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The Top 3 Reasons MR Agencies Can Thrive in the Era of Big Data

Big Data is Big Business. The multi-billion dollar question is this: with players such as IBM, Accenture, SAP, and Microsoft offering both platforms and professional services, can market research agencies ultimately compete in this explosive new space?

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Editor’s Note: Big Data is a Big Topic right now. Greg’s post today gives solid direction to MR pros on how to leverage this. If you want additional insight in what exactly Big Data is, how it’s being used today, and where it’s going in the future you can access the recording of the Insight Innovation Webinar “Big Data or Big Hype?” here.  It’s a great complement to Greg’s post.

 

By Greg Heist

Lately I have found it impossible to scan my numerous RSS feeds without the term “Big Data” staring me in the face on nearly every page.  And there’s good reason for that: Big Data is big business. And it’s growing all the time.

To add some scale to big data’s explosion, consider these statistics from wikibon.org:

  • IDC estimates that by 2020, business transactions on the Internet—both business-to-business and business-to-consumer—will reach 450 billion per day. (Source)
  • In 2008, Google was processing 20,000 terabytes of data (20 petabytes) a day. (Source)
  • Facebook stores, accesses, and analyzes 30+ petabytes of user-generated data. (Source)
  • Walmart handles more than 1 million customer transactions every hour, which is imported into databases estimated to contain more than 2.5 petabytes of data. (Source)
  • ATT’s extensive calling records contain the largest volume of data in one unique database (312 terabytes) and the second largest number of rows in a unique database (1.9 trillion). (Source)

As you can see, big data is a big opportunity.  Wikibon.org also cites an IDC study forecasting the big data market is expected to grow from $3.2 billion in 2010 to $16.9 billion globally in 2015.

The multi-billion dollar question is this: with players such as IBM, Accenture, SAP, and Microsoft offering both platforms and professional services, can market research agencies ultimately compete in this explosive new space?

The answer is, at least for some, is a clear yes.

There’s three core MR competencies that can provide a differentiated offering to prospective clients. I’ll walk you though them below:

  • Focusing on the Why: While traditional sources for decision analytics (like transactional data) can help identify what is going on, it is only in the context of why it is happening that an enterprise can drive meaningful change within its organization. At its core, MR is all about the why; the discipline encompasses a myriad of approaches for solving business problems. Assuming they develop competence in working with non-proprietary data sets (no small feat in and of itself), their ability to guide the collection of primary research and deliver answers can be a true competitive edge.
  • Identifying Insights: There’s an important human dimension to synthesizing complex data and analytics and translating that into a true “Eureka!” moment.  In a phenomenal piece on the Harvard Business Review blog, Executive Strategist Jim Stikeleather writes on big data’s human component:

“We often forget about the human component in the excitement over data tools. Consider how we talk about big data. We forget that it is not about the data; it is about our customers having a deep, engaging, insightful, meaningful conversation with us — if we only learn how to listen. So while money will be invested in software tools and hardware, let me suggest the human investment is more important.”

Sound familiar? Isn’t this the drumbeat we’ve been hearing at MR industry conferences over the past few years? Stikeleather’s post strikes right at the heart of the MR big data opportunity: using our expertise in synthesizing data to turn it into insights that inspire conversation and meaningful change among clients. It’s something critical to our craft, and one that the top firms in our field have been honing for many years.

  • Storytelling that brings insights to life: Beyond identifying critical knowledge, leading MR firms have increasingly focused on how insights are communicated and socialized within client organizations. It has become critical that non-researchers truly grasp the deep meaning of research. The best way to do this is to tell the story of the research in a non-technical, visually compelling way. While this is an art form in and of itself, the engagement it creates amongst the audience is well worth the effort: there’s nothing worse than seeing clients’ eyes glaze over as they’re barraged with chart after chart. A visually compelling story backed by a deep understanding of the data’s meaning is key. As data sets get larger and the analyses become more complex, this skillset will be increasingly important. Clearly an opportunity for MR agencies that have honed their skills in this realm.

Here’s a great example of the power of storytelling:

The seeds of potential success are clearly there for insights agencies to capitalize.  Those that successfully transition will have access to a fantastic catalyst for future growth.

However, realizing these opportunities is going to require a quantum leap that I don’t believe most MR agencies will ultimately be able to make.  If the statement “we have met the enemy and he is us” was ever true, it will wind up being true here.  Stay tuned. I’ll blog about this particular topic soon…

Until I do, however, what do you think?  Can MR agencies thrive in the era of Big Data, or is it ultimately another force for creative destruction for the traditional MR industry?

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9 Responses to “The Top 3 Reasons MR Agencies Can Thrive in the Era of Big Data”

  1. Martin Silcock says:

    February 5th, 2013 at 8:19 am

    I think there is a fourth, more fundamental reason : Designing Thinking frameworks about peoples behaviours.

    Providing Why?, Insights and Storytelling need a superstructure to hang from if they are to have impact. It is the mental structures and models in decision makers heads that determine if an insight or a “reason why” means anything and actually get acted upon.

    Such theories, say of what is causing peoples behaviour and how to influence it, need making far more explicit (and MR should be god at this), maybe even visualising to enable all parts of the business to see how they think they are interact with each other around a piece of knowledge created . Help people get on one the same page.

    Debriefs and data reporting should feed into a bigger conceptual model that shows how we think the whole system that we are trying to explain and predict is configured. In this case it is the whole brand relationship and experience people have of a brand or company or product.

    If ones insights, generated from whatever source or combination of sources, can not be located within this bigger “theory of behaviour” then the explanations, insights and stories are often left fragmented and just adding to the soup of information decision makers have to deal with.

    If MR can use its closeness and empathy with people to play the leading role as people behaviour model builder,, and helps decision makers and people in an organisation share a common conception of people as consumer, shoppers and users of products and services, then, I think, there is a chance MR can thrive and prosper into the future.

  2. Greg Heist says:

    February 5th, 2013 at 9:57 am

    Martin,

    Fantastic points. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I agree: navigating and articulating the underlying “human” framework at the core of behaviors and attitudes should clearly be in the wheelhouse of the MR discipline.

    I’m glad you made these points! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and adding to the conversation…

    Greg

  3. Alec Maki says:

    February 5th, 2013 at 5:24 pm

    +1 to Martin for “soup of information” reference. Some soup tastes good. This does not.

    Both Greg and Martin are absolutely aligned with how I see MR’s role in the field. MR should be paving the way, not watching in shocked apathy from the rear.

    It’s about the “why” — about aligning human behavior (and empathy) to the stark reality of the “what” of Big Data. About defragmenting insights from broken models that approximate nothing close to reality. About serving a tasty, nutritious dinner of impactful market knowledge rather than bland information soup composed from last week’s left overs. It’s about delivering cogent human understanding — based on best known practices — rather than relying on tools that were proven faulty decades ago. It’s about facing the “brutal facts” of business and moving proactively to address to deliver better service, better information, better decisions and ultimately better business performance.

    Big Data is a brutal fact, as is DIY. We can ignore them. Or we can embrace the change.

    By embracing the change, we can recognize it for the opportunity it represents. Huge opportunity. For research. For business. And ultimately for the end customer.

  4. martin Silcock says:

    February 6th, 2013 at 3:42 am

    I also think there is a need to design a different relationship model between client and suppliers in this space. One that puts co-creation and integration at its heart, rather than competition for who is best. It is clear the cull story requires inputs from many quarters, but commercial interests and traditional ways of working seem to hinder this.

  5. Matt Gullett says:

    February 6th, 2013 at 7:41 am

    Market Research has had a big data mentality for quite some time. The sad thing is that it was the wrong mentality. The idea has been that we can take the responses of 100 people (or 300 or 1000 or whatever), ask them 30-100 questions and aggregate them together into a stack of cross-tabs and then deliver actionable or insightful results intended to represent 50,100,10000 times as many people thus providing “big data”. We have avoided an understanding of the individuals and focused on group-level understanding of people, called them respondents or panelists or assessors, etc., neutered their voices, asked them increasingly complex and demanding questions without allowing them to contribute beyond tightly controlled constraints and then tried to extract meaning from their responses.

    The more modern meaning of big data has thrown these practices into a new light that threatens our industry to its core. The fundamental strength of our industry has been our ability to reach real people and engage them in meaningful, business relevant conversations. Real people, ready and willing to tell us and our clients not just what they did, why they did or even the underlying reasons for their decisions. Real people who can tell us their stories, what drives them personally, what do they think of our clients, their products and services, how that relates to them and their lives, and much more. Many, if not most MR approaches, focus on narrowly constraining these real people into funneled conversations that enforce our ideas of what the conversation needs to be, not what these people think the conversation needs to be.

    MR needs to embrace big data as the logical progression of our industry, return to the fundamental objective of understanding the real people behind the data, leverage the major weakness of big data – it’s almost entirely a one way conversation and it is overwhelming – and retool to survive in our modern and fast changing world. We can provide our clients with a two-way conversation with the real people behind the data and we can use the tools and techniques of our industry to better understand big data. If we do not, others will. MR does not need to be threatened by big data unless we allow it to do so.

  6. Steve Needel says:

    February 6th, 2013 at 9:26 am

    I think you all have chosen the wrong analogy – it’s not soup, it’s more like a Golden Corral buffet – yes, it’s really big, but it still sucks at the end of the day. Bigger is not better and this is one of those cases where size doesn’t matter. Big Data offers no more insight into why than any other data set. We’ve had causal data and historical data in one database for at least 26 years (when I worked with this in my IRI and Nielsen days). And storytelling is no more or less appropriate to Big Data than it is or isn’t to any other type of research.

    You acolytes can bitch and moan about the infidels coming into our business all you want, but historically, the infidels have always failed. So don’t ignore them, but don’t panic much either. IBM (as one example) always talks a good game and never has any substance and clients will get this pretty quickly. Same for the others.

  7. Martin Silcock says:

    February 6th, 2013 at 10:03 am

    Steve. I agree. If something is talked about so it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
    I have not seen any case studies yet where Big Data has generated a fundamentally new understanding about people’s behaviour (and I am open to pointed to some).

    I think it potential may lie in its use for marketing automation and using analytics to observe, describe and predict mass patterns of web, and in the future mobile digital behaviours. Its has nothing to do with “understanding” people in the round. It is just making tweaks to trigger behaviour that to the favour of one brand over another.

    The new market for insight and intelligence is becoming more about helping decisions making to design behaviour. Behavio(u)r Design (possibly a new discipline) is I think the field that MR is now becoming part of along with all the other data and intelligence methodologies.

    Market researchers may be should be seen (or start to see themselves as Behaviour Designers (this fits also with the Behavioural Economics school of thought)

    Markets are simply behaviours (even a conversation is a behaviour), and marketing is (maybe always has been) about influencing peoples experiences by design a person’s behaviours in your brands favour.

    What big data does is make practice of “researching”, only part of the wider intelligence tool set.

    Of course there is also a theory that the whole Big Data bandwagon is a IT industry created bubble to underpin their growth (al la the last CRM promise)

  8. Martin Silcock says:

    February 6th, 2013 at 10:06 am

    Steve. I agree. If something is talked about so it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
    I have not seen any case studies yet where Big Data has generated a fundamentally new understanding about people’s behaviour (and I am open to pointed to some).

    I think it potential may lie in its use for marketing automation and using analytics to observe, describe and predict mass patterns of web, and in the future mobile digital behaviours. Its has nothing to do with “understanding” people in the round. It is just making tweaks to trigger behaviour that to the favour of one brand over another.

    see http://www.marketingweek.co.uk/opinion/how-far-should-programmatic-marketing-go/4005577.article

    The new market for insight and intelligence is becoming more about helping decisions making to design behaviour. Behavio(u)r Design (possibly a new discipline) is I think the field that MR is now becoming part of along with all the other data and intelligence methodologies.

    Market researchers may be should be seen (or start to see themselves as Behaviour Designers (this fits also with the Behavioural Economics school of thought)

    Markets are simply behaviours (even a conversation is a behaviour), and marketing is (maybe always has been) about influencing peoples experiences by design a person’s behaviours in your brands favour.

    What big data does is make practice of “researching”, only part of the wider intelligence tool set.

    Of course there is also a theory that the whole Big Data bandwagon is a IT industry created bubble to underpin their growth (al la the last CRM promise)

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