The world is going through a challenging time.  It is often at such times when the value of research and insight gets questioned.  Historically the research industry has not been great at demonstrating value and the return on research investment.  This can often lead to a client research department being considered as a cost-centre and when budgets need to be cut, it may well be in the first tranche.

For anyone in the research world, we recognise that this is a false economy, but we’ve got to do more to improve.  To try to navigate out of such a challenging situation without investing in the right action-driven insights is tantamount to trying to escape from a maze while wearing a blindfold.

Even before the challenges resulting from Covid-19 and varying levels of global lockdown, research departments were challenged.  Data from the 2019 Quirk’s report showed a number of pain points in managing and conducting research.  Four of the biggest were;

  • Too many projects for budgets;
  • Too many projects for staff;
  • Decisions go back and forth and/or get made late or ineffectively;
  • No consistent or effective way to measure the value of completed projects.

Personally, I would add that to get the same level of insight and understanding of the market, the costs and complexity of research have in some cases risen exponentially with changes in the consumer market.

The big challenge for research is to maintain or reduce cost levels, without reducing quality, or depth of insight.  Given the power of data and the importance it should have in decision making, we actually need to be increasing quality.

Clients want data that drives action and decision making, not just interesting facts.  Too often research may lead to a bit of a “so what?” reaction.  While it might be interesting to hear what people thought during a one-month fieldwork period, two months ago, how does that really help with decision making for tomorrow?

Resilience is not a dirty word

On top of all of these challenges, Covid-19 happened and the most dramatic post-war global business shake-up happened more-or-less overnight.  What’s interesting is to see how some businesses were able to pivot immediately to more resilient business practices, such as retailers fully embracing e-commerce, while others have been unable and may not indeed re-open. 

The same is true for research.  The implications for research go well beyond budgets and straight to the core of how it works.

According to research conducted by Qualtrics in April, 44% of UK market researchers believe conducting research during Covid-19 might come across as insensitive.  41% believed that response rates will be impacted.

The paradox is that actually research is more crucial now than ever before.  Given how the consumer world turned upside down overnight, this is now the most important time to understand what is happening.  How has the market changed?

Experience Management is a relatively new sector but it’s fundamental to the recovery of businesses, communities, populations, etc.  Insights are needed now, it’s no use waiting two to three months for aggregated results.

Furthermore, these concerns are not limited to the period of the pandemic.

The populous will still be nervous about what they deem unnecessary interactions for some time to come.  This will not be spread homogeneously throughout the population.  Equally, while we still wait to see whether there will be a second spike in Covid or indeed whether another mutation happens in a year or so, how comfortable will people be with face-to-face research for years to come.  

Many methodologies still rely on face-to-face interactions, whether in-home or elsewhere.  Face-to-face has long been seen as one of the highest quality forms of market research.  However, if I was in charge of a client budget, I would not be investing in long-term face-to-face methodologies.  The most important point for me would be to invest in high-quality and resilient approaches.

New Priorities

Here are five priorities that the industry should take on board today to be relevant for the future:

  • Better value:  First and foremost research needs to prove its return on investment.  This should be demonstrated with any budget requests or within the evaluation of different solutions.  Procurement is not enough.  The decision needs to be focused on business impact.
  • Resilient:  We need to focus on ensuring quality research from telephone or online techniques.
  • Action-driven:  Closely related is the importance that research should never elicit a ‘so what’ response from the business.
  • Speed and agility:  Research needs to be fast and responsive.  We need to know how the market is changing today, and if market changes happen today, we need to be able to know that without incurring additional agencies fees
  • Simplicity:  Many research programmes have evolved from an initially simple design to Frankenstein’s monster as these have evolved over the years.  Researchers need to embrace process engineering techniques.  These will increase quality, reduce risk, add speed and lower costs.

Combining all of these points together is the importance of consolidation.  Research platforms should enable everything from data acquisition to advanced and prescriptive analytics and should put results in the hands of those that need it.

Tim Farmer

Tim Farmer