The new market research professional
Last week, I attended the MRS Conference, which this year was headlined ‘The Shock of the New: Managing change through the application of insight, data, technology and creativity’.
As the headline suggests, the conference focused predominantly on the changes happening within and around the market research industry, such as the advent of Big Data, the emergence of new technologies and the changing consumer landscape.
The list of attendees, which included ad planners, marketing directors and journalists, was testament to the increasingly far-reaching interest in and impact of market research.
Market research is no longer confined to ‘traditional’ agencies carrying out quantitative surveys or qualitative focus groups.
The definition of market research and boundaries between who is working within the sector have become blurred.
As we have previously discussed within this blog, surveys and focus groups now exist as just one tool in the research tool-kit. The increasing amount of data generated by consumers, brands and news sources, both passively and actively, has provided researchers with multitude of rich sources of insight. Furthermore, there are an increasing number of software packages and other tools available to researchers with which to access and utilise these data sources.
The emergence of new technologies and increased use of social media means that there are new ways for researchers to better understand consumers. Researchers can observe behaviour and monitor attitudes expressed (relatively) spontaneously and often in real-time.
Big data and social media give researchers access to data more representative of System 1 thinking (fast, emotional and automatic) than ever before. However, I must reiterate that the information shared and produced within social media is not produced passively – a topic I have previously explored here.
All of these changes represent new opportunities for researchers, but also bring with them many challenges. As I have argued before, the more data a researcher has access to, the more reliant they are on their analysis and interpretation skills.
The skills now needed in the new market research landscape were discussed in-depth at the MRS conference during the talk titled ‘Skills debate: The new research professional’.
The key themes running throughout the discussion were flexibility and creativity.
Job descriptions for market researchers are changing. Indeed, those now drawing on or undertaking market research in their day-to-day role may not even classify themselves as market researchers.
Very few job descriptions follow the templates historically seen for quantitative and qualitative researchers. Instead, requirements vary greatly, with more emphasis on having a combination of skills. Many companies and agencies require those applying for a quantitative role to have knowledge of and exposure to qualitative methods and vice versa. Other skills are also asked for, such as exposure to social media monitoring tools, experience of content-creation, and of devising brand and marketing strategies.
This is partly to do with the fact that these specifications are no longer only coming from companies considered to be undertaking market research. Research conducted in-house by brands and other agencies is becoming more complex, drawing on data and information from more sources.
Furthermore, data generated within social media, for example, contains unstructured information relating to a variety of areas, such as customer service, marketing, public relations and consumer conversations. It is no longer adequate for researchers using this data to have specialist knowledge in just one of these fields.
The size and varying types of data and information now available to researchers means that they have to be comfortable analysing both quantitative and qualitative data. For example, social media can be looked at from both angles. The sheer volume of posts generated within social media lends itself to a quantitative analysis. However, social media can be thought of as a type of focus group on a global scale, with the need to also analyse discussions more qualitatively.
In fact, I would argue that researchers need to think qualitatively when looking at social media data – even when performing a quantitative analysis. Content generation on each social media channel is driven by different motivations. For example, why someone posts a status update on Facebook (and what they post) will obviously differ greatly to what and why they post on LinkedIn. Therefore, it is not enough to simply aggregate the volume of posts within social media; we need to also understand the context surrounding each post – as far as possible. This means considering the content of each post, rather than just looking at the level of ‘buzz’.
As well continually developing their practical skills, researchers also need to continually critique the theory behind the research they are carrying out. In addition to new data sources and software packages, market research is also witnessing the convergence of multiple systems of thought, drawing on theories and analytical models from fields such as behavioural economics and neuroscience.
The theme of creativity ran throughout much of the discussion. It was posited that researchers need to have a creative outlook in all areas, including how they think about research design, data-collection, analysis and presentation.
It was suggested that many research agencies are doing a good job of innovating their data-collection methodologies, but that there is a lack of innovation in the way findings are delivered back to clients. I believe innovation in delivery is crucial when the findings draw on an increasing number and type of sources.
Researchers need to work harder to think laterally and join up the dots between data sets, and there are many new ways in which findings can be presented back. Some agencies are now exploring different ways, including interactive websites, infographics and video diaries. An ability to deliver findings in these ways requires researchers to possess yet more skills.
Within the discussion around the delivery of findings, there was an emphasis on the story-telling abilities of the researcher. This included a focus on the impact on research; its ability to inspire people at all levels within business. The plethora of information now available to businesses means that researchers often have the task of simplifying complex data sets into a clear and compelling narrative that can easily be incorporated into strategic decision-making by people at multiple levels within multiple departments. It was said that research without impact is purely academic.
The rapid changes in and around the market research industry over the last few years are showing no sign of slowing down.
Unless researchers remain flexible and creative they may be left behind.
(image courtesy of Gabriel Rojas Hruska)