Predicting The Unpredictable: A Call For Reason
By Ron Sellers
“There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.” Kenneth Olsen, President and founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977
I’ve recently spent some time reading predictions about the future of the market research industry (probably because at year-end, they proliferate). These predictions are quite varied. Some are upbeat. Some are dire. Some are radical. Many are contradictory. Just a few I’ve noticed recently:
- The market research industry is dying due to DIY research.
- Traditional focus groups are dying because of the advent of online qualitative and immersive research.
- Online access panels will soon be dead because of the commoditization of the industry.
- Mobile MR will essentially replace other forms of fieldwork because “everyone” has a smart phone or tablet device.
- RDD phone interviewing will soon be dead because of a variety of reasons (declining response rates, landline-only households, etc.).
- Social media monitoring is essentially going to replace primary market research.
- Neuropsychology, eye-tracking, “big data” analytics, gamification, behavior economics, text analytics, and (fill in the blank) will each/all replace traditional market research.
“Everything that can be invented has been invented.” Charles H. Duell, U.S. Commissioner of Patents, 1899
Note that these predictions were generally coming from people who were talking about the very near term, not five or ten years from now. If you are a purveyor or supporter of such things as social media monitoring or text analytics, predictions such as these probably have you salivating. If you’re a traditional phone field center, focus group moderator, or online panel provider, it may be best to tell your family to hide all sharp objects – your livelihood is essentially over, and sooner rather than later. Change, or find yourself living under a bridge by this time next year.
Funny thing about predictions, though: they’re often wrong. Looking back, they’re often laughably wrong.
“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” Western Union internal memo, 1876
I remember back in the mid-90s when I was working at Bank One, and a major consulting firm predicted that half of all bank branches would close in the next five years due to the advent of online banking and telephone banking. Five years later, there were more bank branches than ever. Soon after, I heard again how brick-and-mortar branches were unneeded, antiquated relics because of mobile banking. Today, Bank of America alone still has 5,800 branches nationwide, and Chase Bank planned to increase their openings of new branches from 120 per year to 200 in 2011, and “probably more than that in subsequent years.” As Chase noted, “While use of the Internet and ATMs has skyrocketed, branch traffic essentially has remained steady.” Basically, instead of replacing one contact point with another, bank customers often just expanded their repertoire to fit their needs of the moment – no matter what the experts predicted.
“Man will never reach the moon, regardless of all future scientific advances.” Radio pioneer Lee De Forest, 1957
I’ve heard steadfast predictions for over a decade now that traditional, in-person focus groups would soon be dead because of all the new qualitative techniques. I still moderate plenty of those good old fashioned focus groups, and the Greenbook directory shows 42 focus group facilities in the Chicago metro area alone. Just a few years ago I was repeatedly told that anyone who didn’t Tweet would quickly be left behind…yet here we are in 2012 with only about one out of every ten Americans using Twitter (according to Pew Research Center). Maybe that’s why, at the risk of being labeled a Luddite, I tend to take some of the predictions of the immediate demise of more traditional methods with a grain of salt – just because one new approach is born doesn’t always mean an existing approach has to die.
“The problem with television is that the people must sit and keep their eyes glued on a screen; the average American family hasn’t time for it.” New York Times, 1939
There are many problems with predictions. Some people who make them want to promote a particular method that they sell or to which they are partial. Predictions generally must make a splash in order to get noticed; no one is going to be fascinated by an article about the future of research that says it’s going to be much like last year. As humans, we’re programmed to pay particular attention to the new and shiny, making it look much more attractive than the tried and true. Many of these new and shiny methods also have not yet fully displayed their faults and limitations; I expect in a few years to be hearing a lot more about the problems with mobile MR and text analytics, just like we’re hearing about the problems with online access panels today (wait – did I just make a prediction?).
One thing we should all know as researchers is that Aldous Huxley was right when he said, “The only completely consistent people are the dead.” We can forecast advances in technology, but we can’t really forecast human reactions to those advances. Maybe corporate researchers will invest in big data analytics only to discover they’re missing a hugely important piece: the story of why. Maybe they’ll spend heavily on social media monitoring, and two years from now something entirely new will be quickly replacing social media (when MySpace first became popular, who would have predicted something called Facebook would render it irrelevant?). Or maybe researchers will take a step back and realize it’s still just a minority of American adults who are on a social network (again, Pew).
It’s also up to us as researchers to communicate and demonstrate the value of traditional research activities, rather than just continuing to rely on them because that’s what we’re most familiar with. There are undoubtedly situations where social media monitoring is the answer to the client’s information need – but there are also undoubtedly situations where a good old fashioned survey is what will serve them best. We need to discern the best approach, not the newest or the most comfortable.
“We don’t like their sound. Groups of guitars are on the way out.” Decca Records rejecting the Beatles, 1962
Should we ignore predictions about the research industry? At our own peril. The world is changing, including the world we work in. But using predictions about market research should be very similar to using market research itself: predictions should inform and guide your decisions, not make them for you. They also must be applied to your individual company, industry, and setting. We need to think, to grow, to prepare for the future. What we don’t need is to panic and throw the baby out with the bathwater because a bunch of prognosticators have said the world as we know it is ending. Maybe it is…but then again, maybe it isn’t. Or maybe it is, but it will take a whole lot longer than just the next year.
It’s up to you to evaluate the evidence and make informed decisions for the future. You know, like we’re supposed to do in research, whether we’re using shiny new gamification or a creaky old mail survey.