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10 predictions for the future of market research

17 Mar 2016  |  Adele Gritten 
10 predictions for the future of market research

From the rise of life-logging and AI, to the death of the brief, Adele Gritten continues our season looking at the future of research.

One of the most impactful sessions at the annual MRS conference this month was delivered by Stan Sthanunathan - SVP consumer & market insights at Unilever.

Sthanunathan outlined 10 commandments as a must for the research industry, as well as 10 predictions about the future of the craft. The latter is what sparked my interest, not least as an expansion of some of the issues discussed during the Future of Media Research debate in February - including end of the polymath, the rise of the 'data artist' and a host of other trends.

Continuing that discussion, here is my analysis of Sthanunathan's own predictions.

1. Nerds rule

Sthanunathan predicts that nerds will rule the market research agenda. We all know that there is a shortage of high end data analytics people in our industry, people with top notch science and maths backgrounds. Finding these people spontaneously will become an increasing challenge, as the UK continues to fall behind other nations in the OECD's global school rankings.

2. Technology is the tail that wags the dog

Sthanunathan showed us a clip of a beggar no longer just asking for small change, but approaching potential donors in a very well prepared manner, i.e. with his very own card reader. Increasingly, even those at the poorest end of the spectrum will be using technology as a marked form of empowerment able to transform their lives.

3. Boutiques will flourish

I touched on this at the Future of Media Research debate back in February. Global survey research in particular is still very expensive, as traditional market research companies operate a patchwork of legacy systems.

Inefficient structures mean they struggle with being able to offer the price points markets will bear. This is giving rise to the small boutiques, consultancies and research tech solution provider specialists.

I fear for the mid-market sized agencies in this context. How do they convincingly compete with the big boys but show enough nimbleness, agility and price point sensitivity to compete in what is increasingly a two tier (expensive research vs. cheap research) market?

4. The problem of scale

Leading on from my own views, Sthanunathan also suggests scale will become a liability moving forwards - both in terms of sample sizes and agency structures, with larger sizes preventing agility.

I hypothesise that more detailed exploration of individual research participants via longitudinal tracking (behavioural and attitudinal) of their customer journeys in different categories will dominate the requests of the future.

Depth vs. breadth of sample will become key, as data per se becomes ubiquitous meaning a lesser need for proprietary surveys. (Gavin Patterson, CEO of BT, mentioned how ubiquity of data has grown exponentially by 50% year on year over the past 15 years).

5. The rise of 'integrators'

Essentially, 'integrators' are tools, processes and systems that integrate data from multiple and disparate sources to help to make analysis and comprehension of data easier.

For sure, the continued trend towards quick analysis and decision making based on mining existing data sources is not going away. Any companies providing software or services to synthesise, aggregate and take away the numerous manual and labour intensive tasks that researchers find themselves doing is welcome.

6. The 'quantified self' will become integral to research

This is where the body itself becomes a rich source of data about people, whether that's obtained via smart watches, fit bands, smart glasses etc.

Known as 'life-logging' in some quarters, increasingly research will be able to incorporate technology on or in the body to analyse people's moods and physical performance.

This has huge implications for media research audience measurement in the future. Whilst portable people meters are not at all new to our industry, the ease and unobtrusive ways in which people can be observed and monitored via technology moving forwards means we need to be thinking about more radical ways of data capture.

The death of the 30 minute survey is nigh, as is a reliance on claimed media behaviours when so much actual behavioural data exists.

7. AI will take over

Whilst I do not agree that Armageddon is yet nigh, given that all industries are becoming so automated - whether that's programmatic in the media world or bots performing operations in the medical world, the role for human labour and human contribution to society is changing rapidly.

The answer? We all need to get techy, upskill and find new ways of providing value and worth in a world where the non-humans increasingly out-smart us.

8. 'I have the answer, what is your question?'

Sthanunathan argues that doing things back-to-front will be the starting point for accessing and making sense of research and data in future. In other words, data deluge in most instances means that the answer (or a very good, indicative approximation of reality) to our questions already exist, whether that's what ice-cream flavour people of a certain demographic ate last summer to what programmes will people be watching this evening.

This all requires a mindset shift in terms of how we frame business problems and unearth gems of insight in a model where the starting point is always using data we have rather than thinking about having to collect it.

9. The death of the brief

In the future, no longer will clients write lengthy briefs, agencies respond days later with a proposal and the whole process from project commission to end results taking months by which time the original project stakeholders have forgotten they even asked for the research in the first place.

10. Increasingly fast insight

This commentary fed into his 10th prediction about insight being available in hours, not days or weeks. This has long since been happening in MR, with real time data available via daily dashboard for Brand Tracking and Customer Experience feedback work in particular, for example.

It has also long since been the case for PR led work and political polling, i.e. many agencies make their money on the speed and immediacy of data they can provide.

10 predictions aside, what's certain is a continued acceleration of technological change and pressure on existing business models as markets and consumers become global.

The research agencies of the future will be quite different beasts to the ones we see today and who have dominated the past 20+ years. The industry behemoths must be aware that there are plenty of small, nimble and agile players increasingly wanting a slice of the pie.

We've not yet see our equivalent of a Facebook, Google, Uber or Airbnb in the media research world but I'm sure there's at least one there in the wings, waiting to disrupt and do things differently in the 'PIMP' (Post Innovation Market Paradigm) economy.


Adele Gritten is an independent research consultant.

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