Candid Thoughts on Industry Trends & 2011 MRIA Conference
The Annual MRIA Conference was held this week in gorgeous Kelowna, BC, Canada. This was the third time I’ve been asked to participate in an MRIA event. This time as part of the final panel on industry trends and challenges entitled “The New Face of Marketing Research and Intelligence.”
Bermie Malinoff, CEO of element54, did a great job moderating the panel which was to consist of myself and Angus Reid, CEO of Vision Critical; Gary Bennewies, CEO of Ipsos Canada; and Donn Mills, CEO of Corporate Research Associates. Unfortunately, Angus’ private jet decompressurized in mid air and he was forced to return to Toronto. Sounded like a pretty cool excuse to me. I may use that one my self in the future . I was rather looking forward to meeting Angus and hearing his viewpoints as I understand we may share a few similar concerns in regard to our industry. However, Jean-Marc Leger, CEO of Leger Marketing, was good enough to step in on short notice and also had some very good points on where we are going and how to get there.
I’m not going to attempt to summarize the conference or even our panel session. I will however share some of my candid thoughts on a couple of the interesting questions raised by Bernie and the audience, even though we had an hour, we did move rather quickly across a wide range of topics.
How have client needs changed and how do we need to respond?
I think we all agree on the fact that clients tend to want insights faster. There’s also a desire for more DIY (Do It Yourself), in large part, I believe, because of a desire to control the speed and secondly cost of research. Many client side researchers seem to simply be asked to provide a lot more research projects, faster, and for less money. It’s becoming a volume game to some extent.
In regard to DIY Research, personally I don’t believe in fighting trends. This is part of the reason Anderson Analytics recently began our own software development effort (OdinText). I believe if researchers can put some of our tremendous domain knowledge into easy to use software we not only help our clients, but create something that is easier to scale and will have exponential value later.
As importantly, I believe many of our clients are being expected to and want to engage in more than traditional marketing research. Many already see the writing on the wall and understand that “insights” today really does mean a lot more than surveys and focus groups. By working with other data sources like CRM or web analytics, it becomes easier for them to measure ROI and move up the value chain in their organization, thereby avoiding the DIY “Do More with Less” cycle.
I think helping these clients climb the value chain in their organizations, by helping them understand how to leverage Big and Streaming Data are one of the best future strategies many researchers can focus on.
How do traditional research companies avoid becoming road kill?
This question was asked verbatim and it’s telling that many now seem to understand that probably well over half of the ‘research’ firms out there won’t be around 5-10 years from now. Evaluating our industry as it is currently using Porters Five Forces or any other method does not paint a pretty picture.
Other than looking beyond “research as usual” (focus groups and surveys), I do think all the firms in our industry, including mine, have a bit of a positioning problem. This is a problem you wouldn’t think market researchers who help other companies with positioning strategies constantly should have, but in fact we all say we do pretty much the same things!
This problem is even worse for some players like survey software firms who are not just competing with lower offshore labor in developing countries (allegedly offering the same quality service at 30% of the cost), no they are actually competing against completely free products like Zoomerang and Survey Monkey!
Most researchers you speak with will admit that over 90% of surveys can be conducted using one of these free tools. Clients certainly know it. Suppliers have been slower to adopt them on scale partly because they have been afraid to use free tools on client projects because it may question their value and pricing (same reason offshoring is not mentioned by those who engage in it).
However, several researchers I’ve talked to on the supplier side agree with what we’ve been seeing, most clients don’t care to see the details of the surveys (never mind know the source of sample for that matter). That means that more and more suppliers who have been willing to pay a lot more in some cases to use white label survey technology simply in order to make it look as if they have their own software running on their own domains (co. URL) will now start thinking a lot harder about the dollars they’re forking over for some rather high priced solutions which more or less do the exact same thing as the much cheaper or completely free options.
Whether a survey software provider and/or a panel provider, assuming these companies don’t want to become road kill, they will need to start thinking about adding features beyond what the free tools have (such as text analytics or other streams of data with analytics dashboards).
Just about all parts of full service research have now also become commoditized. Set aside the fact that almost anyone and everyone outside of research believes they can create a perfectly good survey themselves (especially true at more tech/engineering driven companies), even the last bastion of value, analytics is becoming a commodity.
What is the future of individual (CMRP, PRC) and corporate (ISO) certification?
From the outset, I’ve said that the ISO certification push driven by ESOMAR and more recently, very unsuccessfully by CASRO in the US, has had the intended purpose of further commoditizing the research process (from design to fielding and even analysis and reporting). Certification like ISO is the ultimate differentiation killer. More useful for factories where everyone follows the same recipe to get the same result (a 9 millimeter widget +/1mm).
It’s obvious why the ISO certification is being pursued. A highly un-proportionate amount of ESOMAR’s and CASRO’s income is from the “Honomichl” Top 5-10 research firms, almost all of which have had a quiet but ambitious offshoring (cost cutting) agenda. ISO certification would partially serve as a protective veil, allowing these companies to say “don’t worry about what’s being done, where, under what rule of law, etc., we’re following the same recipe, it’s the same quality everywhere.” Bullshit!
[If you agree with me check out FTO, a completely free organization founded on transparency]
I urge all researchers to carefully consider the benefits they receive from any trade organization and more importantly to question how their dues and donation of time are used. Ask, who really benefits from the initiatives being pursued, is it really your industry as a whole? I hope in the near future, research trade organizations (those that remain), will pay more attention to the “long tail” of their membership rather than focusing on just the top few firms.
As for individual certifications such as CMRP and PRC, it’s a bit tougher to disagree with as I do understand the underlying desire to create some barriers to entry and prestige in our profession. However, partly for the same reasons I had a problem with ISO, I tend to disagree with these certifications as well. I work hard to position myself and my firm and its members as better, much better, than the competition. If I were to seek such accreditation for myself or my co-workers, we would de facto be saying “look we’re just as good as EVERYONE else. We are AVERAGE.” Thus we would simply be further commoditizing the research that what we do.
Now if PRC and CMRP were only awarded to the top 1% brightest market research professionals, I might be among the first in line to take the exam! Unfortunately, we know that’s not going to happen… There’s no money to be made by the certifiers in such a certification scheme.
What is “Next Gen” Market Research?
Business needs, methodology, and technology are the three areas researchers need to build greater expertise in. Arguably, this is easier for the client side researcher who can reach out to forge relationships and mentors in other parts of their organizations than for supplier side researchers who are more specialized. Reverse mentoring (looking to learn from someone younger) or cross mentoring (sharing knowledge and data with those in other departments or professions) are two good strategies for development.
Importantly, the goal for all of us needs to be to resist further commoditization and cost cutting. Instead let’s increase the value of insights. I believe part of this will have to do with positioning.
We will never be able to convince the masses again that the skill of survey design is extremely valuable and warrants the investment of a lot of time and money. Certifications won’t help here. Instead look to your clients, clients, clients to really understand the information which is most valued. As you move in that direction you will help make your client more valuable. You may even see more opportunities to measure ROI of your work, assuming you are on the quantitative side. If you are on the qualitative side the goal will be greater creativity, more ‘marketing’ in both cases.
We need to become more than traditional researchers while retaining the methodological principles which have served us well for many years.
Dissenting views, research trade organizations and the MRIA
During the panel in Kelowna, I mentioned Dr. William MacElroy, Chairman at Socratic Technologies, Inc., who recently presented at The Tech Driven Market Research Event conference I took part in. His presentation was entitled “Are You Scared of Change?” and proved how the biggest firms in our industry have stifled innovation because it has been in their best interest to do so.
I want to say again what I said at the conference. I am very happy and impressed to see that the Canadian market researchers and their MRIA are progressive enough to allow and encourage active debate and dissention even on topics they may be pursuing. As always, it was a great pleasure to be with you this week.
Thank you again!
[Special thanks to Jeanette and Tony Hoft for managing the wonderful event. Below photographs courtesy of photographer George Dimitrov]