Ten lessons from the 70th ESOMAR Congress

The ESOMAR conference in Amsterdam this year heralded a special milestone – the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the organisation. 

Fortunately, the congress wasn’t simply a retrospective review of those 70 years, but rather an opportunity to look to the future of market research with a conference theme of ‘Visionary’.  The market research industry is at a critical juncture, things are changing quickly and there’s more disruption than ever before.  From DIY research available at the click of a button, increased use of automation and machine learning, through to the threat of new tech entrants making their way into the marketplace.

The introductory presentations set the scene with some stark warnings – reinvent or face obsolescence; adapt, learn and embrace change or risk being swept away.

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 So, how can market research adapt?  Here are the key lessons from the conference:

  1. Data, data everywhere – the proliferation of data is overwhelming. Most of us are familiar with the famous statement that 90% of the data in the world today was created in the last two years alone. The market research industry needs to embrace data science and analysis of large data sets to understand how this can complement and support primary research. 
  2. Don’t forget the passive data – as part of a client panel on the future of research, one of the participants stated, ‘we don’t need market research to ask questions anymore, all the answers are already out there’. Perhaps a little extreme, but the industry certainly needs to make more use of the data that’s all around us. Whether it’s open source data published by the government to enhance data sets, or social media data to gauge brand share of voice and content of conversations. The pearls are out there, we just need pearl divers.
  3. The rise of the machines – clients value the expertise and knowledge that experienced insight and research professionals add to findings to deliver actionable insight. Yet many of us probably spend a large proportion of our time doing things that could be accomplished successfully, quickly and automatically with minimal input.  Make the most of AI and machine learning in research projects, automating the simple tasks to allow addition of real insight by experienced humans. Employ text and image analytics to make sense of the vast passive data sets available.
  4. Let’s get emotional – it’s been widely evidenced that humans are slaves to system 1 thinking. Most decisions are made on autopilot without engaging in conscious thought, and so it stands to reason that market research needs to reflect this. Should more emphasis be placed on trying to tap into the unconscious mind and measure emotive and implicit behaviour instead of just relying on post action surveys and measurement (which primarily succeeds in understanding system 2 behaviour)?
  5. Embracing new technology – could virtual reality be used to measure those elusive system 1 responses? One conference speaker suggested that VR can effectively hack the system 1 brain and show implicit response to stimuli. How about eye tracking, biometrics and wearables, emotion sensing, etc.? What part could these play in research? To stay relevant, market research must investigate ways of embracing new methodologies driven by these technological advancements.
  6. Methodology shouldn’t lead – if the research question or objective gets answered quickly and effectively, clients place less emphasis on the methodology used and are less concerned about the data source. The only thing that matters is the insight - get the data from anywhere you want but tell a compelling story. As market researchers, we need to be using our own judgement to guide clients on whether a data source is robust, reliable, ethical or representative. Most importantly, where possible, we need to be trying to integrate multiple data streams in analysis to help our clients make the best decisions possible.
  7. There’s no ‘I’ in team – the desire for integrated analysis means that there’s a growing need for more cross-functional agency teams who can bring together various disparate data sources and research to give clear, actionable insight. Analysis of existing customer data, social media research, quantitative, qualitative and digital analysis should all go hand in hand. Multitaskers are in demand.
  8. Need for speed – innovation through multiple learning loops, mirco-decisions and shortened development cycles. Clients are adopting a more agile approach to keep pace with the fast changing environment they operate in. For many the research mentality is ‘what’s the minimum number of questions I need to ask to get information to make my decision?'The need for quality is still vital, but speed is of the essence. The market research industry will need to rise to the challenge of ever-shortening deadlines.
  9. The popularity of DIY – driven by the need for speed and tighter budgets, clients are seeking quicker and less expensive feedback on ideas. When the solution can’t be found in established market research, it’s time to try some DIY. Plentiful options exist for conducting simple A/B testing or surveys with results often available within a matter of hours. The market research industry will need to prove its added value to buck this growing DIY trend.
  10. Be valuable – clients are overwhelmed, under pressure to move faster and do more with less budget. Decision makers are confronted with ever more complex environments. Traditional market research needs to step up to the plate and deliver more value for clients. The value of data is low (and easy for clients to collect through DIY research), while actionable, business leading insight is invaluable. Integrated data analysis, embracing new methods and technology, automating the basics to leave more time for the real insight and working to deliver the results in an engaging format will all help to deliver unbeatable value to clients.

The three days of the conference saw many great examples on stage of market research delivering fantastic insight and driving strategy. There’s no need to start from scratch – the industry has a solid foundation on which to build. But by taking the best of traditional market research and exploiting the opportunities brought by new tech, the industry can not only survive, but most importantly thrive, well into the future.


Head of Insight

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