FEATURE1 April 2010

Spanner in the works

Are researchers right to be worried about DIY tools? Richard Thornton, global sales director of Cint, looks at how suppliers and buyers are being affected by the growth of DIY research.

The debate about DIY research has veered between two extremes. On the one hand we have those who see the opportunity for people to do their own research as liberating. Pandora’s box is open, they say, it’s coming anyway, so why not embrace it and work out how to make the most of it? On the other hand we have the detractors. They think DIY will undermine the value of research and perceptions of it, produce poor quality data and result in bad business decisions.

To those of you who have not yet caught up with DIY research, this is the term given to research done online via sites like SurveyMonkey and Snap Surveys, which allow users to create a questionnaire and distribute it directly to an email list. The results are then collected and aggregated and tables or charts produced at the end of the process. These systems are either free or very cheap and can be used by anyone who signs up to a site, provided they have their own sample.

At Cint we felt that there was something missing from this debate – the voice of the client or end user. We felt it was vital to turn the discussion out from the research industry and learn about how people perceive these DIY tools, how and why they use them, and what they feel about them. With that feedback, we felt we could more easily fulfil the demands of the market and also provide constructive ways to reassure detractors.

During February 2010, we did 16 depth telephone and face-to-face interviews with clients and researchers in the UK, US and Germany to ask them about DIY research. We spoke to end clients in small, medium and large companies, and professional researchers both client- and agencyside. Going in, our hypotheses reflected the debate. We thought DIY would prove unattractive to ‘traditional’ market researchers (both in agencies and clientside) because of concerns over quality. We thought that clients, SMEs and marketing or PR agencies would think DIY was useful and would be generally supportive of the tools.

Better the devil you know
Do the pro and anti feelings towards DIY tools really divide so neatly between client users and market research agencies? Interestingly the answer is no. Our hypothesis that traditional researchers wouldn’t have anything positive to say about DIY research isn’t necessarily the case. We found that while the agency researchers we spoke to were least aware of the DIY tools that are available and have used them very little, they do not automatically see DIY as a ‘threat’ to their businesses or the professional stature of the market research industry. As someone from a large UK research agency said: “The choice of DIY for smaller companies is good. It is better than moving forward with no information at all.” And a small agency researcher, also in the UK, said: “If budget is an issue then it’s an obvious choice.”

“Our call is to agency researchers to wake up to the potential of DIY research, rather than staring into the approaching headlights or stringing up the perpetrators”

What our study did indicate, however, was that people on the agencyside haven’t given much thought to integrating these tools into their client offers, or how they might support clients in their use. As one client said: “Our usual agencies are traditional, offering face-to-face, telephone, groups. They never suggested online.” And in Germany a large agency researcher said: “Our clients are not interested in quick and dirty projects,” clearly making the assumption that this is the only area where DIY research might prove useful.

Our call is to agency researchers to wake up to the potential of DIY research, rather than staring into the approaching headlights or stringing up the perpetrators. We found enthusiastic support among end clients as well as from clientside researchers and saw that end users aren’t so naive as to think that DIY research could provide them with all the market information they might need.

Instead of automatically regarding DIY research as an innovation that will discredit the market research industry as a whole, we see the growing popularity of DIY as a demonstration of the growing split between simple studies, used to gain ‘information’ that can be managed by clients and the more sophisticated, value-added insight-generating role that research agencies and insight departments provide. “We use SurveyMonkey for all the easy things when we have our own sample and if it’s quick and dirty and we need to build a survey in a day and get results back in a week,” commented one advertising agency client in the UK. The clients we interviewed did not think they could or should do complex research by themselves. They did indeed worry about asking the right questions, getting the right sample and understanding the results. Most saw a clear role for professional researchers to help with these issues.

The sky’s the limit
The clients we spoke to were very enthusiastic in their support for DIY research tools. There was a feeling of liberation in the discovery that they could access the views of their clients and customers so directly and easily. Comments ranged from “The sky’s the limit”, from a PR agency in the US, to “We now do about 50% of our research ourselves – a change over the last two years”, from a clientside researcher. Our small, qualitative study backs up the view put forward in the Researchcover article of July 2009: that the ability to access DIY tools means that clients both large and small, both with insight departments and without,are doing more small information-gathering type research projects than before.

In spite of this enthusiasm clients also have realistic concerns about how best to use DIY research tools. “I suppose the danger is that you might not be asking the right questions,” commented one large client in the UK. “You could risk annoying and alienating people who you are asking the questions – if you asked stupid questions,” said another.

“If you get one meal you don’t like, you don’t avoid going to restaurants altogether. The same is true of research”

They also understand and share the same concerns about panel quality as professional researchers. “In my experience having a smart pool of people answering your questions is key,” said one SME client in the US. It does appear, then, that as the DIY tools get better, including direct access to quality sample, the support and take-up will continue to build.

Don’t be afraid
If you get one meal you don’t like, you don’t avoid going to restaurants altogether. The same is true of research. The potential for a bad experience always exists, whether you are using DIY or working through an agency. Clients are not going to abandon market research if either method gives them a bad survey. They get this, they know their business, they are able to make rational decisions and understand when they need help as they would with any area of business. What DIY solutions should create are more opportunities to conduct research and make the process more affordable and accessible to all. This will widen the boundaries and arguably lead to better exposure to market research and its value.

Our research shows the huge potential for research agencies to embrace DIY as another way of gathering data, and integrate it with their services to clients. Rather than fight what is already here, the onus is on agencies to enable clients to design and manage projects using whatever appropriate methodology is at their disposal.

Three things clients like about DIY research

“The ability to be masters of our own destiny,” as one US PR agency put it, was a key reason for using online DIY tools. Clients repeatedly cited the problems of getting external or agency researchers to understand their products, services, markets and issues. Avoiding the briefing and debriefing an external agency was seen as a real advantage. “Going to an agency and getting them to understand our technical product set means you lose time and the will to live,” said one large UK financial services client. “Too often when the market researchers try to drive the process, in my opinion, they don’t know the right questions to ask. I think most industries would be better off doing the work themselves.”

“I don’t have months to do market research,” said a small business client in the US, “I need the information now!” A UK ad agency client said: “For non-DIY stuff it takes months and months and everyone pores over it for days. It doesn’t have to be like that.”

“We like it as it’s low cost and easy to use,” said one PR agency. “Using a market research agency is a waste of money if you can do it yourself,” said an American SME client.

Richard Thornton joined Cint in 2009 to head operations in the UK market. Prior to Cint, Richard worked at Ciao Surveys as European managing director.