What has changed in Market Research over the last thirty years? In a word, paper! When I began my data processing career, admittedly not quite thirty years ago, but not far off, the office was full of paper. Desks were piled with tables, questionnaires and specs. While at the heart of the office was the cramped cubicle, hot and heavy with the smell of Ozone, where two or three printers churned out thick sets of tables and box upon box of A4 awaited its fate. Looking around my desk now, the only paper I have is a notepad, mainly for doodling.
Of course, the reason for this change is the rise of the internet. Both the internet and mobile phones emerged during the 90s, becoming mainstream around the turn of the century. Their rapid development has continued, with the two now having merged in the smartphone.
The emergence of the internet has affected all areas of the economy and society, but arguably for Market Research the effect has been even greater. The move of large parts of the economy onto the internet means that data in general is now a ubiquitous commodity. This has brought both opportunities and challenges for Market researchers. Opportunities in that there is so much data available that can be used as well as or instead of traditional surveys, challenges in the form of web-based solutions and new sources of data that have been disruptive to existing business models.
Thirty years ago, with pen and paper the main method of data collection and data often still processed overnight on mainframes, tables and reports inevitably took days or weeks to reach the client. The growth of CATI and then CAWI along with the spread of networked PCs and servers began to reduce these turnaround times. With web collection now dominant and the use of online reporting, tracking studies that once ran in weekly or monthly waves can now be reported in near real time. For clients, online reporting is much more flexible and user friendly than thousands of sheets of paper tables.
While complex studies such as these have continued to provide work for the traditional market research players, the internet has created a great deal of new competition in many areas, Start-ups offer niche products which provide good value to clients who are happy with an off the shelf solution. There are also options to set up simple online surveys without the need to use a Market Research company at all.
The reaction to this from the traditional companies has sometimes been confused, trying to compete like for like by creating off the shelf products and solutions but also hoping to command a premium for expertise and a bespoke service. This can result in clients expecting levels of customization which undermine the cost-effectiveness of the new products.
Off-shoring of operational functions has also been a widespread trend. For many larger companies much traditional ad-hoc work is now carried out by such resources. In turn, the need to organize projects across multiple locations has led to the standardization of processes and a growth in the project management role.
These trends will continue in the years to come, but as clients come to terms with the amount of data that is now available to them, there will still be a role for market researchers in organizing and interpreting that data. There will also be a continuing need to commission research to gain the insights and context that point of sale data, review sites or social media posts can’t address alone. Or so I hope at least.