To accelerate innovation, market research must take more risks

23 August 2019 | 5 min read | Written by Eileen Campbell

I spent a lot of years in the world of advertising research where we always counseled our clients about the power of “new news.” So while the 2019 GRIT Business & Innovation Report was, as always, very well done, I was struck that there’s no big new story. To be clear, that’s not a flaw of the GRIT report. Rather, it is cause for reflection on whether our industry is doing enough to embrace change.

The annual study conducted by GreenBook shows that the companies of long standing continue to dominate the top of the list. The Most Innovative Client List is made up of the same 10 organizations from last year, for example, with the top 7 retaining their positions. There’s more movement in the Supplier Ranking, but the top 4 — Ipsos, Kantar, Nielsen and LRW — are firmly established players.

While all of these companies are good, strong industry players, I am surprised to see them topping a list of innovators. Of the top 5 companies (including their component parts for holding companies), one was founded in the 20s, one in the 30s, two in the 70s and just one this millennium.

There’s nothing wrong with stability, and for a study such as the GRIT report, it’s natural and expected that the bigger, more established firms will be top-of-mind. But with so many perennial players topping the list, one can’t help but wonder if our industry is taking enough risks and embracing innovation quickly enough.

In a recent GRIT webinar hosted by Lenny Murphy, I mentioned how I share the optimism many have about the future of our industry. But I also think that we can do a better job of driving innovation and challenging the status quo in our industry.

Inspired by this year’s report, here are three ideas on how we can accelerate innovation in our industry.

Go beyond “faster, cheaper”

One key theme from this GRIT report is the enduring obsession for “faster, cheaper.” As we’ve heard time and time again, researchers (both on the client and agency sides) are under pressure to do more with less.

I’m all for “faster, cheaper,” and I think that old adage of “faster, cheaper, better — pick any two” is, frankly, stupid. Faster, cheaper and better are table stakes for modern researchers, but we need relentless focus on “better.” Yes, we need the speed to provide real-time insights for customer-centric decisions. And yes, we have to do so without blowing up our budgets. But there’s no point in being first if you’re wrong — and being cheaper makes it no less wrong!

Faster, cheaper and better are table stakes for modern researchers, but we need relentless focus on “better.”

I’d like to see us redefine what it needs to be “better” by turning our focus to being more authentic in how we engage in research, driving deeper, richer and more actionable insights. I’m very concerned about our industry’s over-reliance on email distribution. The vast majority of online research relies on email-based surveys to recruit and continuously engage participants. But open rates for emails are in steep decline as customers are moving to social media and messaging platforms to communicate with each other. If we continue to rely on technologies and approaches that depend on email to reach customers, we will fail to hear from millennials, Gen Zers and many other consumer groups. This has always been true in emerging markets, but it is increasingly a reality in developed markets as well.

We can and should move away from email to deliver insights that are quick,  cost-efficient and be able to capture the authentic voice of customers. It’s crucial that we begin delivering what my colleague Andrew Reid likes to refer to as the “truth serum” in the organization. We need to go where people are, and use approaches that more effectively uncover the real thoughts and feelings of our customers.

Realizing the promise of AI

This year’s GRIT report shows that AI is the biggest trend researchers are watching.

I agree that AI holds great promise for market research. As I mentioned to Sima Vasa on her Data Gurus podcast recently, researchers have been doing some basic forms of machine learning in many of our daily tasks, so we also have an opportunity to lead in this important arena. 

That said, to realize the promise of AI, we need to demand better approaches to improve the quality of our data. AI has the power to expand our capabilities exponentially, but it also risks becoming “garbage in, garbage out” writ large. Job one for realizing the power of AI is getting our input data house in order.

To realize the promise of AI, we need to demand better approaches to improve the quality of our data.

This is why both Rival Technologies and Reach3 Insights — companies that are under Reid Campbell Group — are so keen on the use of conversational chat surveys and the rapidly advancing capabilities of natural language processing. As our AI capabilities expand, chats allow us to be confident in the quality of the data inputs in a way that is very difficult to deliver via traditional email surveys.

Boosting the influence of insights

I have been a long and vocal advocate that corporate insights practitioners are the  “secret weapons” in most successful businesses. But they are also some of the most under-appreciated and unsung heroes. It’s well past time for that to change! 

Gaining visibility within organizations is crucial to protecting the future of insight teams and their budgets. Researchers have to be proactive in boosting their visibility and influence on business outcomes. Given the short corporate attention spans and the ever-accelerating speed at which businesses need to operate, traditional insights deliverables will no longer cut it. To democratize insights and drive customer centricity in the organization, we have to be better storytellers.

Researchers have to be proactive in boosting their visibility and influence on business outcomes.

Matt Kleinschmit and his team at Reach3 are rethinking how insights can be delivered and distributed within organizations. They are experimenting with short, interactive deliverables that highlight the top 3 takeaways that matter to clients. User-generated videos and other multimedia assets are also included to provide additional context. The goal is to make corporate insighs teams heroes and for their work to go viral within their organizations. Every piece of content is created with the idea that quick comprehension and shareability are of paramount importance for insights to drive decision-making. We know that deliverables that get shared around in the organization are most effective, but they also highlight and elevate the work of the insights team in the process.

More investment in people

When discussing innovation, there’s risk of focusing too much on technology and not putting enough emphasis on people. At Reid Campbell Group, we are firm believers in the power of technology to change the insights world. We’re delighted that newer companies that top GRIT’s lists are technology-led organizations. The up-and-comers — those who are punching above their weight and challenging the Kantars and Nielsens of the world — are typically companies with a SaaS business.

But we should remember that human capital is more important than ever for the market research industry. Tech allows us to do more with less money, but it doesn’t eliminate the need for great consulting and people who can make sense of that data.

More than ever, we need to invest in our industry’s people if we want to drive innovation. Perhaps more importantly, we need to push market researchers at all levels and career stages to think beyond established approaches and take more risks with newer approaches of doing things. It is only through experimentation and embracing risk that we drive real innovation in our industry and deliver more value to the organizations we serve.

A version of this article first appeared on NewMR

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Written by Eileen Campbell

Chair and Co-founder, Reid Campbell Group

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