OPINION10 August 2010

Butterflies don’t innovate: the real innovation challenge for market research

Far from being super conservative, most researchers are fascinated by “trends” and new ideas. But too often we mistake “trend-following” for “innovation”, flitting like butterflies from one new idea to another – never quite developing their potential or integrating the new techniques with old ones. It’s not “innovation” we lack, it’s “implementation”.

Every so often you will see a discussion where we market researchers, with help from the odd client, beat ourselves up about how lacking in innovation we’ve supposedly become, and how conservative we seem to be as an industry. I’m not quite sure where I stand on the debate about how conservative MR people are, but I’m increasingly sure that we often miss the point about what “innovation” in MR really is, and why it matters.

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My view is that far from being super conservative, most researchers are fascinated by “trends” and new ideas. But too often we mistake “trend-following” for “innovation”. We (and I include myself in this) love to discuss all the latest technologies, techniques and re-packaged jargon,  so we flit like butterflies from one new idea to another, never quite developing their potential or integrating the new techniques with old ones.

It’s not “innovation” we lack, it’s “implementation”. David McCallum took that point up in a post last year (see: Innovate  or Ossify) suggesting that the biggest issue is not lack of  innovative ideas per se, as a lack of the right people and skill sets to turn ideas into action.

TransI’ve spent a good chunk of my market research career developing and implementing new products and services. I like new methods, ideas, techniques and gadgets. Right now in fact, David and I are providing support to a wonderful high-tech start-up which combines new theories with new software and methods that might well make a huge difference to how we diagnose consumer emotions.

But, despite this personal commitment to “newness” and technology, I am not a fan of a persistent belief in our industry that “innovative” = “new” and in particular that to be innovative you need to espouse a brand new technology, theory or technique.

As an example, almost all the numerous discussions of “New MR” focus on how they  replace or are massively superior to all the old ways – few focus on exactly how (e.g.) social media research might supplement conventional qualitative work,  or MROC’s could be integrated with traditional trackers. For understandable reasons when MR agencies introduce new services they focus on the “easy, exciting” bit – what’s good about the new features they bring to market. But we often leave out the “hard but really clever stuff” that’s important to clients if we want them to support innovation: ideas about how client’s can integrate these new concepts into current research processes, or on helping clients develop applications that synthesise new data sources with old to produce something genuinely new.

If failure to consider the potential of integrating/synthesising across methodologies and theories is one failure in our approach to innovation, the other is – paradoxically – our almost stunning failure to look backwards. Yes, we spend time (often too much) presenting long trend-lines to clients, but in my view a huge amount of unrealised value is hidden in our databases.

Some years ago I presented to our senior management an idea, which in essence was simply to let a team of experienced Customised/Panel researchers “loose” to dig around and try and produce integrated reports drawing on information synthesised from a range of in-house sources (consumer panel, sales data, tracking surveys etc.). Obviously I elaborated on what they’d be looking for, but the core concept was that a few good minds, given time, the right software and some good data could generate a vast return from data that would otherwise remain massively under-utilised. For various reasons (the usual mixture of good and bad), this idea was not taken up, but I remain convinced that most of the bigger MR companies (and even the mid-sized ones) could realise millions of dollars by a more “innovative” approach to exploring their existing data. Even smaller companies would, I believe, generate good returns and improved customer satisfaction just by every so often creatively combining and re-exploring old studies.

The problem of course is that I am talking here about “innovation” based on cleverer use of people and existing data.  It’s about finding the new gem hidden in the old, not about totally new research methods or technology and so it’s not terribly sexy. Being brainpower dependent it also requires taking a risk on either bringing in outside consultants or redeploying your own, already busy, senior staff. Yet, for clients, more creative and systematic approaches to analysing existing information might well count as just the kind of innovation they’d appreciate in these tough times.

Of course we do need a stream of new models, technologies etc. to keep our industry vibrant. But we also need to do more to really explore the full  potential of these new ideas. Too often clients see us as approaching them with fancy new techniques that, in the end, only deliver marginal improvements in terms of marketing actionabiilty. No wonder clients become conservative, and once they have settled on one research approach are loath to change.


13 years ago

I really enjoyed this article. I agree that as an industry we often feel so pressured to jump on the innovation bandwagon that we forget good common sense. I am newly inspired to focus only on "brainpower dependent" activities! :)

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13 years ago

Totally on board with the need to focus on implementation. We have an astonishing wealth of knowledge easily at our fingertips. We know all the right stuff to do. But when it comes right down to it, we do what's easy, what we're familiar with, what suits all the processes we've already put together. Let's not just stick with the familiar anymore. Let's be innovative by implementing.

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13 years ago

I agree--huge value could be had by mining existing databases, triangulating between multiple sources. But I ran an agency for 13 years, and I owned very little data. Most of my data was collected for clients, they owned it. Of course, some of the big agencies do own their data--I'd be happy to barter my analysis time for access to it! Any takers ;-)

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13 years ago

Thanks to all for the nice comments. Kathryn's reply raises a couple of points. Firstly, I think client ownership is only a partial blockage: agencies are possibly a little shy about going back to clients with reanalysis suggestions (and negotiating a decent fee for this!) and similarly with ideas for opening up less sensitive data for other research purposes (perhaps with the carrot of PR or revenue sharing). I've seen this work, although I agree it needs some thought and negotiation skill. Secondly, it is a good question why some of the major agencies don't experiment more with using bright analysts in smaller companies/consultancies (given the majors don't want to take on extra fixed costs, and their senior staff are often too tied up to undertake exploratory work) . I think it would be an experiment worth trying.

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