The Drivers of Change in Marketing Research

Most marketing researchers are like sports fans: they're not content to watch the game and see that Team A beat Team B last weekend. They need to work out a story about the strengths and weaknesses of the teams and develop a prediction about what that implies for next week's games and the teams' season performances.

I think this personality quirk explains at least some of the current obsession about the industry's future. Some days it seems like every MR person in the universe is so busy reading and writing blog posts, making and listening to conference presentations, and sniffing out the next clue to the "Next Big Thing" or the "End of MR as We Know It" that no one is getting any paid work done. On this charge, by the way, I'm as guilty as the next guy.

But I'm conscious of feeling a growing antsiness about all of this - not because I think we've all gone overboard and should stop, but because I'm increasingly aware that the theory driving most of the blogging, conferencing, and sniffing is way too simplistic.

Here's how I'd summarize the general approach behind most of the MR blogging I read (and some I've written):

There is a new technology/analytic approach/data gathering technique that has produced some very impressive results. A small number of innovative suppliers and their forward-thinking clients have been quietly developing this for a while now, and their efforts are beginning to move beyond the experimental stage. Real tools and platforms are starting to appear, and the leading edge tools and platforms are now coming out of beta and attracting both more investment and more client interest. The buzz is growing among clients/suppliers that this new approach could very well revolutionize/eliminate marketing research as we know it ...

What is actually driving this model? What is the underlying mechanism that's being proposed to drive the model from "some very impressive results" to "revolutionize/eliminate marketing research?"

As anyone will tell you who has ever tried to manage something from the "very impressive results" stage to an actual ongoing business, much less a business capable of overthrowing an industry, early success doesn't come close to guaranteeing sustainability. A theory that can be reduced to neophilia - Look! A new thing! New things rule! - just isn't adequate.

So what would a more complete theory of change in marketing research look like?

A good place to start with many questions like this one is to ask, "What defines marketing research as a distinctive activity and business?" I've thought about this question a lot over the years, and here's the best answer I've come up with:

"MR is research conducted among the consumers/businesses that purchase or may potentially purchase a product/service, and is carried out to support a corporate marketing decision-making process."

There are two important points in this definition:

  1. It locates MR as a business between a paying client on the one hand and a customer base on the other. MR plays the role of middleman communicating between these two poles when the client is engaged in making decisions about the customer market.

  2. It distinguishes MR from other kinds of commercial research by specifying the particular institutional role it serves: the client's marketing function. Other kinds of commercial research, even if they involve the client's customer base, fall under some other "research" umbrella, not MR.

The usefulness of this approach that it gives us leverage to predict where the drivers of change in MR are likely to be found: consumer communication and corporate decision making.


I've long argued that MR should be understood as being driven by communications - You can go so far as to say that at least the data collection side of the business can be best understood by recasting it in communications terms. How do we communicate with consumers in a way that will enable them to communicate their perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and behaviors so that we can produce, and subsequently communicate, useful analyses and guidance for our clients?

Not only the way we communicate with consumers, but also the content of those communications are determined by the mechanisms, technologies, and norms of communication in the culture. This is one of the drivers of change: we follow as consumers drop telephone and print and take up the web, email, texting/messaging, and social networking.

The same process also drives what we can communicate about: as consumers expand the sphere across which they are comfortable communicating and sharing personal information, they become more comfortable sharing those things with us. This is one way to understand some of the hesitancy we encounter from time to time.

Corporate Decision Support

In most large successful companies, the process of making marketing decisions is not free-form, intuitive, or invented on the fly. Most companies have expended a significant amount of thought and effort developing protocols for making decisions: fixed, well-defined procedures to be followed, questions to be asked, tests to be performed, information to be obtained, and criteria to be met.

Corporate marketing decisions can be seen as being made at two levels: a "higher," more general level that concerns markets as a whole - their composition, structure, dynamics, and prospects - and a "lower," more specific level that concerns the marketing of specific products/services within markets. "Higher level" research generally supports broad, strategic decisions; "lower level" research generally supports narrower, more tactical decisions - although this distinction is not always sharply drawn. In order to easily differentiate between the two levels, I'll refer to these as "market level" research and "customer level" research in what follows.

These protocols are embodied in standard operating procedures, and are followed as a matter of course. Client teams negotiate exactly how to apply these protocols to the specific issues at hand, what corporate resources to expend in following them for a specific case, and how to fit that process into larger timelines. But they don't question or re-invent the protocols themselves as a normal part of their business responsibilities.

Predicting Change in MR

Considering the different contributions of communication norms and decision protocols and the way these two key drivers evolve lead to what may be a somewhat startling conclusion:

  • The aspects of marketing research driven by the cultural norms of communication - primarily the data collection side of the business - will change regularly and, possibly, rapidly in periods of rapid changes in communication. Such changes will be heavily driven by the processes of development and adoption of new technology.

  • The aspects of marketing research driven by decision-making protocols - client RFPs, many aspects of study design, analysis, and reporting - will tend to change slowly because corporate decision-making standards are created by corporations to interlock with the larger corporate management environment of which marketing is but a small part.

In other words, rapidly changing new communications technology will be put to the service of unchanging corporate needs for some unspecified, but significant period of time. Put more fancifully and colorfully: even if quantum entanglement hyper-neurology is adopted as a data gathering technique, the MR industry will respond by adapting traditional project designs to use quantum entanglement hyper-neurological methods rather than explore radically different approaches made possible by QEHN as long as client decision-making protocols demand the same kind of output - QEHN will be used to evaluate large attribute grids with 10-point scales.

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