Technology talks - The changing face of market research
Consumers are now conducting their own research. Before booking a holiday, or investing in a new appliance, moving home or arranging insurance, consumers hit the internet.
The world wide web allows them to swap stories - recommendations and horror stories with equal zest - helping others make their decisions, informed or otherwise.
But while the consumer has embraced the internet wholeheartedly for their research purposes, do the research firms themselves utilise the new technologies available to them when helping their clients arrive at a final conclusion?
Despite the rise in technology, many researchers admit that many of the old methods remain every bit as effective in the 21st century.
And even with the growth of online and digital, face to face interviews, surveys by telephone and postal questionnaires have yet to be consigned to the past.
"New methods and technology have certainly expanded the options available, but it hasn't displaced any of the tried and tested alternatives which were there already. They remain just as effective," states Jim Law, managing director of MRUK.
"Online research is a good tool to be used, as and when appropriate. It's certainly not a panacea which deflects all of the other methods available. It is, however, very cost effective and it can be very quick, but it takes a certain set of conditions before you can consider using it."
Freelance research consultant Clare Wade says that the internet has effectively widened the net for recruiting interviewees. "As well as the DIY method of posting invitations on relevant websites asking people if they want to take part in research, recruitment agencies actively offer recruitment from online databases of people who are willing to be contacted for research.
"Public and private sector organisations hold contact details of thousands of people who have agreed to be on their panels and can be contacted on an ad hoc basis for research projects," says Wade. "So, through the internet, there would seem to be a growing acceptance of being contactable for market research."
Louise Walker of Market Research Partners makes the point that while online is an increasingly important tool for researchers, it also means that establishing contact is much harder due to candidates being bombarded by requests. "It's now much harder to get hold of candidates. The proliferation of sales messages has had a big impact on telephone research as many people are now ex-directory or have opted to register with the Telephone Preference Services. So, online has opened up new opportunities for us."
Jo Fawcett, managing director of George Street Research, believes that the number of different communication channels have "not necessarily" helped researchers get in touch with their desired subjects.
"Having multiple platforms doesn't make it any easier. It obviously varies according to the audiences that you are talking to and some methods have not necessarily made life easier at all."
Fawcett continues to say that growing trends in online research have also led to the turnover times given to many projects become much tighter, with clients expecting a faster response rate than ever before. "The use of the internet can make access to people much quicker and can prove to be much more cost effective, but it's important that a researcher and a client understands what each tool is being used for and what they will get back from it."
Nonetheless, new research methods - such as the use of e-surveys, e-focus groups or online bulletin boards - have grown in popularity. And it would seem that the opportunities where online can not be involved in research are becoming fewer and fewer.
One ongoing issue that researchers have found problematic, which to an extent is now being overcome through the use of online, is the factor of trust as people question giving details of their lives to complete strangers.
"The issue of privacy is not as salient in the UK as in the US," points out Stephen Budd, CEO of Highland Business Research. "We generally find that being aware of current legislation and abiding by MRS guidelines gives our interviewees more confidence. Probably the biggest problem market researchers have is down to sales companies pretending to do market research. It gives us a bad reputation."
Mark Cuthbert, managing director of Progressive Partnership agrees that trust is a key factor in the field of research due to the 'misuse' of trust. This is an issue he believes that online research has helped to address, again citing the US as a pioneer.
"People are becoming much more cynical and, as such, new methodologies which are far better at giving control to the respondent are inevitably the way forward.
"Anything online leaves control with the respondent. More than 50 percent of research done in the States is co-ordinated through the web and is online or email based."
Cuthbert continues by highlight the success of two recent projects - one for a cask ale brand and another for Rape Crisis Scotland - that were all the more successful due to the confidence that all respondents had in answering through the internet, having given consent to being contacted through the brands themselves. Such interaction through specific brands portals is a valuable resource for researchers, giving them a direct list of contact details for willing interviewees.
Chris Enyon, managing director of TNS, continues: "When you are sure of who your sample is or who you are contacting - for example an employee survey in a large firm - you can see significant savings on data collection. Distance is no longer a problem either, as we can conduct international research across the world, and do it in a matter of days as opposed to having to telephone people through time zones or trying to post out questionnaires, spending weeks on delivery times. Communication has improved dramatically."
The value of market research has not diminished over the years, but certainly the methods in which further research can be conducted have increased the variety of roles that a researcher may play.
Digital is a whole new commercial platform that will continue to expand and be explored for revenue by businesses and, in parallel, market research has quickly learned the growing importance of the platform in every day life.
Eye tracking is just one of the growing methods of monitoring a person's interactivity with a brand online.
"The role of the market researcher is far broader than ever," says Sarah Ronald, director of Bunnyfoot, a specialist in eye tracking technology. "They have more tools and those tools are incredibly sophisticated and accurate. Eye tracking was originally developed to help the physically disabled access technology and help them interact with the world, however, it has since been applied to market research. What were some very elite tools are now becoming mainstream in the market.
"Old techniques are not becoming obsolete. They are just as important - simply because you are using new technologies does not mean that you can take their results in isolation. They are far more powerful when used alongside other methods of research. There are now just more tools in the toolkit."
Vicky Brock, co-founder of Highland Business Research claims that the net has become an invaluable source for researchers for numerous reasons. "The internet is opening not just new ways of researching, but new ways of rapid testing, measuring and refinement. Because the medium is so incredibly measurable, it is possible to test campaign concepts and offers. This has a massive impact on marketing optimisation, as research results come in while there is still time to make expenditure adjustments, rather than months down the line."