How to Respond to Change in the Market Research Industry


Will Oremus just posted a terrific short piece in Slate on the end of the era of commercial telegraphy. Once the Internet of the Victorian Era, the telegraph industry gradually ceded ground to a succession of newer communications technologies, like that Alexander Graham Bell thingy and, eventually its portable, "smart" version and the modern internet.

The telegraph survived, and was last seen in commercial form in India, where its usage peaked in the 1980s. It has continued on, serving a large population that still doesn't have either landlines (widely thought to be on their sickbeds) or cell phones.

But now, with losses mounting, India's government-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (BSNL) telegraph company is scheduled to close. The world's last commercial telegram is expected to be sent on July 14, 2013. Counting back to the telegraph invented by Samuel F.B. Morse in 1836, that's 177 years - a good run by almost any standard.

I've posted before about how the members of the MR community consistently go overboard on stories predicting the impending doom of MR at the hands of one innovation or the other, and I've tried to provide a better framework for thinking about what actually drives historical change in the industry. In short, we've got to stop panicking about rapid change in the technical sphere and focus more on how to leverage technological advantage to serve the needs of corporate decision-making if we're going to adapt and continue to deliver value to our clients.

And the long tail of the commercial telegraph should be an encouragement to the many companies in every industry that are more interested in carving out stable, profitable business models at a manageable scale than becoming the next billion-dollar IPO.

The last time I wrote about this issue of long tails, I used the classic example of buggy whips to make the point that even in the 21st century someone was still making a living off buggy whips: a powerful argument that even the least promising market niches can be fertile ground for someone, even after they're poor soil for most companies. I had to search around quite a while on Google before finding a buggy whip manufacturer, but I did eventually find the web site (!) of a company called Ashfield Carriage & Equipment still offering them. I'm sorry to say that if you click the link you'll find the site is now inactive.

I started writing this post thinking that the demise of Ashfield Carriage would make for a sad sort of ending, but then I thought of searching the world's marketplace, Amazon. And I'm delighted to report that my search for buggy whips there turned up no fewer than nine choices!

I'm not arguing that it's better, wiser, or more lucrative for your career or business to live on the backside of a paradigm shift, surviving on the long tail of a dying technology. But I am arguing, strongly, that there are a lot more choices and possibilities than just "get with the new paradigm" or "drop dead" if you're managing an market research company negotiating a period of great change. The telegraph, even in death, and the continuing life of the buggy whip are proof.

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