OPINION28 May 2015

Disruption comes to research


Disruption in the market research industry will mean curation, mining and content analysis will become the principal sources of value says Big Sofa’s Simon Lidington.

We are at a genuinely disruptive point in the evolution of research. I don’t just mean new ways of collecting primary data – the principal way the research industry has ‘innovated’ over the past 40 years. I mean disruption that radically changes mindsets, skills, ways of working, value equations, where and how money is spent. Disruption that re-defines what research is for, and what research agencies actually do. 

Digital transformation is affecting the way client organisations innovate, plan and operate. It is altering the way people seek information and learn. It is moving them toward demanding more authentic content taken from analysis of real behaviour and natural conversation.

In this context, there are two really big disruptions that I want to highlight.

The first is the rise of unstructured, mass qualitative research

Research 1.0 uses questionnaires as precise ‘scientific’ instruments designed to map out a territory. But the map is not the territory; and prior questions regularly get in the way. Clients are increasingly disillusioned with research that just confirms what they already know. So, senior client managers are asking:

  • What does our research tell us that is genuinely new? 
  • What difference does it really make to our decisions? 
  • What does it contribute to innovation?  
  • How does it help us think ahead?

Unstructured methods that start with no prior questions have long been anathema to the mainstream research industry. But observational research, the use of emergent questions, behavioural video, YouTube scraping, self-filmed vlogs and pictures, ethnographic research – all start where the consumer starts. They are properly consumer-centric methods. They are about generating ideas, not just evaluating them. Not only does technology make them possible, manageable and more cost-effective, it switches on their value and helps them become both a grounding and illuminating part of clients’ work-flow.

The second disruption is the concept of research as content.

There is a growing demand for productive research. Research that doesn’t just reduce a mass of data to a set of headline results in a presentation, but enables it to be used long afterwards to cast light on the follow-on questions and consequential thinking that any properly rich research should prompt. Those who think about the future and those who make decisions are increasingly looking for a rich wall of behavioural and attitudinal content that helps them follow conjectures, mine for fresh connections, see new possibilities.

All this has overturned the view of video and images as prohibitively cumbersome, expensive to manage, and frivolous. It opens up both qualitative and quantitative methods to a fundamentally different philosophy; visual research as content that is a precious digital asset that needs managing.

As organisations both generate and ingest ever more visual content created by video and snap-happy consumers, the usefulness of research will increasingly be judged by its ability to generate shared meaning, inspire and ground new thinking, and fire an organisation’s collective imagination.

I believe this will fundamentally change the research industry to one in which curation, mining, content analysis, and content management are seen as the principal sources of value.  For an industry structured around endless primary data collection that’s a pretty disruptive thought.

Simon Lidington is founder & CEO, Big Sofa