The Market Research Tortoise and the Big Data Hare … or a Misguided Analogy

If you are in market research (MR), you may debate the which is tortoise and which is hare, but you probably do see a race and competition for the prize. Or, more realistically, you may fear that others see it as a competition. The prize may be budget, recognition as the source of valuable customer insights, or winning jobs. This may be a limiting perspective. If you are in the Big Data space could see it as a race but MR is probably not on your radar or you consider the outcome a foregone conclusion. You probably believe that MR could be a valuable appendage but ultimately discount MR when viewing the main role and impact of Big Data. There may be some blind spots. However, the two areas do overlap and treating it emotionally or functionally as a competitive situation will be counter-productive and lead to lost opportunity.

Some say that focus group and survey-based market research has reached the end of its life-cycle  and will be replaced by Big Data analytics. Those who fully promote this position usually have an agenda to push or they are not well informed about market research. However, it does seem that these two areas of market intelligence, customer insight, and decision support both offer valuable and maybe even critical decision support. The million, or billion, dollar question is how to integrate them and leverage them together. Will this integration be the basis for the next round of killer market research applications or the means of getting the most value from your big data investments? My thoughts in this area were triggered by the linked article that contains some comments, including one application that combines the two areas of MR and Big Data.

In both areas, those who wish to capitalize the most will figure out how to combine them to leverage value. In Big Data, folks will come to realize that there are many holes in the data, many missing links, many areas where current or past data will not suffice in predicting the future, and many areas where the value of the insights can be magnified through the leaven of custom MR.

On the other hand, MR folks either have or will come to recognize that the in-context reality and pure organic validity of Big Data adds immensely to the precision inquiry possible in MR. Big Data integration will increase MR value by bridge limitations or biases created by interviewer/researcher subjectivity, sampling frames, respondent behavioral self-report inaccuracies, perceived insights credibility, perception of frequent lack of tangible real-world action-ability, to name a few.

Seeing or specifically identifying the areas of combined value will be the first and most important step to making this happen. The next step, and arguably the more difficult one, is to actually combine the functions related to Big Data and MR to bring about a profitable union. Most corporations have these functions silo-ed separately, based on their historical origins and historically separate functions, skill-sets and processes. In fact it goes even deeper in that these two areas may compete for the same budget and in fact may feel quite competitive with each other for recognition in the organization. Executives not only have an organizational issue to resolve but likely an emotional one as well.

On the supplier side the difficulties are multiple for being able to combine these areas. First is that most MR firms do not have an understanding of or a captive skill set that encompasses Big Data analytics. They don’t have the mindset for what it is, how to get it, and what to do with it. Next, most emerging Big Data firms come from a programming, IT, data mining, or highly technical area of strength. They do not have the insights background or training and skills. The foundations of marketing strategy and consumer behavior and psychology is lighter than it needs to be. The softer, more granular or individually based understanding of motivations, attitudes, drivers, etc. and how they mix together to generate action and commitment are usually missing with folks who have been devoted to algorithmic programming or econometric modeling and mining.

The future in this area belongs to people and organization who can bridge these domains. This is a process and the sooner it begins the better and the more likely you can capitalize on it for competitive advantage. Identify the needs, find the relevant gaps in addressing the needs, prioritize and act on filling the holes and showing tangible progress through a series of quick wins.

To motivate these changes, we need to see more examples of how the two domains combine for added value. The referenced article (noted below) provides one lightly sprinkled example. I believe we will begin seeing more.

How will it play out? Will Big Data analytics be the hare? Will the hare win? Maybe fundamentally, is there a race? Maybe, we see the races either being set up or already in process and the question is how do we change the nature of the race so that instead of competitors, the tortoise and the hare are teammates?

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Referenced article: http://smartdatacollective.com/sandrosaitta/94181/guest-post-mark-zielinski

“The general consensus seems to be that “big data” is never going to replace traditional research – that is, specific research methods like surveys and focus groups that deal with particular topics will always be around.  These specific research methods answer the question of “what” – that is, they are concerned with empirical details.  For example, an online survey may indicate that compared to 2011, this year 5% of soda drinkers no longer drink Coca-Cola on a regular basis.  Where “big data” aims to change research is in the “why” – that is, the broad trends and underlying reasons why certain results have been obtained.  Using our previous example, “big data” may be able to tell us that key nutritional influencers have recently been saying that carbonated sugary drinks reduce life expectancy by an average of 4 years in healthy individuals.  By having both the “what” results and the “why” results, researchers can use this combination of data to have a much clearer picture of a particular situation, and potentially be able to advise their clients on how to act to obtain the results they wish to achieve.”

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