Dec 012013
Posted by Jane Frost, CEO of MRS, The Market Research Society, UK.

Market research has a great future if it is brave enough to change. This was the challenge laid down by MRS Patron and Dunn Humby co-founder Clive Humby to a packed committee room at the House of Commons last week. The occasion was the MRS sponsored debate which asked whether big data was the death knell for market research.

The challenge is valid. Last year MRS commissioned PWC to produce a report on the size of the market for research in this country. It was deliberately called “the Business of Evidence”, because I believe that only collectively and only by defining ourselves by our client value can we build on what has been historically, and remains as we speak, a world leading sector.

We need to adopt the language of the people who pay us. We should not be asking our clients to do our work for us in promoting the value of what we do. You rarely hear the finance director defining himself by his accountancy qualification. I have rarely heard a marketing director do so either. So how come we as sector manage to promote so many labels which are of relevance only internally?

We are a service industry which develops the intellectual capital that businesses and policymakers need to take decisions. The customer understanding supplied by us can transform businesses, increase revenues and cut costs. That customer understanding can come from any source. So-called big data, for example, is just one supply stream. As a sector we should embrace it, use it and shape it by our standards. To our clients “big data” is a shiny new toy: one they know will be fun, but they don’t quite know how to use. By running scared or by ignoring its glitter and promise we do start to render ourselves out of touch. Big data is not even new, I can certainly make a case for it going back to the Magna Carta and many of you may argue that the census was its real genus.

As I write this, the label “big data” is showing some signs of going out of fashion. However data analytics teams are growing, and if we can’t prove the value of professionalism and creating an integrated customer view using all the knowledge streams at our disposal , current research and insight teams may be renamed customer data teams.

We have some key messages to deliver, and we are more than capable of doing so. We can own the use of data as a research methodology rather than an independent idea. My own experience in speaking to clients shows that they welcome an authoritative contribution to the data debate. Collectively we need to speak with one voice on four key messages:

1) Quality: reinforcing the value of having trained and qualified professionals working for you. MRS recent successes in, for example, gaining government recognition for the importance of accreditation in research procurement shows that this can be done.

2) Managing data risk: the use of personal data, and big data in general are potentially a significant risk to clients. There are the legal and ethical risks, the increasing threat of legislation, and the increasing potential cost of large datasets without a defined value or use. Many people do not recognise how much effort needs to go into creating reliable data. Misuse of personal data, and general decline in trust is starting to create new “hard to reach consumers”, increasingly high value groups, who work at avoiding identification. I believe that personal data is potentially a material risk that should be on the radar of every company’s audit committee.

3) Corporate social responsibility: the management of personal data needs to have the same value as the management of ingredient sourcing and environmental impact. Unilever’s Polman believed that procurement would be an important part of Brand in future lets ensure this includes procurement of data.

4) Controlling the question and the costs: the benefit of helping understand the questions that data should be answering will clearly have a cost benefit to clients and help the utility of their data investments. This is a key role for qualitative research for example, but it needs explaining.

We have first mover advantage in the Fairdata Mark. Use it. We know that it is a good way into clients when used to address these issues. In the UK we are world leaders in research training and accreditation, and MRS will shortly launch a CPD scheme. If we collectively support this it will become more important to clients.

We believe the UK market for evidence is £3 billion big. Statistics show it is back on the road to growth .To meet the opportunity and the challenge we need collectively to adopt data sciences as our own, addressing misconceptions about the status of data, and the best way to exploit it.

Click here to read other posts in this series.

Mar 222013

This week’s MRS Conference in London was one of the best events I have been to in the last year, generating lots of material to think about. There was a great mix of thinkers from the industry, ideas from outside market research, discussion, and good networking. The conference was true to its theme of the ‘Shock of the New’. The only weakness that I think is worth mentioning, because it is a reoccurring problem, is that there was too little international content. If the UK is going to command a position as an innovator, it needs more input from outside the UK, IMHO.

Key elements, for me, included:

The limitations of Big Data
The panel discussion, including great contributions from Lucien Bowater from BSkyB and Mark Risley from Google, emphasised the current limitations of big data in terms of the sorts of problems that market research is asked to answer. Big data approaches work best when there is a clearly defined, narrow question, and sufficient resources to find an answer. In many cases, market research is being called on to answer a more general, less well defined problem. Lucien, more than once, made the plea for research to tell him where to dig, i.e. provide a broad answer to a broad problem, and then he can apply more detailed techniques.

The panel also drew a marked distinction between real-time data collection (good) and real-time analysis (often not good).

What market research can learn from crowdsourcing
The photo, from the MRS website [], shows a panel discussion of four practitioners of crowdsourcing, being moderated by me. Although market research has long used some aspects of crowdsourcing, it was fascinating and useful to hear how:

  • • The People Who Share are creating a sharing economy, disintermediating traditional channels, and freeing up value by promoting sharing.
  • Transcribe Bentham are mobilising volunteers to contribute to an academic and literary project by helping transcribe the millions of words hand- written by Jeremy Bentham into a digital format, which has obvious implications for how market research might seek to tackle coding and tagging the mass of unstructured information they are gathering.
  • represented the world of crowd funding. One interesting point made by MD Phil Geraghty was that putting an idea into crowdfunding, and lettering the best ideas rise to the top, is a direct alternative (sometimes) for market research.
  • IdeaBounty showed how brands can access the creativity of the masses, and disintermediate agencies, by creating a platform where people can aim to win bounties by offering solutions to brands. Of particular relevance to market research was all the work IdeaBounty have done on IP, very relevant to areas like insight communities.

What market research can learn from art
The closing speaker on the first day was UK artist David Shrigley []. For me the main message was ‘be braver’, if we have an idea we should present it, without seeking to build lots of safety nets or excuses, just present it. Shrigley shared a large number of his drawings and some of his videos with us. The one for Scottish knitwear brand Pringle was especially eye catching and memorable; you can see it here.

What market research can learn from science?
The BBC broadcaster and professor of physics Jim Al Khalili gave a great closing presentation to the conference. Amongst the themes he covered were the dangers of paradoxes, showing that we can trap ourselves with faulty logic. He also highlighted the degree to which scientists have to deal with uncertainty, and the limits to what can be known. By contrast to his modern view of science, most market researchers either seem to reject science or have a primitive 1920s approach to science based on proving ideas, as opposed to basing their approach on ‘falsifiability’. Check out Al Khalili’s views on whether we have free will.

Scenario Planning is still less common than it ought to be!
My colleague Niamh Tallon and I ran a workshop on futuring, trendspotting, and cool hunting. Many of the slides I used were taken from a workshop I ran in 2002, however, the news seemed as fresh to market researchers now as it was then. I will come back to this on a future occasion.

Unintended benefits
I found some of the sessions useful, but not in the way that the people presenting intended. For example, the sight, sound and emotion session contained several reminders that a little learning can be a dangerous thing. For example, more than one speaker in the session (IMHO) over-interpreted findings from other disciplines. Indeed this session created a bit of a buzz in Twitter as people highlighted errors, and created the desire to have a NewMR session focused on exploding MR myths. You can read more about the Explode-A-Myth session here.

Mar 122013

This year’s MRS conference looks to be the most unsettling for years. The conference includes a range of new topics, each talking about how the non-research world will impact the cosy world of market research. If you can make it to London on the 19th and 20th March, I’d recommend it – if not, watch out for the digital outpouring.

I am lucky enough to be involved in two sessions and my colleagues at Vision Critical are the sponsors of the hub. The two sessions, both with the potential to be disruptive, are:

  1. A workshop on the application of scenario planning, futuring, trendspotting, cool hunting. Which I will be co-presenting with my Vision Critical colleague Niamh Tallon.
  2. A panel discussion on crowdsourcing, with four practitioners from outside the world of market research. The session is intended to highlight where crowdsourcing is at in 2013, and why market researchers should be learning from it.

Read About The Crowdsourcing Panel
Not everybody can attend the MRS Conference, and even for those who do, there is never time for long introductions. So the downloadable documents below provide an initial briefing on crowdsourcing, and the four organisations who will be taking part in the panel discussion.

How Crowdsourcing is Changing Your World – a note on crowdsourcing and the panel who will be appearing at the MRS Conference.

IdeaBounty, who will be represented by, Conductor :: 42Engines, Heidi Schneigansz.

The People Who Share, who will be represented by Chief Sharer, Benita Matofska.

Transcribe Bentham, who will be represented by Dr Tim Causer., who will be represented by Managing Director, Phil Geraghty.

If you could ask a question to the panel, what would it be?