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FEATURE17 May 2011

Bringing power to the people

Features

For years, research has only let consumers have a say on topics that made the agendas of brands or politicians, says Discovery’s Ken Parker. But now the rise of online qual has the potential to return power to the people.

Ken Parker, founder and chairman of research agency Discovery, believes he’s one of the few people who got into market research deliberately. Emerging from university in the 1970s as a “right-on lefty, involved in protests against Thatcher and all that”, Parker saw research as a way to make the voices of ordinary people heard.

“When I was a student I found myself always looking at articles about how many people said this and thought that, particularly on the social research side. I used to scan newspapers for this information, and I realised this was the area I wanted to go into. Because of my left-wing tendencies and a ‘helping the people’ way of thinking, I thought this was a way forward by getting people’s views.”

“Because of insight communities and greater online qualitative opportunities, the customer has actually got more ability to set their own agendas as well as to address the clients’ agendas”

But after he joined NOP’s graduate programme, Parker began to feel he’d been naive. The programme itself was “excellent”, he says, but he soon learned that the public weren’t setting clients’ agendas in research. Instead, “the brands were calling the shots,” he says. Lists of business objectives would be defined at an early stage, offering little opportunity for researchers to focus on anything that fell outside of those parameters. Quantitative methods in particular offered little opportunity to get under the skin of topics that weren’t already on the client’s agenda.

For the past thirty-odd years Parker has accepted this state of affairs, and at the age of 58 he has no regrets about forging a career in research. But now he believes “things have gone full circle, to a point where my naivety has now become practical” – largely thanks to new online techniques.

“The change I’ve perceived over the last couple of years is that, because of insight communities and greater online qualitative opportunities, the customer has actually got more ability to set their own agendas as well as to address the clients’ agendas. Clients aren’t necessarily able to restrict the consumer to answering only their agendas.”

Discovery has its own online qual platform called The Thinking Shed, which is made available to other research agencies. Parker says: “We recently did a project in retail where the objectives were to look at store layout and merchandising. But as soon as you get into the forum situation you find out that, while that’s important to community members, the main issue they’ve got is staff: staff attitude and poor knowledge. That certainly wouldn’t have occurred in the days when the agendas were only being set by the client.”

Parker says the research industry has been slower to adopt online qual tools than he expected, but believes they’ll soon become “a fairly mainstream activity” alongside long-established techniques like group discussions, depth interviews and ethnography.

“It’s rare for people at senior level to get involved in groups. Online qual is empowering them to see what’s happening without leaving their desks”

There are other reasons, too, why communities bring companies closer to the customer’s view. Participants can be much less guarded about what they say than in other methods, and the ability to upload photos and videos allows the researcher to get a clearer view of the consumer and the world they inhabit.

Online qual also changes how clients can use research. “It’s rare for people at senior level to get involved in groups,” says Parker. “This is empowering them to see what’s happening without leaving their desks. I’m not saying it’s a panacea – I don’t suddenly see all these chief execs going online – but it’s happening more now than it was in the past.”

All this means that people have more power to influence companies – and companies that are inclined to listen have more power to build sustainable businesses.

Parker is optimistic for the future of qual, as long as clients don’t see the new methods as a substitute for the old. “Insight communities get closer to the consumer, but only closer in certain ways. Traditional group discussions and depth interviews get closer to the consumer in other ways. What I’ve seen happening elsewhere, particularly in the United States, worries me enormously. There, clients are moving towards insight communities because they’re cheaper and quicker, and because it’s potentially easier to do the analysis and interpretation. I think that’s missing the point. Insight communities give you a wealth of data, but still need correct and detailed analysis and interpretation.”

Looking at the bigger picture, one thing is clear, he says. “Empowerment is moving to the people. That’s the beauty of it, in my mind.”

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