Last week I had the great pleasure of attending my first ever ESOMAR Congress, which by a stroke of serendipity was right here in my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. This was the 65th Anniversary of ESOMAR and their first ever Congress in the United States, so it was a pretty big deal on multiple fronts.
If you’d like a “blow by blow” breakdown of the conference, our own client-side blogger June WestHolland shared her perspective of Day 1 here. ESOMAR has extensive coverage via multiple bloggers on the RW Connect site here and Jon Puleston captured all of the buzz topics in his summary here. Of course, the “Newspaper of Record” for the MR Industry, Research-live.com has detailed coverage on their site.
My overall take was that it was an excellent event at all levels. ESOMAR knows how to produce exceptional conferences with high production values, great content, extensive networking opportunities, and first-class venues. But there were a few things that surprised me at this one and that I think, when taken together, will be looked back on as pivotal moments in the future course of the market research industry.
The first was the very fact that the Congress was in the US, and the acknowledgment that the United States now comprises the single largest segment of ESOMAR membership. Globalization is alive and well and it appears that ESOMAR is very much positioning itself as the global unifying organization for market research, a “United Nations” of MR if you will. I have my doubts about whether that is possible (there is an immense amount of politics involved between trade bodies) or even desirable since the conditions on the ground in various countries and regions can be so radically different from the European perspective that is ingrained in ESOMAR, but I applaud the effort to build some level of cohesive global framework for the industry. Ultimately I suspect more collaboration between organizations will happen, but not “one ring to rule them all.”
In the future the norm will be an increasing global and borderless focus for the industry as a whole, and this will be reflected in our trade bodies, media, and events. It will be interested to observe how the needs of constituent countries will impact the agenda of these initiatives, and similar to the world stage I think we’ll see an increased tension between the priorities of the US vs. the rest of the world. That will most visibly play out around issues of privacy I think, which brings me to my next point…
I was privileged to be asked to be on a panel discussion called “White Hat vs. Black Hat: Ensuring the Future Growth of Market Research”. Here is an excerpt from the summary by Erika Harriford-McLaren:
Privacy in a changing world was the underlying theme of this panel session. Opened by Judith Passingham, Congress Programme Chair, the panel session featured Dave McCaughan of McCann World Group, Lenny Murphy, GreenBook, Sjoerd Koornstra, Heineken International, Mike Cooke, Global Panel Management and Reg Baker, Consultant to Market Strategies International and the ESOMAR Professional Standards Committee.
Each panelist gave a brief presentation providing their unique viewpoint on how privacy regulations are pushing the industry to a focus on social science and stats in a time where new entrants are creating pressure to expand the sector to meet growing and widening client needs.
I suppose I was the resident “Black Hat” on the panel, but the reality was that none of us were very far from the same position: new competitors, changing technology and cultural norms, and most importantly evolving client needs are all massively transformational for the research industry. Where we differed was on how to deal with it. I chose to drill down into what the new competitive set looks like:
You can read the details on our positions in Erika’s summary. I maintain that issues around privacy will be resolved in an evolving terms of service agreement between the various mobile/social/e-commerce platform providers and consumers, most likely through a VRM type consumer data bank model. It is the role of trade bodies to understand regulatory issues as they pertain to our industry, but the new players in this dialogue simply have unprecedented reach, influence, and money to mold this debate and ultimately our position on the issue will be a very small concern in light of the global fiscal considerations inherent in it. I trust that the Googles, Facebooks, Amazons, etc… of the world will adapt to create open value for consumers, dragging brands with them, and when the value is proven governments won’t have a leg to stand on. When that happens, what role will trade orgs have?
I also believe that the way we think of sampling and representativity will fundamentally change as a result of “big data” analytics driven largely by non-MR centric data sources, allowing for a greater focus on the micro vs. the macro and forcing research to shift away from broad descriptive statistics of groups and instead to be the keepers of insights on the hearts and minds of individual consumers. It’s a brave new world for our industry, and one that we need to begin to adapt to now.
All of this brings me to my final point on why this event may prove to be pivotal for MR. There were a host of new entrants to the marketplace participating at the conference: new tech suppliers were abundant (especially from emerging markets) as were thought leaders on topics like mobile research, gamification, behavioral economics, emotional measurement, neuromarketing, biometrics, etc.. What was really different was the participation of companies like Bazaarvoice, SurveyMonkey, Facebook, Google, and the introduction of a bold new vision from Toluna and Nielsen. The combined message from these firms was that the game truly has changed and our future will look very different from our past.
That message was delivered loudly and clearly during a panel hosted by Stan Sthanunathan of Coke that consisted of the firms I mentioned above, minus Bazaarvoice, who had a stellar standalone session earlier on how shopper & marketing analytics are fueling new game changing insights for brands. Tom Ewing has a wonderful rundown of the details here.
Why was this panel so impactful? Because it clearly showed that the market research industry as the primary conduit of consumer data, especially survey-based data, has been disintermediated. We don’t own the process or the access any more; it has been democratized via new technology platforms that can do much of what we do cheaper, faster, and yes even better in many circumstances. Consider:
- SurveyMonkey & Facebook demonstrated that their own polling data matches that of the most prestigious polling firms for a fraction of the cost and 10x the speed.
- Google discussed how advances in virtual shopping, augmented reality, and social sharing are changing what data can be collected and how it can be used by both brands and consumers to drive value.
- Toluna showed a great video on how VRM can be used by consumers to help them make better decisions, foster deeper relationships with brands who want to earn their business, and engage with the world around them in an interesting and impactful way driven by data.
- Nielsen was focused on neuromarketing, cognitive science, image analytics, and even satellite based pattern mapping as the future. There was no mention of surveys anywhere in their future projections; they are already moving on.
That may all sound grim, but the panel was anything but and neither am I. If anything, the role of research in the world is likely to only increase in importance in this new data driven future. That said, the business model and value proposition is likely very different.
On the business model front, we will likely see a steady decline over the next 3-5 years in revenue generated by traditional quantitative research. The survey as the key driver of revenue is only going to decrease as a contribution to the top-line. For now that probably won’t impact those firms that own deeply client-side entrenched proprietary data sources like (insert Honomichl 10 Company Name Here), but even that won’t last much longer as the same forces impacting ad hoc research make their presence felt there and new ways to access more data that can deliver more holistic insights emerge.
That means that the future business models of suppliers will be largely driven by emerging approaches and qualitative research combined with the “insight consultancy” position. That is good news for many small to mid-size suppliers but not so good news to larger players. It will be a sea change for us all and the shake-up is starting already.
I suppose the best summary of why I think ESOMAR Congress was so important is because it was the first event by a trade org that seemed to really explore and embrace what the future of market research is going to be like: global, driven by non-traditional technology suppliers, and focused on delivering understanding and strategy, not data. In many ways I suspect that suppliers will become much more like client-side researchers; focused on the business issue not the method.
Non of this should be new to regular readers of this blog; we’ve been talking about this shift for years. Now, it finally seems like the rest of the industry is accepting the reality of the change and getting down to the hard, but rewarding, work of transforming ourselves to be competitive and relevant in the new paradigm. I don’t know about you, but I find that to be the most exciting development in our history!