Has big data made market research redundant?
Is MR now surplus to requirements? Or is the belief that big data can answer every business question misguided? Alex Chruszcz, Justin Sampson, Morag Blazey and Colin Strong went head-to-head to debate the issues last night at the House of Commons.
Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, and you’ll never convince a room full of market researchers that big data will make their role redundant - despite an informed and impassioned appeal to common sense by Alex Chruszcz, head of insight and pricing at Asda.
Chruszcz was one of four speakers invited along to The Debating Group event in Committee Room 12 of the House of Commons last night to argue the motion: “Big data has made market research redundant”.
Chruszcz spoke for the motion – not, he said, because he believes market research lacks value. On the contrary, Chruszcz explained that data analysts and market researchers sit “side-by-side within Asda, working on projects together”. His budget is split 50/50. “I know that we get better insight by combining big data and market research.”
“Chruszcz said he is fighting ‘a losing battle’ to convince senior executives that both sources of information provide equal value to the organisation”
But Chruszcz said he is fighting “a losing battle” to convince senior executives that both sources of information provide equal value to the organisation. “What they hear is that big data can drive much more profitable commercial decisions.”
Opposing the motion would be wishful thinking, said Chruszcz. “Big data is making market research more redundant by being more useful and powerful.”
Big data is more plentiful too. “On any given day, my team are processing a billion points of data,” said Chruszcz. By pulling together all the sales and customer data, supply chain information, and weather and complaints data, “you get the what, when, how and who”, he said.
We still need to know the answer to ‘why’ though, said Chruszcz. Without ‘why’, all the other data is useless. And yes, for now, market research provides the why – but Chruszcz’s argument is that it won’t be long before big data is able to answer that question too.
Dealing with complexity
That seems unlikely, according to Justin Sampson, chief executive of Barb – the TV ratings body – speaking against the motion. Big data, by itself, struggles with the social nature of life, and the context in which events take place. “Facebook can track all your interactions with different people, but it can’t assign a value to those interactions,” Sampson said.
“Blazey’s argument is that data are facts – things that happened; things that can’t be argued with. And yet facts don’t always reflect the reality of the situation”
Asking people remains the best way to understand these aspects of human existence. But, said Morag Blazey, CEO of Ebiquity, speaking for the motion, the basic act of asking someone something automatically alters their response.
Blazey’s argument is that data are facts – things that happened; things that can’t be argued with. And yet facts don’t always reflect the reality of the situation, said Jane Williams, an independent consultant, speaking from the committee room floor in opposition to the motion.
Williams gave the example of the “sloppy shopper” – a segment of consumers who will happily buy an alternative brand if their usual one isn’t available. From the data alone, how would a brand owner know whether this was a regular purchase, an alternative purchase, or the start of a new, long-term brand relationship?
Depths of understanding
It falls to market researchers to pull together data from various sources to answer the type of question that was posed above. Indeed, Colin Strong, managing director of GfK Technology UK – who was speaking against the motion on the panel – made the point that big data is but another tool in the market research repertoire.
“MR is a pretty broad church,” he said, pointing to the Wikipedia definition: “Market research is any organised effort to gather information about target markets or customers.”
Big data fits that description – and it’s not rocket science, Strong said. “We can do it, and we can do a better job than the data scientists,” he said - adding that data scientists just “don’t understand consumers”.
“There is no discussion; no argument,” Strong said. “Big data is a resource that we will want to use.” And rather than making market research redundant, it will instead “reinvigorate the market research industry”.
The motion was opposed.
There was a lot of future-facing discussion last night – of what market research and big data will or won’t do – for a debate that was meant to be grounded in the present.
“Big data has made market research redundant,” was the motion, and it was right that it was opposed. As Alex Chruszcz argued, big data hasn’t yet done away with the need for market research. Maybe it’s starting to, and maybe it will do one day. But as of now, big data has not made market research redundant. And there were enough points raised last night to make you question whether it ever will.
Indeed, Morag Blazey did not envisage a future where research would be made completely surplus to requirements, despite speaking in favour of the motion. “Market research will shrink and morph and end up as a bijou niche within data-driven companies,” she said.
“Maybe it’s starting to, and maybe it will do one day. But as of now, big data has not made market research redundant”
In some respects, you could argue that’s already happening. I recently visited Ticketmaster to find out more about their insight team (and wrote about it for Impact Magazine). Ticketmaster does a huge amount of work with transactional data – it has 11m individual customer records within its database – and out of 39 people in the insight team, only two are dedicated market researchers. But while few in number, it was made clear to me that these researchers make an integral contribution to the work of the division.
Within Ticketmaster, market research happily co-exists with big data. The same is true for a business like Tesco. As Justin Sampson pointed out, Tesco has become one of the great British business success stories of recent years thanks to its investment in data and insight through the Clubcard loyalty scheme, managed by Dunnhumby. Tesco loved Dunnhumby so much that it bought the business outright. And yet it still spends a sizeable sum on market research every year.
Then there are examples like Google – the archetypal data-driven company – which has endless streams of big, behavioural data available to it, yet still sees the need for a market insights team.
And finally there is Twitter, a company that should – in theory – know everything about their users’ wants needs and wishes simply by monitoring what people are saying about them on their own service. So would it surprise you to learn that Twitter is currently recruiting users to take part in an online research community?
The Debating Group debate was sponsored by the Market Research Society. The debate was chaired by Nadhim Zahawi MP, the former CEO of YouGov. A calendar of Debating Group events is online at debatinggroup.org.uk