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OPINION15 April 2016

Market research – what is it, really?

Opinion UK

The latest Bellwether Report shows a modest upward revision of marketing budgets for 2016/17. Yet behind this more positive outlook lurks continued uncertainty, prompted by macro-economic, structural and political questions that remain hanging in the air.

It is particularly in this environment of growth-with-uncertainty that market research plays a key role. Market research is crucial for endeavours such as new product development and for delivering the insight required to give confidence and direction for big marketing decisions.

Indeed, despite pressure on costs, evidence of UK marketers’ commitment to innovation and promoting new products continues, in the form of growth in digital platform and main media budgets. From this point of view, in the near future we may reasonably hope for an uptick in prospects from the current downward revision of market research budgets (net balance of -3.1%).

The release of Bellwether data provides an opportunity to reflect on the state of play within your chosen discipline. But like any good market researcher, we need to look behind the top-line numbers.

Doing so leads us to an unavoidable question: what is market research these days?

Bellwether offers a clarification: ‘includes qualitative and quantitative, brand tracking, and product development research'. The truth is that nowadays market research is all this and more. Since the Bellwether Report was first published in the early 2000s, the discipline has undergone (and continues to undergo) a transformation, making it difficult to capture the full range of what now counts as market research in the broadest sense. So what is the nature of the change we are witnessing?

The short answer is that the increasing availability of diverse data-sets continues to create new challenges and opportunities for researchers, causing inter-disciplinary boundaries to blur. Here are some of the key points as I see them:

  • Market research practitioners are drawing on an ever-wider range of data-sets beyond ‘conventional’ survey data. Multiple survey sources, registrations, passive media monitoring, clickstream files, social and search data, to name just a few. Leading market research providers are realising the potential of connecting their existing data stacks – think of YouGov’s Cube, or Nielsen and Pointlogic’s Nielsen Media Impact. These activities are also true of agencies and their clients.
  • Market research is increasingly turning to advanced statistical techniques to make better use of data – fusing, calibrating, modelling. At the heart of these endeavours are the media currencies, ‘the JICs’, and of course the IPA’s own pioneering TouchPoints study, which uses the data experts at RSMB to ‘join the dots’ between currencies.
  • Market research is forging closer links with buy-side activities. Providers are linking their panel data to Demand Side Platforms, for example – informing audience segment builds later used in digital targeting. ('No market research respondents were harmed in the making of this targeting programme!') This development is both exciting and a potential source of ethical debate.

To summarise, market research is no longer describable (if it ever were) in terms of primary data collection methodologies. The discipline must now encompass an ever-growing range of secondary procedures to connect and make sense of the available data and deliver real-world, practical solutions for UK marketers.

I started this post with the mention of ‘uncertainty’; I end it on a similar note. For market research, it is a creative and stimulating uncertainty that provides plenty of challenges and opportunities for practitioners.

Geoff Copps is head of research at IPG Mediabrands UK

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