FEATURE1 April 2011

Tell us something we don't know


There’s no need to keep boring respondents and wasting clients’ money with repetitive surveys, writes Tim Britton. As research finds its feet in the digital world, ad hoc as we know it will be a thing of the past.


The world of the 1930s was a very different place from the world of 2011. But in many respects market research today is not fundamentally different from the mass social research that was pioneered in that era. Researchers design an ‘experiment’, draw a sample of subjects, find out what the subjects say and do, and interpret and report the findings. Then they move on to the next experiment and the next set of subjects. Social researchers from pre-war Britain would recognise this process as their own. At the same time, of course, a huge amount has changed – the primacy of face-to-face interviewing in data collection was replaced by the telephone and now things are moving online.

The changing face of research is analogous to the development of photography. If we think of face-to-face interviewing as being a Brownie camera, then the development of the telephone interview is the introduction of 35mm film and the move online is like changing to a Polaroid. The process is pretty much the same as it ever was, but technology has made it faster, cheaper and more flexible.

However, when we start thinking and acting digitally, rather than simply taking offline techniques online, the potential for more fundamental change opens up. This happens gradually, and many may hardly notice the difference at first, but taken to its natural conclusion the move into the digital age will transform everything.

In fact, it’s the end of ad hoc research as we know it.

“When a client calls, we need never start from a blank piece of paper. Rather than having to commission new primary research every time, our clients can draw and build upon our existing data”

No more blank slates
These new ways of working arise from the combination of an engaged panel and twenty-first century data technology. This enables us to treat respondents not as the one-off subjects of a laboratory experiment, but as real, rounded people whose attitudes and behaviours vary and change over time. Used intelligently, this provides a continual understanding of what people are thinking and doing, which gives us the ability to look for answers to client questions in pre-existing sources, rather than starting every ‘experiment’ from scratch.

On a practical level it means that we, the agency, set out to understand who our panellists are (as consumers and citizens) without waiting for our clients’ instruction. We know their gender, of course, how many children they have and what newspaper they read. We also track their shifts in employment, income, accommodation status and so on. But we need to extend our thinking beyond such demographics – to understand how they behave, say, as holiday purchasers, grocery shoppers, consumers of media, users of financial services. We can then use this knowledge to ask further questions, specific to client needs so we can understand the likely appeal of a new Mediterranean cruise, perhaps, or the prospects of a new range of supermarket products.

So when a client calls, we need never start with a blank piece of paper. Instead we can start with a deep knowledge and build upon it as necessary. Rather than having to commission new primary research every time, our clients can draw and build upon our existing data.

Working in this way saves time and money, minimises repetitive interviewing and allows us to focus on understanding and analysing the information rather than collecting it. This is beneficial to both client and agency.

We are a long way from the ideal model of a continuously updating, easy to interrogate database – one that enables an agency to respond to a client’s needs instantaneously then ask additional questions to plug any gaps. But we are moving in that direction. An example of this is YouGov’s SixthSense reporting business. On the one hand it is a market reports business with an online portal enabling access to data, expert comment, market sizes, histories and so on. But at its heart is consumer research drawn from YouGov’s consumer panel. This means that as a change happens in a market, our ongoing research will pick it up and the reporting platform will be instantly updated. It means that when a client has a question, parts of the answer may already be available by looking at information in our SixthSense reports, our BrandIndex perception tracker or any other of our syndicated tracking products, perhaps combined with wider information that we are continually collecting from our panellists for profiling purposes.

Furthermore, the panel-based nature of our work means that we are able to ask specific questions of particular groups identified by earlier research (say those with a particular view of a brand, or who have had a particular service experience). This increases our ability to plug gaps in the data for the client using small additional sets of questions. Crucially, though, the existing repository of knowledge provides the starting point.

New possibilities
It has, of course, always been good practice to conduct desk research and use whatever pre-existing research the client already holds as the basis of any new project. What’s changing is the breadth of what will become possible and the mentality with which we will work. By this I mean that it will be possible to look at every question in the light of existing knowledge. A properly managed panel will be seen as an enormous, multi-faceted cohort study out of which particular groups can be drawn and data subsets analysed. The agency will decide upon the scope and detail of the information to be collected continuously and the client will decide between taking pre-existing information immediately - which will go some way to answering many of their needs – and commissioning further questions to get input that is more specific to their requirements. In short, the role of the agency becomes one of designer, owner and interrogator of consumer information rather than conductor of primary research projects.

This is where the nature of ad hoc research will change. As some agencies become the repositories and owners of information, and clients can get much of the insight they need from syndicated intelligence tailored to their requirements, the type of work we do will evolve. It will no longer be economically sustainable for agencies to conduct ‘complete’ one-off projects as a matter of course. It certainly won’t make sense to repeat similar projects for different clients, something that at the moment is not at all uncommon.

Ad hoc research briefs won’t stop coming, but the way we respond to them will change – ad hoc insight provision can be based on continuous collection of data. This will redefine what it is to be a research agency.

At the heart of this is the view that we should share the parts of our research that are common to many clients, instead of constantly re-running projects. The truth is, if you’re an agency that’s only in the business of doing new ad hoc work, you are doing a disservice to clients, and will increasingly find yourself at a commercial disadvantage.

Of course, there won’t be pre-existing information that answers all the questions we could ever ask. Information that we hold already, the client can buy into, and they will commission and own any additional information they require in the usual way. This raises the prospect of interesting new pricing structures, with clients paying less if the agency retains ownership of the data, and more if they want it exclusively.

This way of working calls for a different mindset among agencies and requires different investment decisions to be made. It means not waiting to be told what questions should be asked but instead providing proactive intellectual input into the process, keeping a close eye on consumer trends and anticipating exactly what it is we should be monitoring. It will also lead to clients thinking differently about their research. Maybe they will consider sharing with their competitors what is already common knowledge, and looking for advantage in the way that they conduct their analysis.

There are big changes ahead in how agencies deliver research to clients, and in what they deliver. For research, the digital age is only just dawning.

Tim Britton is UK chief executive of online researcher YouGov. He was previously managing director of research agency IFF and has nearly two decades’ experience in the industry


11 years ago

Research magazine seriously needs to review its policy and have an expert review of articles. besides being long-winded, and not offering anything new - the article is pretty naive (did he say we conduct 'experiments'???) and a naked sales pitch for yougov. the next time you get something like this, try and avoid blatant sales talk of the products of the agency, but ask for case studies. And puh-lease - the death of market research / Surveys/ Insights business has been .... done to death (sorry for the pun) and exaggerated many times already. Unless someone brings up something new WITH EXAMPLES please dont bother printing it. Instead charge them your advertorial rates if they want to do a sales pitch

Like Report

11 years ago

Anonymous, I don't recognise your description of this piece as a 'sales pitch' for YouGov. Certainly, Tim gives an example of how he and colleagues at YouGov are applying this way of thinking to their work - but that's just two out of 18 paragraphs, and I'm happy that what he's produced conforms to our contributors' guidelines, which you can review online at bit.ly/writeforresearch The other points you make – about the article not offering anything new, about the 'death of MR' being oft-exaggerated – might well be valid. Why not try debating them openly in this thread with other readers? We like debate. That's why we publish these opinion pieces.

Like Report

11 years ago

There have been pronouncements about impending death and obituaries written for the research industry at least since 2008 if not earlier. This magazine has also contributed to the discussion and several writers have taken the discussion forward extremely well in the Blogs and Comment section. Currently the discussion has moved so ahead, that a mere sensational pronouncement (without providing some new viewpoints, strong solutions or case studies) no longer cuts it. Panels like the one mentioned in this do exist in many regions run by clients, agencies, media etc., for at least a decade already. I would recommend everyone interested, to please look up Robert Moran's presentation on Futures of Market Research and associated discussions. (google it) This should be the starting point now, as it is a view of the future that the majority of the industry agrees on. Any further discussion on demise of surveys/ research/ insights should only go beyond the above, and preferably not restricted to mere opinion, but support the viewpoint with examples, experiences and robust data too. PS - I might have missed this article in the print copy of the magazine, as the title (tell us something new) looked like a comment by-note from the editor which was inadvertently printed by the layout artists. :-)

Like Report