FEATURE1 January 2010

All together now

Social media has allowed friends and communities of interest to come together. Can the same technologies – and attitudes – bring about a similar revolution among research practitioners?


Imagine you’d completed a research study into a hard-to-reach demographic, covering 12,000 individuals across Europe. The study offers a definitive analysis of 18 key drivers for men aged 25 to 39. A big deal, then, and one that ought to give you a real competitive advantage in a critical market space.

Then you give it away.

That’s precisely what Discovery Channel has done with its Species project, an investigation into the motivations and lifestyles of young men. The company has teamed up with Nesta – the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts – and innovation agency Sense Worldwide to open up the research for use by a range of brands looking to address this key market.

“We’re happy to share Species,” says Claire O’Connor, director for research, insights and innovation at Discovery EMEA, “because by opening it up to other brands and tapping into their own insights, we can keep it alive and build on it. We understand the challenges that other brands face with this demographic – and we can see what partnerships might take place around it.”

While collaboration between different brands on research projects is nothing new, what has changed is the way it’s done – and why. In the Species project, for example, the insights the team developed are being made available to other brands using a social media platform developed by Sense called FYI.

“It means For Your Inspiration,” says Sense’s founder Jeremy Brown. “Look at how much research gets produced, then compare that with how much is actually used. We figured we could do something about it – by re-invigorating existing research. Rather than allowing all that hard work to stagnate, you can use FYI to layer new insights and data on top of it. Over time you build up a deeper, cumulative understanding about a subject.”

FYI users can access the research, analyse the data in different ways and draw on the existing insights already in the system. In return they add data and feed in softer inputs – like web pages and news articles – which are tagged to associate them with different aspects of the research. The platform also works as a social media site, allowing users to communicate with each other and discuss the insights.

It’s already been successfully put to use inside Discovery Channel, where O’Connor and her colleagues incentivise staff to contribute material. “We run tag leagues both in local territory offices and between countries, encouraging people to compete over the number of relevant articles they add to the system,’ she says. “We want everyone to be part of it, not just marketers.”

Sense has brought in a series of other brands to create innovation workshops around aspects of the research. Companies like Boots, Diageo, Johnson & Johnson, Lloyds TSB and Samsung have been invited to add their own research and insights to the system, allowing them to spot potential avenues for collaboration – on further research, promotional activity and even, Brown hopes, full-blown joint ventures.

A new openness?
The social media paradigm is key to the Species project. And it’s the technology – web-based, interactive, open, accessible – that is propelling collaboration projects across the industry.

That’s certainly the experience of Caroline Walker, international director at Nunwood, who’s been working on a Vodafone user-tracking study spanning 21 countries. Research International handles all the fieldwork – but other agencies, like Nunwood, do the analytical side.

“The technology has been critical,” Walker says. “We use knowledge management systems with most clients, but we adapted it in this case to create a hub – an online portal where we can all share data, reports, presentations and communicate with each other. That’s a major plus – if only because it means we avoid the usual nightmare of email chains.”

The client retains a degree of control – it can compartmentalise the hub, for example, limiting access to certain data and ring-fencing geographies. But the power of the system is its openness. “A key part of it is ensuring all the agencies working on the project can communicate – it’s a bit like a set of blogs or a forum,” says Walker. “And on top of all that, there’s project management functionality.”

“Real insight comes through emotion, intuition and creativity – so clients are rightly challenging us to use modern social media technologies”

Mike Cooke, GfK NOP

That question of outputs sits at the heart of the debate. “Real insight comes through emotion, intuition and creativity – so clients are rightly challenging us to use modern social media technologies, taking our skills online so that they’re less constrained by time and location,” says Mike Cooke, global director for online development at GfK NOP. “For example, we use a tool called Base Camp and wikis for a lot of our work. That kind of collaborative technology is embedded for us on a day-to-day basis.”

Having a strong focal point – usually the client – is the key for large, formal collaborations. With Sense’s FYI work, that comes from Species. “Having a strong, sizeable piece of research at the centre of the project is critical,” says Brown. “The problem with many innovation projects is that there’s a tendency to forget who the end user is. Having a cornerstone in what is, in this case, a uniquely comprehensive research project directed around the end user makes a huge difference.”

The recent announcement that Nielsen and Information Resources (IRI) will share back-end consumer panel resources through a joint venture company – cutting costs for clients – shows that collaboration can work on a purely economic level, too. “This is about reallocating resources in places that serve the industry, and allowing us to compete more openly and raise our innovation agenda,” Nielsen’s senior VP for North American product leadership Rob Holland told Research in August.

Change from the bottom up
Organisations nervous about openness or collaborating with what they might see as rivals could be fighting a losing battle. Social media means individual researchers can create their own collaborative networks across the industry.

“There will be people who realise what’s going on and people who won’t – and that’s not based on their age or seniority, as it might have been a generation ago,” says industry veteran Ray Poynter. “It means the traditional hierarchies have been upended. Now, the people with power are the ones willing to be part of a community.”

And that’s a lot of people. “There are 135,000 people who identify themselves as having a professional interest in research on LinkedIn,” says GfK’s Mike Cooke. “There are 500 groups on there sharing thoughts on market research. Twitter allows me to create and filter a unique ideas exchange with people whose knowledge I wouldn’t otherwise be able to access.”

Poynter says grassroots collaboration can happen spontaneously and without the boss’s support. “There are a lot of conversations in these groups, mostly seeking to define aspects of market research,” he explains. “It’s generally not confidential and not project-related, but it is allowing people to discuss techniques and approaches.”

That’s partly what drove SSI to launch Research Voice, an online forum for improving respondent engagement. Eric Bell, formerly of GMI and OTX, has set up the Market Research Global Alliance, an invitation only social network which currently boasts 8,000 members.

Technology has opened the floodgates for person-to-person co-operation and made multi-agency and multi-client projects possible. But the secret to successful collaboration has nothing to do with blogs, wikis and hubs – it’s all about culture.

“It’s impossible to say exactly where the technology is going next,” says Cooke. “But the culture of organisations is certainly moving to be more confessional and collaborative.”

One major driver for that is a change in the sources of competitive advantage. At one time, the ability to collect data, or to do it more cheaply, was a big plus for clients. That encouraged secrecy. “But quantitative data collection is much cheaper now,” says Poynter. “And it’s going to get even cheaper, especially as people move into blog and ‘buzz’ mining.”

That means a diversity of views about that data – and the collection of richer supporting evidence addressing specific niches from specialist agencies or participants – is where clients will get added value. Cooke calls this triangulation – overlaying datasets and comparing findings to develop meta insights. “Value comes from interpreting and answering crucial market questions,” he says. “Market researchers bring value – but as social scientists, behavioural analysts and social psychologists.”

But collaboration doesn’t just mean sharing data. “The insights belong to the client, ultimately, and it’s up to them to decide how open they want to be,” says Nunwood’s Caroline Walker. “Sharing approaches or advice ensures the project is delivered better for the client.” The message from those who worked on the Discovery project is similar: you only get out of a collaborative project what you put in – hoarding knowledge just means you get less useful outputs.

For Cooke, the endgame is a market research industry that behaves more like the scientific community. “Social media is making market research a much more open industry, without that necessarily being sanctioned by clients, employers or research bodies,” he says. “This new approach to openness is a bit like a virtual Royal Society. Like the RS, it’s creating ways for people to share knowledge and advance their science without worrying about professional rivalries.”

Methodologies like crowdsourcing, buzz-mining and cheap and cheerful online surveys are undermining traditional revenue sources for the industry. At the same time niche agencies are able to provide highly targeted insights for clients. Combine those two facts with the social media technology that more or less forces openness, plus an economic climate that demands efficiencies and cost savings, and the result is a need to collaborate – or collapse.

Tips for collaboration

  • Set parameters at the outset. “Vodafone is a client that has a very well thought-out programme and everyone working on it can buy into that vision,” says Nunwood director Caroline Walker.
  • Make sure you have good buy-in. Everyone involved need to be committed to sharing openly, but particularly senior staff. “Not everyone with a stake in a project has the time or resources to devote to monitoring the wiki,” says Ray Poynter. “So you often end up bypassing people who can’t or won’t collaborate – but then if they’re senior or influential enough, they can kill off progress late in the day when they do engage.”
  • Motivate sharing behaviour. Discovery Channel rewards contributors to the Species project with status and prizes.
  • Get the technology right. Wikis – where people can work together on documents and data – are ideal for collaboration. The jury is still out on Google Wave, a kind of email-wiki-blog hybrid. But most of the collaborative projects we looked at use bespoke software.