OPINION26 January 2017

Time to rehab and rejuvenate research

Data analytics Opinion Trends UK

Route’s general manager, Euan Mackay, urges market researchers to defend the statistics and methodologies and speak up for evidence, accurate measurement and robust data.


While I’m no mental health practitioner, I think it’s time that our industry checks itself in for some therapy.

Our industry has issues. It’s suffering an identity crisis which stems from a lifelong lack of assertiveness. This has led to systemic low self-esteem, an absence of self-worth which has left it tolerating abuse.

Even in today’s culture where data scientists are among the most coveted jobs of the 21st century, market research takes an apologetic back seat to its louder and undeniably more camera-friendly peers of PR and advertising.

However, as we stumble blindly into a post-truth world, we need market researchers more than ever before. Now is the time for our industry to check itself into rehab. It’s time for market research to re-find itself so it can confidently re-take its place at the helm in helping navigate the murky sea of data saturating us all.

An excellent article recently published by The Guardian posited that not only are we now post-truth, but we’re also quickly entering a post-statistics age. This is becoming an era where statistics, polls and research are viewed with distrust and those creating the data are elitist boffins out to manipulate the ‘truth’.

The tide is turning to favour the automated big data counts of device use that emerge from mysterious and often dubious black-box origins. This is despite recent admissions of erroneous advertising viewing metrics from first Facebook and subsequent allegations of inflated use figures by other social media giants – all of which arising from these very black box solutions. The pervasive distrust in what we do is further damaging the already fragile ego of our industry and it needs to be stopped.

As research and data practitioners, we need to take a stand on this. Rather than sitting by and slowly watching our industry’s credibility ebb away, the need for us and what we do is now greater than ever. We should actively reject the current ‘post expert’, ‘post truth’ and ‘alternative facts’ narratives, who really wants to side with Michael Gove or Donald Trump anyway?

The starting point is pushing back on those hawking black-box analytics solutions. Those, often self-serving commercial entities, offering unverified metrics without providing transparency around how they are derived or what they consist of. Our profession is tried and tested and underpinned by rigour and experience. We need to protect this and to do this we must find our voice and shout about the merits of what we do.

Behavioural big data analytics can be, and certainly are, highly useful measures; I’m not against these measures per se. When applied correctly they can overcome sample error by offering a true census of use rather than relying on the behaviours of a select few. They can also provide more reliable data on use patterns by circumventing recall bias.

That said, they are not without their own issues. While proprietary walled gardens still exist and where commercial entities are being left alone to effectively mark their own homework, toxic trust issues are inevitably going to remain.

Market research should undergo some intensive Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and actively seek a change in our current behaviour patterns. We must not be scared, or wary of change and should begin actively pursuing ways to innovate what we do for the better.

Where new, transparent and verified data sources that improve our measures exist, we should embrace them with gusto. Where more natural respondent interactions and data collection methods can occur, we owe it to ourselves to integrate them into our designs. Only by doing this can we continue to create the best possible data.

Only by rebuilding our industry’s self-esteem can we re-establish our reputation as credible experts and reclaim the confidence of the wider population. The first step is seeking best-in class audience measurement practices in all we do; by unapologetically embracing expertise in research design and analysis; by reporting only on data that is statistically sound and robust.

Beyond this we need to embrace change and integrate new data sources and means of capturing data where it will improve our output. Finally, and crucially, we should be ready to show our wares. We should be comfortable offering a level of transparency in what we are doing and sharing how those numbers are generated. It is only in doing this that we can, together, overcome the identity crisis that market research finds itself mired in and regain our raison d'être.

Euan Mackay is general manager of Route


5 years ago

Fantastic article! I was a bit shocked by the article in the Guardian too and this is exactly what I wanted to read.

Like Report

5 years ago

Good article. The market research industry needs to lose its inferiority complex which I believe is being fostered mostly by itself. Today we have more research, data and analytics insights available and should all be acknowledged as valid options. These big data insights must be accepted as just new streams of data and insights. I would argue that outside of the various MR conferences, statistics and market research is alive and well.

Like Report