Rethinking The Conversation on Market Research Innovation
By Steve August
Last month I had the pleasure of participating in a panel discussion on innovation at IIeX EU in Amsterdam. As befitting an event with Innovation in it’s name, the topic sparked lively debate and it got me thinking about the ongoing internal dialogue that the market research industry has about itself. The discourse on MR Innovation generally runs along two main veins: the existential and the promotional.
The existential conversation is generally around wondering if market research is innovative enough. The answer is usually no and then everyone quickly moves into discussing such questions as “why isn’t it?”, “what can we do to be more innovative?”, and “wait, maybe market research is actually more innovative than we give it credit for.” On the other hand, the promotional conversation often finds its genesis in the release of a new innovative offering, which quickly moves to “is that truly innovative or is it just hype?” Like the existential conversation, it often leads nowhere definitive.
So what is innovation exactly? Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines innovation as:
By this definition (which is a pretty low bar), market research is a very innovative industry, as new methods, practices and ideas are constantly being introduced.
Except we still have those discussions and debates. So what keeps us going?
Innovation is really about leaps in effectiveness and efficiency. More effectiveness means being do something better than we have previously. More efficiency means we are able to do things with faster or with less effort. Electricity is a more effective and efficient way to light homes than say, whale oil or kerosene. Cars are more effective and efficient than horses. Google is a more efficient and effective way to search the ever growing and changing world of information than a set of Encyclopedias.
Leaps in efficiencies and effectiveness unlock value for the people they serve. Value is usually expressed in time, money, new capability, or experience. The most impactful innovations usually give people all of the above at great scale. For example, Hans Rosling in his TED talk, “The Magic Washing Machine” (http://tinyurl.com/pl37g7n) argued that the washing machine is one of the most important innovations ever created. Its adoption marks the point that developing nations accelerate as the time saved liberates half the work force, and boosts economic productivity dramatically. Now, that’s delivering value.
Turning back to market research, a simple way to express the industry’s function is that it delivers credible, actionable market and customer understanding to decision makers. If we apply the notion that innovation is really about effectiveness and efficiency, innovations in market research need to deliver more accurate or actionable insights or deliver the same level of insight faster with less effort, or a combination of the two.
That seems straight forward, and it is fairly simple when dealing with innovations of efficiency. The only issue in terms of judging efficiency innovations in market research is in their impact on effectiveness. If efficiency compromises quality – for instance online sample that doesn’t meet the quality standards necessary – then the innovation does not deliver value.
On the other hand, the debate tends to be inherently less straightforward with innovations of effectiveness. Not only is it a more subjective and time consuming exercise to judge effectiveness, but also there is an added wrinkle within market research. The wrinkle is that not only does an innovation need to be proved more effective; it has to be able to be normalized to previous methods. Just being new and better isn’t always enough.
It has to be better and be able to be correlated to past results. As an analogy, imagine if every time you bought a shiny new phone, you had to make sure you understood the impact on your speaking and texting style compared to previous phones. That might slow your upgrade process down just a bit.
Correlation with past methods is an area where the market research industry does offer a barrier to innovation that other industries may not encounter. Just look at the fuss that happens whenever Nielsen tries to adjust their television rating system. Or why changing methodologies on trackers is such a daunting undertaking.
That said, there is a lot of excitement of about innovations that have promise, and it will be interesting to see which will prove out. By all means, let’s continue to debate and discuss innovation. But ultimately in market research, like any other industry, innovations that deliver real value through leaps in effectiveness and efficiency will stick. Anything else won’t.