OPINION7 October 2010

Taking in a view of the future of market research


On the first floor of the Eiffel Tower, researchers gathered yesterday to consider the future of the market research industry. Brian Tarran listened in. His conclusion: not only will agencies need to justify themselves as valued partners to corporations, they’ll need to win over technology-empowered consumers.

If you want to get a steer on the future you can do worse than look to Wired UK editor David Rowan. He’s a man who’s taken William Gibson’s quote – “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet” – to heart, and thus spends his time hunting for glimpses of tomorrow today.

Toluna brought him along to their 10th birthday celebration/conference, held yesterday on the first floor of the Eiffel Tower, to chart a possible future for the research industry. The view from both the speaker and the venue was dizzying.

Thanks to social networking and the mobile internet revolution, he says privacy “is no longer a social norm”: web-connected consumers share everything from their thoughts and feelings, through to their actual physical locations and credit card purchase history.

Rowan says customers are learning that their datastream is valuable. “Consumers know they can gain by trading their private information,” he says. The question research agencies need to answer is: what can we offer them to trade with us?

No free lunch
A lot of social media data is out there, publicly available without restrictions on use. But whether researchers should consider themselves free to use it is unclear. Do consumers want them to? They may have put it out there, but not for the benefit of market research agencies. The culture of data-sharing is about individuals connecting to other individuals – companies are just piggybacking on the relationship.

When a consumer tweets about a new coat they’ve bought they do so to inform their friends, relatives and connections, not necessarily the company they bought it from. Consumers are, of course, aware that companies are listening in to social media and they know that a well-worded tweet complaining of shoddy treatment can bring about a swifter response than any customer care call ever could.

But companies need to realise that consumers tolerate commercial interference in ‘their networks’ only when it is beneficial to them. And if there’s any doubt that consumers still view the data they share as theirs, just ask Facebook. The uproar over changes to the site’s terms of service last year showed that social media users resent companies claiming ownership of personal data.

May we…?
On Facebook, users grant other users access to their digital lives, and they’ll no doubt expect that if research agencies want to get to know them in this way, they’ll ask for permission to do so.

Harris Interactive is pursuing this polite approach through its Lifestreaming service, asking members of its consumer panel for consent to track and analyse what they post on Facebook, Twitter and other sites and forums. This has the advantage of allowing Harris to have a better idea of the social media user as an individual, rather than just as a series of random thoughts and opinions scraped from the public web.

If panel owners could better understand panellists, build up their profiles over time through social media data and remember their responses to certain survey questions, the result would be more efficiency in helping research buyers identify and target the right individuals to speak to.

This vision formed a key part of a speech given by Toluna’s new chief product and strategy officer, and former Harris executive, George Terhanian. It’s his view that a lot of inefficiency remains in the survey process but that it is “inefficiency in the cause of science”. The belief in the scientific superiority of random sampling persists in the online research world and is why, he says, many panel owners try to avoid knowing their panellists too well – and why screening questions continue to be a mainstay and a bugbear for many panellists who find themselves answering the same questions repeatedly.

Sealing the deal
If consumers want to know what benefits they’ll get for sharing their social media data with market research agencies, one answer might be ‘more relevant surveys’. Equally, agencies might be able to offer clients ‘more relevant respondents’ – but they’ll need to offer both more besides. Rowan made the point that not only is the web permitting direct consumer-to-consumer connections, it also allows people a direct line through to companies, and vice-versa.

The future is one in which the research agency has to justify itself as a valued partner of both respondent and client. In a world where technology enables consumers to trade their personal information direct with a brand, research agencies need to position themselves as a more convenient intermediary for both sides of the transaction.

Rowan cited Apple and its success with the iPod and the iTunes store as an example of how people put a premium on convenience. Amid a culture of free, albeit “messy”, peer-to-peer file sharing, Rowan said Apple triumphed because what they offered was easier to use. “We want simplicity, reliability and trust,” he said.

And therein lies the future of the market research industry.