Can Market Research Get Beyond Questions?

The future of questions

Everyone likes to make predictions as one year closes and another begins with fresh hopes, although fewer go back to check what they said previously (with some notable exceptions). Rather than make predictions, most of which are guaranteed not to happen, I would like to share a hope for how market research can reinvent itself for the future. In sharing my hope I can also share some of the changes that I believe will happen at some time in the near future (I would never be confident enough to say that it will be in 2012).

My big wish is that market research can start to get beyond its obsession with questions.

Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s important to ask (yourself) questions all the time, and this should be the lifeblood of all researchers. Having previously worked for a company that claimed to be the most curious in the world, I can only endorse Albert Einstein’s view that, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”

However, having a questioning and curious nature is one thing. Insisting that asking questions is the only possible answer to your curiosity is misguided folly. Sadly, it seems that many researchers are still obsessed with finding answers by asking people questions and, more dangerously for the profession, insist on defining themselves in terms of their skills at asking these questions.

I hope that market research can be much more than this.

The folly of questions

The folly of questions is the elephant in the market research room. There is only ever a point in asking a question, if the person you ask is likely to know the answer (and is prepared to share that answer with you). [And to make things even more difficult, the answer will change as context changes.]

We should all realise by now that most of human behaviour is not under conscious control. To put it bluntly, none of us know why we do most of the things we do. Of course, we can introspect and sometimes come to some part of the truth, but the reality is that most things we do happen in the smarter part of the brain which doesn’t need to think too much (I choose my worlds deliberately) and is so efficient that it can automate the majority of our behaviours and choices. [If anyone still doubts this, I would urge them to read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.]

One of the trends of recent years has been the growth in do-it-yourself (DIY) research, something which many market researchers are up in arms about. It seems that most of their concern (or anger) is not about DIY research, but rather DIY questionnaires. The reality is that DIY research is focused on the data collection part of market research (which historically has been the basis of the business model of most medium and large market research agencies). Why shouldn’t clients who have small budgets find ways to make data collection cheaper? Do market researchers really want to define their expertise in terms of the ability to write better questions? Shouldn’t there be much more to research than collecting data?

In my opinion, if the industry is only about data collection, then it is doomed. Data collection is primarily about accessing the right participants (which is becoming ever easier and cheaper) and collecting data (which everyone can do through DIY surveys).

I have yet to hear any researchers complaining about DIY analysis and statistics (or for that matter DIY anthropology and social science) although the majority of the analysis and statistics that I see in research agencies is closer to DIY than expert (take for example how multiple significance testing and data distribution assumptions are constantly ignored and abused). As data collection becomes easier and cheaper, then the analysis and interpretation should become more and more important, and a territory that market research can and should take as part of a broader expertise in business intelligence and consumer understanding.

But to jump back up the page, if market research is to own expertise in consumer behaviour, then we really need to demonstrate better understanding of what that behaviour is, and how it can be understood. We need to get beyond questions.

Behaviours not opinions

Fortunately many of the trends in business intelligence (although not always in market research), are creating opportunities for research to reach beyond questions. More and more behavioural data is available through transactional information, social media, customer relationship databases and other sources, with opportunities to provide richer and richer insights into real behaviours rather than stated opinions (the first buzzword of 2011 is ‘big data’). For example, google searches can predict elections and inflation rates as accurately as any research survey. This doesn’t make it a universal panacea for research, but does mean that it will become less and less necessary to ask questions anyway. A related trend and buzzword is ‘data visualisation’ which is becoming ever more important in the context of data overload and the need for synthesis and simplification.

However, the companies leading the field in the analysis of such data (such as IBM) are not currently part of the market research industry (although that might change very soon, when they buy a large agency or vice-versa). Remember that the fastest growing research agency in the world by many measures is Dunnhumby (an off shoot of the analysis of Tesco’s Clubcard customer program).

Another of the market research buzzwords of 2011 was ‘gamification’, which at heart is a trend to make questions more relevant, more engaging and more context specific. To put it another way, gamification works by measuring something less like directed questioning and more like behavioural responses to context (in the spirit of behavioural economics which is another buzzword of the past year).

Happily, approaches that focus on the importance of context and real behaviours (such as ethnography, observation and to a lesser extent semiotics) do seem to be on the rise, although the uptake is slow and both clients and agencies continue to cling to old methods and old models.

Three wishes for market research

Market research must embrace change to keep its relevance. Ultimately, market research is about helping clients make decisions, based on solid understanding of consumer behaviour placed in the context of a client’s business problem. This requires three core strengths at the heart of everything we do.

  1. Understanding human behavior in all its complexity, focusing on real behaviours and the context of those behaviours (especially culture) and getting beyond superficial opinions and beliefs that do not reflect reality.
  2. The analytic and critical thinking skills to look across different data sources including the vast river of ‘big data’ and pick out the key threads and overall meaning through discrimination, synthesis and simplification.
  3. Business skills to turn our understanding of the consumer and the data landscape into messages that can create an impact in our client’s business, through focused messages, clear visuals, engaging stories and the bravery to have a point of view.

Let’s make a resolution to get beyond questions.


Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (2011)