By Allan Fromen
The Market Research industry is approaching a frightening crossroads. On the one hand, DIY tools like SurveyMonkey and Google Consumer Surveys have been the recipients of well deserved attention and kudos, with the former receiving a $1.4 Billion valuation last year, and the latter getting a boost from Nate Silver, who praised GCS as more accurate than many traditional polls in the last presidential election. Today, anyone – literally anyone – can easily create a free survey and even find sample for a modest sum. DIY is taking off, and research firms are left vying for more complex studies that require their expertise and scale. Client side researchers are equally challenged, as budgets dry up and internal clients expect insights that are faster, cheaper, and actionable.
There is also a growing consensus that consumers simply cannot tell us what we want to know, for example, why they selected a certain product or brand. With the explosion of behavioral economics, books like Predictably Irrational and Thinking, Fast and Slow have codified the fact that consumers are highly emotional and make decisions for reasons that are often not accessible to their consciousness, and by extension, not accessible via classic market research techniques. I recently heard a C-level executive talk about System 1, which demonstrates that what was once the domain of psychologists and academics – namely, that consumers are often driven by non-conscious triggers – has officially reached a tipping point and is now part of the mainstream business lexicon.
Amidst all this disruption, I recently attended the NIMF conference, a full day dedicated to neuroscience (I use the term neuroscience loosely here, to mean all techniques that seek to tap into non-rational, automated thinking). It was highly refreshing to witness innovative market research companies commercializing the exploration of the non-conscious as a means of delivering insights.
Here are some of my key takeaways:
There are many, many hammers: EEG, fMRI, metaphors, galvanic skin response, eye tracking, implicit measures, and more. While the sheer number of techniques is exciting, it still feels a little like the Wild West. We desperately need guidance as to which methods are most appropriate for specific research questions.
Validation has started…: Some truly fascinating case studies were presented. In one, Aaron Reid of Sentient Decision Science noted how implicit measures combined with a classic conjoint exercise yielded a .90 correlation with sales data. This synergistic effect of neuroscience and traditional research is very encouraging, and worthy of replication.
But more is needed…: Neuroscience is no panacea, nor is it the right tool for every research question. We are in the early stages and need to marry our excitement with methodological and academic rigor, to put our clients at ease and help inform the industry. The ARF has taken steps in this direction and noted that fMRI is the “gold standard” for advertising research. However, we need many more such validation studies, before neuroscience techniques can be a regular part of the research toolkit.
Heed the clarion call: No doubt, things are changing. We need to adapt and innovate in order to stay relevant in a commoditized market research industry. To that end, we should embrace the change, even if (or especially!) it is scary or uncomfortable. Will Leach said it best, when he challenged the room to stop delivering insights and start focusing on behavior change. This was a refreshing reminder that while insights have value, they are only a means to an end. If we can move up the stack and demonstrate how to change actual behavior, we will earn the proverbial seat at the table.
As a psychologist, I have long believed that humans are far from the rational agents we aspire to. After a day at NIMF, I believe we are on the cusp of finally cracking the unconscious, and accelerating the market research industry into a new dawn of innovation, creativity, and relevance.