Have you heard of Survey Monkey? Google surveys? Of course you have. These are two of the highest profile ‘free’ survey tools that have moved into widespread use and have virtually abolished the consumer business divide since just about anybody with an email list can use them. Then there are Twitter and Facebook polls. And surveys you can administer off your website. You can also get involved in focus group type research by using an online platform which can gather your participants from all over. And not necessarily at the same time. They can log on - look at one of your questions and answer it or comment on what somebody else has written - at any time of the day or night. If you aren’t in a hurry you can let the answers come through gradually as people read what others have said. If you are in a hurry and have a credit card to match then head for a website like ZappiStore and you can pay for opinions by the hundred - upload whatever it is you want reviewed - then wait for the responses to come in - you could have the results back in a few hours even in the form of a PowerPoint presentation.
The research industry isn’t exactly happy about this. Nor are the research departments inside client companies with experienced researchers who knew how to do research properly. Now just about anybody can have a go. And they are. A process of agreeing the objectives, getting suppliers to tender for the best method at the lowest price is in under strain because the budget holders are suddenly realising that if they want to know what customers think they can do that without having to join a queue outside the research department.
Now most of these new ways of doing research use the internet in some way or other which makes for a great increase in speed. And a big drop in costs because the human labour in setting up research studies isn’t there in the way it is with a face to face research method. But cost savings respect nobody not even research commissioners. Research is getting so fast and cheap that you may end up not having to pay anybody at all.
I was speaking at the national conference of the Market Research Society recently, making myself unpopular with my peers by suggesting that this may not be a bad thing. That the convention of having a single department manage and control all the information into and out of an organisation is fanciful and never worked properly in the first place. Rather like marketing departments who do almost no marketing but spend 90% of their time making marketing communications, so market research departments are becoming blockages to their own organisations because the customer information streams are bursting into their organisations from all over and they simply can’t keep up much less control.
From the feedback I got in the Q&A at the end of my session it became clear that research departments are indeed fighting a rear guard action against their own people who are enthusiastically commissioning their own research. Here are the objections: it isn’t very good research, it duplicates with work which has already been done. It undermines client researchers’ own attempts to manage their budgets because the research is being paid for from different sources.
The question I asked which nobody wanted to answer was - Why are people in your organisations who don’t have research in their job description commissioning their own projects instead of asking you to do it with their budgets? One half answer was that the research department was understaffed so took too long to respond to internal requests.
So here’s the idea: To make research departments less a place from where research is commissioned or from where results get disseminated and more a centre for managing the quality of customer information across the whole organisation, wherever it has come from and whoever has commissioned it. A small change with massive implications. It makes gathering customer data into a networked operation not a linear one. . Clients commission research. Suppliers make it. Client researchers manage quality. It won’t be quite that simple. But client researchers as doers doesn’t seem work the way it used to. Market research departments will continue to lose share of the amount of customer knowledge they control in an organisation unless they repurpose.
This has already started happening in some organisations. Speaking to Steve Phillips of ZappiStore it became clear that in some client organisations the role of Insight has become specifying best practice (in a Zappi world deciding on methods / research apps to use) and then letting people within the organisation determine what gets researched when. The insight team’s job is just to focus on the how.
So get researchers doing what they do best (and that’s not cutting corners in time and costs) and consider how to increase the quality of customer information - that will mean providing basic training in how to ask good questions of customers. For which you may want help from a barefoot insighter!
John Griffiths is the barefoot insighter! He runs his research and planning consultancy Planning Above and Beyond.