What future for market research now?

Paul Latimer, co-founder at market research consultancy Latimer Appleby, ponders the future of industry market research post COVID-19.

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Market research is a vitally important discipline that is still pivotal to the way business is done. But even before Covid-19 the question was what is the future and is it heading for an existential crisis? But with Coronavirus still with us, we consider what future now?

Everyone knows a bit about marketing, in fact, I’d go so far as to say a lot of us see ourselves as marketing experts, even those of us who don’t work in the industry. The same might be said increasingly for market research. How things have changed over the years! I can recall back in the 1980s if you went to a restaurant you might be asked how your meal was at some point, perhaps halfway through your main course, and again when you got the bill. But that was about it. And, it was really more about pleasantries than trying to gain real insights.

But nowadays (i.e. pre-COVID-19) few of us will not have come across the ‘tell us what you think’ kind of feedback research. In fact, I’m not sure which restaurants, or retailers, or online web sites DIDN’T already ask for this sort of feedback, so what is driving this?

Incidentally, ‘tell us what you think’ surveys are not, in the strictest sense, market research i.e. they don’t hold up scientifically, they can’t be used to provide accurate results as there is no control over who replies. For example, you could, for instance, finish up with all-male respondents between the ages of 26 and 32, which may not be your key target market. In addition, the questions are often not formed or written in any scientific way, in that they are usually very simplistic.

Know your customers

In the distant past, traders such as shopkeepers knew their customers. They knew them by name and they knew their needs, wants and habits. It meant that the smart tradesman or woman was able to tailor his or her product or service to each customer.

With the growth of the mass market in the 20th century, increasingly it was difficult for brand owners, or service providers, to get the sort of information they wanted back from their customers, so market research came into its own.

By the early 21st century, as well as using market research, it was common to use service measurement companies to assess service delivery in places like pubs, restaurants and shops. These used so-called ‘mystery shoppers’. But the cost of running these programmes was not cheap, and questions were raised by clients about ‘who’ were these mystery shoppers, i.e. were they real consumers or were they actually professional shoppers, diners and drinkers? In short, they asked if the results were valid. They wanted feedback from real people, real customers, and so the age of the actual consumer giving feedback took off.

Nowadays, as I say, we are all bombarded by requests for feedback, via email, via text message, or by a line printed on your till receipt, that asks for some feedback in return for some chance to win some vouchers via some sort of prize draw. Hmm, any takers?

This is all good I hear you say. Well yes, and no. You see, what clients were prepared to pay for in the past, using mystery shopping companies, they now expect to get for free. Of course, none of this is really for free, since the systems need to be put in place to manage the programmes, but the key thing is professional researchers are effectively out of a job. And when eventually everyone tires of giving their feedback for free, realising that nothing much is done with it other than to use the ‘good’ results, and bury the ‘bad ‘ones, then people will think twice about giving their feedback for free at all.

That’s one aspect. Now consider telephone research.

Few of us have not been hounded by the spam caller, whether from ‘BT’, or ‘Microsoft security’ or from ‘Amazon Prime’. An article in one of the Sunday papers referred to the landline as the annoyance in the hallway. Increasingly, we use our mobiles, and so a call to the home landline, unfortunately, is either from an elderly relative or from a hoaxer. This may be an irritation to a lot of us, but consider the market researcher, the researcher who specialises in telephone research, telephone research that depends on making calls to landlines.

Clearly there are other options, e.g. for telephone researchers to make more calls to mobile phones, however as we know mobile phone numbers give no indication of the location of the user, so location-targeted random digit dialling will not work for telephone calls to mobile numbers. This may not be the end of telephone research just yet, but the outlook doesn’t look good.

Well, how about face-to-face research involving traditional survey methods, intercepting people on the street in towns and cities across the UK, surely that was pretty healthy pre-COVID-19?

Well, it was, but to use that oft used cliché, ‘none of us are getting any younger.’ Never was this truer than for the market research interviewer community. In fact, what is happening is that more and more of the most capable, most experienced and hence best researchers are retiring, but crucially they are not being replaced by younger researchers. The result is that this is a dying skill. Research companies are increasingly turning to ‘cheaper, more available resources’ i.e. students. Again, all well and good you say, and I know many are of course trustworthy and in time they could even become skilled. However, it is more likely that they will move into some other form of full-time employment, and they will leave market research behind. But even so comparing them to skilled, trained, experienced researcher interviewers is just not fair.

Much of this is driven by cost considerations and the need to do things more effectively and I dare say online. Countless young marketers will have made use of social media to conduct ‘free’ market research. But the thing is this, once the novelty of completing those online surveys and those ‘how did we do?’ requests for free has worn off, where will we turn to in order to get our market research done?

By that time is it possible that the role of the traditional market researcher will have disappeared completely? And it won’t necessarily be an easy thing to start up again. The good news is that marketers are generally very bright people and I’m sure they will find other ways to conduct research but maybe, just maybe, we should expect to see some huge changes in the research industry in the coming years ahead.

These thoughts were penned even before the current global pandemic. I can only think that things for market research might look even bleaker as we battle our way through this most unpredictable of times.

My message to all businesses out there is simple: Market research – use it or lose it.

  • Paul Latimer is an experienced market researcher. Having held a number of marketing roles in a wide variety of industries, he moved over to focus on market research from the agency side in 2004, before setting up his own market research consultancy, Latimer Appleby, in 2012.

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