more than the tools.

An article appeared today titled “The Myth of Market Research’s Failure” on the blog. I wish I had written it. Here are some of the ideas that grabbed me the most.

“I strongly believe that good experienced, senior researchers can – in most markets – answer 70% of the key marketing questions of 70% of major research clients by means of a research programm consisting of not more than a few focus groups, a reasonable sized survey and access to some sales, retail or media trend data.”

“There is an “if” of course – and this is sometimes a big if – they need to allocate enough time and thought to carefully design the study and analyse the results. This does not mean I am not a believer in many of the new MR methods, particularly some of the new neuroscience, customer panel and online qualitative approaches — let us ‘seniors’ incorporate some of those into the research program and my success estimate goes up to 80 or 90%! The core point I want to make though is that any systemic “failure” of market research is a failure to apply brainpower and thinking time – not primarily a failure of techniques. Too often, as an industry, we seem very ready to accept the hyped pronouncements that we simply cannot measure “emotion”, or “value” or be “predictive” and hence the need to abandon all our old ways and move holus-bolus to new methods. (Nigel Hollis’ recent post on why conventional research can – usually – measure and predict value offers useful light in this context: Let me repeat – I’m a huge fan of the new MR methods that are coming on-stream at the moment. But I’m also convinced that the big competitive advantage for most market research companies lies in addressing some quite basic faults in research practices. Faults in how we deploy two of our key resources:  brains and time.”

– – David McCallum and Alistair Gordon,  Gordon & McCallum

That’s strong stuff, and I wholeheartedly agree with Gordon and McCallum. In my experience, the problem with conventional research has little to do with the tools, and everything to do with failure to bring imagination and focus to the design, analysis and delivery of insights.

We have seen too many 200-page reports that outline every possible cut and permutation of the data yet leave the reader no more enlightened than she was before. Good analysis requires thinking about what to leave out as much as what to put in. It’s not about the volume of data, it’s about the clarity of the insight. Averages rarely reveal what is really going on. The real insights come from kicking the data, hard, until it yields a coherent narrative that can inspire new ideas and confident business decisions.