The explosion of social and mobile in the last three years has fast-tracked and fuelled the research evolution, providing oceans of data, flexible collection methods and more enthusiastic audiences. Madeleine Ross gets the insights into the next generation of research.
If marketers are the architects of brand solutions, researchers are the engineers. The former can’t operate without the latter. The most imaginative designs, strategies and executions fall flat without the relevant facts, figures and insights to shape and guide them; it’s construction, and marketing, 101.
But in today’s ultra-competitive landscape, where consumers have more choice, less time and tighter wallets than ever before, research is increasingly critical.
Whether testing advertising, preparing to launch new products or testing products already in market, brands are forking out millions to get the scoop on what their consumers like and don’t like well before they lose out in market share, or bare the brunt on Facebook.
And, as the importance of research grows, so too do the scope of its objectives, data sources and collection methods.
The fragmentation of media channels over the last five years has opened up vast oceans of data which both research companies and businesses are working to translate into actionable insights.
Furthermore, the proliferation of new media, particularly social media and mobile devices, has revolutionised the way brands can find, interact with and analyse their sample audiences, making contemporary research fast, economical and far more fun for the consumers involved.
“The amount of change in the last three years has been amazing,” says Peter Harris, MD of Vision Critical. “Research has always been about making sure every ‘i’ is dotted and ‘t’ is crossed. It’s been slow and steady and accurate but the speed of decision-making in business has increased very quickly in the last three years, so now market research has to evolve to keep up.
“If it’s going to play a key role in decision-making research needs to provide answers that are much more cost-effective, much more actionable, and much more rapid.”
There’s no doubt; the industry is at a turning point.
Market research: a history in brief
Simplistically put, research provides brands with data and insights to help them understand consumers’ behaviour and spending patterns. It helps marketers build audience profiles and consequently target marketing efforts to relevant consumer communities.
Market research, as an industry, sprung to life in the 1960s in line with advertising’s ‘golden age’. Its mainstays were face-to-face surveys, telephone questionnaires and focus groups – the type where 20 people were lumped in a room to be observed by a brand scientist from behind a mirrored glass pane.
Then advent of the internet in the late 1990s turned the industry, like so many others, on its head. Since then, online and digital have become its linchpins both in terms of both data creation and collection.
The uptake of personal devices, like mobile phones and tablets, and the advent of social media mean clients now have far more behavioural and sales data at their fingertips.
“The research function is basically moving from a ‘we need to ask some questions and conduct surveys to inform marketing management’ to ‘what are all the different sources of data and touch points we have to our target audience? And how are we going to form that into a coherent knowledge and insights program to help meet our overall business objectives?’” says James Burge, MD of Research Now.
Typical marketing research ranges from advertising research, brand dynamics, product and concept research, shopper research, point of sale research to consumer experience research.
And now that research has become more integrated across the business, looking at wider ranging data on a more continuous basis.
The need for speed
“The major shift in the way the research industry is heading is more often that if it’s right but late, it’s increasingly useless,” says Harris.
Five years ago a brand’s annual research would consist of implementing a traditional brand tracker, running a number of usage to attitude studies and a few big segmentations during the year. The projects were fewer, slower and of much larger value.
The modern approach to research, however, is about “using existing intelligence, technology and capabilities to extract insights now rather than waiting for the perfect solution,” says MCN Multiview insights and analytics director, Murray Love.
Why? Because marketers need to be faster to market than ever before and that pressure, in turn, is passed on to their research teams.
“The speed to market is much faster than it was ten or 15 years ago,” says Kate Platter, New South Wales director of Ipsos ASI. “The speed at which you can launch a product is much faster, and the speed at which somebody can copy it is much faster, so your window of opportunity as a marketer has become much smaller. We have to match that now.”
Today too, marketing research is more and more about “integrative learning” and ongoing conversations. The typical research approach may be to ask your sample five questions, find out the answers two days later, change something in the business accordingly, measure the effects of that change, then come up with another few questions for your sample.
It’s constant, shorter and sharper. “Always-on” research, as opposed to project work.
The digital insurrection
Allowing those conversations to be fast and ongoing is the world of digital.
Surveys can be written, distributed and answered all in a matter of hours online. Brands can also create “closed communities” of consumers to whom they can refer again and again at short notice – something brands like Telstra and Nestle – two of Vision Critical’s clients, are already doing.
Nestle’s is called the Nestle Kitchen Conversation and allows the brand to conduct survey discussions and qualitative research in a dedicated online forum which replaces the traditional focus group.
While the digital shift may provide the biggest opportunities for brands, it also presents some major hurdles.
In the words of Ipsos’ Platter, “The proliferation and fragmentation of media channels is one of the biggest challenge for marketers [because] brands need to integrate and push their product across all these different platforms.”
Media fragmentation, in turn, means researchers have to be broader with their data collection.
Now, instead of just looking at paid media like TV, print and radio, research needs to be across owned media – like Facebook, Twitter and branded microsites, and earned media – which includes people retweeting, sharing emails and posting messages on their Facebook pages.
If you don’t measure and listen to all of the channels, you wont get a comprehensive understanding of your audience.
“Today marketers require a holistic and extensive understanding of consumers’ evolving media and shopping behaviours and how that is influencing their purchasing decisions,” says Nielsen director of brand and shopper, Leigh Shaw.
“The advantages of viewing these behaviours in unison is paramount, as integration of insights across multiple platforms becomes increasingly vital to smart marketing strategies and executions.”
Luckily, researchers are finding that more people want to get involved with research digitally. By talking to people on their mobile phones when they’re bored on the bus, or on social media when they are playing around, they are more likely to want to interact.
“Another reason that research is moving into new media is that not enough normal people want to get involved in traditional research, so we are trying to use technology to move from 10% wanting to do research to 40% which is a lot better,” says Vision Critical’s Harris.
People have become more demanding of their interactions with media or market research. “They want it to be relevant, rewarding, worthwhile and that puts demand on market research too,” says Research Now’s Burge.
The potential for research in social channels is two-fold. Researchers use the space to create new ways of interviewing and interacting with their audiences, and also observe and measure those audiences via social media listening.
Tools like Radian6 enable the latter. Using these, researchers can scan what people are saying in social media, process information and make sense of it. Everything that is said about topics and brands is recorded.
The other side of social media’s research function is finding, “intercepting” and interacting with hard-to-reach audiences.
“We are getting a lot more involved in intercepting people in social media environments like Facebook or gaming,” says Research Now’s Burge. “When we intercept them we ask them whether they would be willing to share their opinions in order to earn the rewards that are relevant to that particular environment, like Facebook credits or Singha game credits.”
According to Burge, “It’s pretty hard to recruit young males and certain other demographics to a normal online panel for market research but if you intercept them in the right place and you offer them the right rewards, we can find out what they are thinking. It’s a new and effective way of gathering research.”
Mobile is singled out by almost every researcher as the most exciting area for research because it enables consumers to participate in studies anywhere, anytime. The industry is no longer restricted to post-dinner time interaction where people are plugged into their PCs.
“Typically people would used to have to be home in front of their computers to participate in a survey. Now they can do it when they are out and about or on the bus and have spare time,” says Burge.
“With the mobile surveys we are doing now, we find just under half of them are done out of home and out of work – places we wouldn’t have otherwise been able to reach people, so it makes it a lot more flexible.”
Aside from pure convenience, mobile phones also open up new types of data and a whole series of new data collection opportunities, including real-time knowledge about location, and the ability to scan bar-codes at points of purchase.
“A lot of clients are really excited about the fact that they can start to survey people or interact with them when they are at the moment of truth actually deciding what they are going to buy,” says Burge.
Ipsos carried out a reseasch project at the London Olympic Games wanting to know about methods of transportation. The company asked punters to record where they were – which tubeline, which bus – via their smartphones, which enabled them to draw a map of how people were getting to different events. This knowledge will be used to plan for future public events.
The data deluge
When it comes to data analysis methods, not a lot has shifted. “The way we analyse data had probably not changed too much,” says Platter. “It’s still a bunch of researchers looking at the numbers trying to find patterns using certain mathematical techniques.
“The major difference is that there is now a lot more data that we have to look at. Previously we would have just looked at our own research data. But clients are increasingly wanting to integrate other forms of data, so not only do we have to look at a piece of advertising to see how it has performed – how many people saw it and whether they know what brand it is for – we need to know how our client supported that, how much money they spent, what their competitors have been doing, what was happening in-store at the time, how many people got samples of it, what was happening on social media etc.
“We have to integrate all those different sources so that the marketers can get a really clear picture of what was going on.”
The increasing amounts of data available are making market research insights a lot more specific, but the biggest challenge for the industry is the move towards using big data more effectively, says MCN’s Love. “While everyone knows the importance of it, its about harnessing its power so that major business decision makers can navigate through big data’s insights.”
Gathering data is becoming increasingly easy. Traditional research agencies have done this for decades and its fast becoming the mainstay of media agencies.
No doubt big data will continue to shape data collection methodology in the media landscape. The breadth of insights it poses to deliver will enable brands to understand more sophisticated trends than ever before.
But while everyone has become a master at collecting the facts, few have worked out how to interpret them and translate them into actionable insights. According to David Gaines, former CEO of media agency Maxus and now head of start-up research agency Edentify, the biggest challenge facing marketing is that it lacks people who can digest and make sense of data.
“In the last five years, the amount of data including market research that we have access to is just so big and unwieldy and the ability to collect and gather it has come at a far quicker pace than agencies have been able to change their businesses to ensure they have the right minds interpreting it.
“In agencies we’ve got very good at collecting data with fantastic tools and equipment that pulls together data second-by-second which gives us a steer on what people are doing at a particular moment in time. Pair our data with the research done by traditional research houses like Roy Morgan and Nielsen and you see that everyone has got really good at pulling this stuff together. But there are not many people out there who are saying ‘in a nutshell, this is what that means as an insight’, and ‘here is where we should go as a result’.
According to Gaines, for research to evolve to the next stage, the industry needs to pour more resources into bridging the gap between data and strategy. This, he says, should be done by hiring senior minds and experienced strategic consultants, like econometricians, who specialise in data evaluation full time.
MCN’s Love believes we can expect to see more data collaboration between marketers and media partners, operating together to improve targeting as well as measuring a camapaign’s effectiveness. Furthermore, data will become increasingly usable and unlocked via more intuititve data-mining software, which will become more important as data becomes more complex.
Further than that, researchers will continue to aggregate cross platform audiences more effectively to garner more holistic and comprehensive pictures of their target audiences.
“We live in exciting times where technology is fuelling an evolution in the way research is conducted,” says Nielsen’s Shaw. “Precision research will become increasingly vital to making business-critical decisions, and having a complete picture and understanding of consumer and shopper behaviour across all areas of their life will be a major requirement for marketers and sales directors to articulate their business decisions in the future.”
OPINION: Ipsos director Kate Platter tells us how research is becoming more and more mobile-centric
"It's 1999. Your dinner guest is trying to convince you that in the future, almost every consumer will carry a research device for 19 hours a day – it will record when he wakes up and goes to sleep, when he uses the internet or application, when he makes a phone call and sends texts, where he goes that day. Researchers can ask him questions at the exact point of experience.
Science fiction? Look around, the future is almost here.
While mobile research has been around for a while (Ipsos conducted its first SMS mobile survey in 2000), it wasn't until the genius of the Apple iPhone that consumers truly began to use their phone for more than just phone calls. Consumers developed an eagerness to share, update their Facebook status, Tweet their latest opinion and check-in on FourSquare.
It's this rich experience of the mobile smartphone and tablet that gives mobile its unique advantages as a research tool to understand consumers:
- Anywhere, anytime, the mobile phone is rarely out of reach
- It is in the moment and at the point of experience, purchase, consumption
- It enables rich data collection – photos, videos, location
- It combines passive (eg location data) with active (what did you buy) to build 360 understanding.
Four types of research can currently be conducted via mobile devices: surveys, diaries/ethnography, live events and passive monitoring.
Firstly, regular surveys can be conducted in a number of ways. Short SMS surveys are appropriate when you have less than 5 questions, and both the question and answer fits within 160 characters. WAP (via mobile internet) works for a 5 minute survey when images are needed, eg when a frequent flyer steps off the plane and you want to ask satisfaction with the flight.
For more complex surveys with richer data (location, pictures, videos) then a mobile survey app will be needed. In-home diaries and ethnographic studies usually require this kind of technology. For example, Ipsos recently conducted a study in the snacks category. During their shop, participants were asked a few questions like "what did they buy? Where did they buy it? (shelf or POS)". Respondents also kept a diary so we could understand what they ate (photo), when, event (lunch/snack) and how they felt at this time. All data are then linked back to location.
Similarly for advertising, we can ask consumers to tell us when they've just seen an ad. At that moment we can gather: the brand, media, touchpoint, how it made them feel, relevance, impressions as well as a photo of the creative itself.
In live event monitoring, consumers watch the event, answer questions and participate in moderated discussions through an app. Ipsos has conducted studies like this for the Oscars, MTV Awards and Golf Live as well as a live shopper study.
Passive measurement of media consumption and other behaviours on the phone allows us to make better decisions as providers of content – advertisers, brand owners, media buyers etc.
What's preventing mobile from being a major league player in research?
For Australia there are two key issues. Privacy for many is a huge concern. Respondents must give permission for passive measurement and transfer of their information. Participation costs are also a barrier – while many consumers are on unlimited text bundles, internet browsing or web enabled apps use up data that consumers must pay for.
Bring on free WiFi, the National Broadband Network, unlimited data plans and zero rated URLS – we're ready to mobilise!"