A Vision of the Future of Market Research

by | Apr 19, 2017 | Top 10

We live in an era of transition. Technological changes are driving changes in human activity on many fronts. As a marketer and market researcher, these technological changes are promising to have a significant impact on what it means to do marketing and market research. What are these technological changes? And how will the market research function, in particular, evolve as a result? Some of my friends in market research, both corporate and supplier-side, talk about an identity crisis in the profession. The following are my thoughts on what’s driving this transition and what market research might look like in the near future.

The Changes That Are

As I see it, the world of marketing and market research is being changed by a number of transformative advances in technology.

The World Is Mobile

It’s not the digital revolution anymore. That’s old news. What is so dramatically different today – and what is leading us into the future – is the growing dominance of mobile. Depending on whom you ask, people look at their mobile devices 150-300 times a day for everything from news to texts to emails to navigation to shopping to connecting with family and friends. For more than half of smartphone owners, the first thing they now do in the morning is reach for their smartphones. Mobile surpassed desktop a few years ago, and there’s no turning back. More than 2 billion mobile devices are in use right now, and that number is going to continue to rise. The number one platform for media consumption today already is mobile. Given that, it’s no great surprise that 1) most emails are now being opened on mobile devices, 2) the majority of website visits in the U.S. are now from mobile devices, and 3) the fastest-growing ad format is, you guessed it, mobile. And the long-awaited Internet of things hasn’t even really begun in earnest. A fair number of those devices will undoubtedly be mobile.

Researchers, of course, need to be where respondents are. Consider that since 2008, Pew Research has increased the percentage of their surveys conducted via mobile to 75 percent as landlines continue to decline precipitously. Nearly three-quarters of marketers already believe that mobile marketing is core to their business. It is not a stretch to imagine that in the future we will be wearing our mobile “devices” rather than carrying them around as separate things.

Skate to where the puck is going, not to where it has been.
— Wayne Gretzky



Technological advancement is giving people the ability to do things they couldn’t do before without having to hire others – often well-trained experts. Whether it’s 3-D printing, legal services, car washes or market research, today’s products, apps and SaaS are disrupting expertise of all kinds.

Market researchers with long years of experience will increasingly find themselves competing with corporate or freelance researchers who have little or even no formal research training and use off-the-shelf research tools and online communities to get quick answers to their research questions. As speed increasingly seems to trump quality, this is a difficult challenge for the market research profession as a whole. The euphemism of “agile research” seems entirely unsatisfactory to those who believe in the application of sound methodology, solid recruiting and experienced evaluation of results. As always, the trade-off here is between speed, convenience and cost on the one hand and quality on the other. And when research is being used to inform expensive brand marketing decisions, microsurveys and processing behavioral data in real time to guide those decisions incur opportunity costs (e.g., what would the brand team do if it truly knew why its target customers were behaving the way they were) if not actual costly missteps.

DIY works well for simple, straightforward research questions. It does not work that well for uncovering deeper, richer answers to more complex questions. But in an environment of faster research, how many will stop and ask, “What could we have learned with more sophisticated research?”

Passive Listening

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The increasing torrent of data across all channels and devices has led some to liken the future of market research to “fishing” or passive listening rather than traditional active probing … as if insights were just waiting to be plucked from the river of data rushing by. Besides being an incredible oversimplification, this is a potentially dangerous delusion. Observing consumer behavior thanks to increasing availability of behavioral data will, of course, allow researchers to identify more patterns with more statistical robustness. But as with all pattern analysis, it is important to remember that the relationships gleaned from the data are primarily of correlation and not causation. Understanding the “why” of consumer brand behavior requires more and different skills than data analysis. And while many pundits talk about the rise of the data scientist as one of the prominent jobs in the future version of market research, it’s important to remember what psychologists learned long ago: Observing behavior does not directly lead to an understanding of motivation … no matter how good your sample size and statistical abilities.

Data is the sword of the 21st century, those who wield it well, the samurai.
— Jonathan Rosenberg


The Rise of Machines

As marketing automation is coming into its own, a more powerful force is gradually rising to fuel even more substantial change in marketing and market research: Artificial intelligence, or AI, has the real potential to change everything. More than $5 billion of venture capital is currently supporting AI startups. The majority of mobile users are already using smart assistants like Siri, and AIs are estimated to handle 85 percent of customer interactions with brands by the end of the next decade. AI promises efficiently to bring together and make quick sense of diverse data sets and inputs from brand communications, customer data sets, social media posts and macroeconomic data on consumer sentiment and public affairs. This “big data” and the tools to analyze customer behavior to a level few imagined in the past will yield lots of information on what customers are doing and afford a whole new level of segmentation and, ultimately, “personalization” of marketing. Ironically, AI will allow brands to engage on a more intimate level with more customers and prospects than human marketers have ever been able to in the past.

Big data and machine learning will free market researchers from much of the tedium of data collection and should identify fertile new areas of inquiry to all those who choose to focus on the “why” of human behavior. We know that human decision-making about brands is not purely logical and rational. In fact, based on a plethora of traditional and neuroscientific studies, we now know that much decision-making happens through Type I processing, which is fast, intuitive, largely inaccessible to conscious introspection and subject to human cognitive biases, mental heuristics and emotions. Accordingly, it will take multiple generations of AIs to come to grips with why humans behave the way they do.

These then are the four big technology-driven trends/societal changes that are most impacting and redefining market research.

So what does it mean for the future?

How can market research successfully adapt? How should it?

First off, it’s important to realize that some adaptation to the changes affecting the market research industry is necessary just to survive. Those traditional market research functions that refuse to change are likely to disappear. That said, there are a variety of directions in which a market research company, function or market researcher can adapt in the future.

The easiest way to describe the ways in which market researchers can adjust to the technological changes impacting the field is by way of the roles today’s market researchers may hold in future.

  1. The Data Scientist

This is the role that is most often discussed by futurists as the market researcher of the future. This is the statistician who combs through mountains of data from various sources to provide insights into product marketing, sales and customer service.

Pros: The pros of recasting market research in this way include riding the wave of the trend and the very real need for smart analysis of mountains of future data.

Cons: The biggest cons for this role are that even with predictive analytics, insights will be relatively limited to behavior prediction rather than true insight into customer motivations … and the fact that AI will be just as able to serve in this capacity at some not too distant point in the future – just faster and cheaper than humans.

  1. The Tribal Expert

As groups of people with shared interests and values are able to come together virtually and express their common interests and goals regardless of geographic proximity, the role of the Tribal Expert will rise. Tribal Experts not only understand a particular community supremely well, but they are also able to “embed” brands into a group’s behavior and thinking. These future market researchers have one foot in the world of providing insights to their organizations/clients but also have a foot in execution/implementation.

Pros: The pros of this future role are 1) a high barrier of entry to potential competitors because of the depth of expertise and group acceptance required for success, and 2) the obvious relevance to those targeting a given tribe.

Cons: The biggest con for this role is that the relatively narrow focus of the role may limit business and/or professional opportunities and possibly cause burnout.

  1. The Hybrid

The Hybrid is a market researcher who combines elements of the Data Scientist or Tribal Expert on the one hand with an adjacent marketing service on the other. By leveraging their insight-generation capabilities with hands-on execution in areas like customer service management or customer advocacy, Hybrids are applying their insights directly to the brand’s customers for immediate value generation. The Hybrid will come with many different titles and potentially have many different areas of specialization. Hybrids may apply biometric or neuroscience in their work, or focus on understanding how to develop better messaging in their daily work through developing and executing automated marketing campaigns.

Pros: The primary advantage of this future role is the immediacy of impact.

Cons: The biggest con for this role is the inherent ambiguity of the role. What’s the focus of the role? Can both elements grow over time, or will one always suffer at the hands of the other?

  1. The Insights Guru

The Insights Guru is someone who defines insights differently than the others. Insights Gurus are not motivated by predictions of what will work or not work, but care about the “why” of customer behavior. They may take the analysis of the Data Scientist and the expertise of the Tribal Expert as starting points but then add creativity, psychological principles and even experimentation to develop what they see as deeper insights (as defined by the simple criterion of whether those insights answer a “why” question) than the others. They are focused on insight development and not marketing execution. The Insights Guru is the most well-trained and versatile of the new market researchers.

Pros: The pros of this future role come from the power of answering why customers are behaving the way they are and, as a result, what the ramifications and opportunities are for the brand.

Cons: The biggest con for this role is that insight managers need to acquire big data skills and tribal expertise in addition to having a handle on human psychology and experimental methods and techniques. It is the most demanding of the new roles in market research.

So which direction should a market researcher or a market research agency take? I believe there is value in all four directions. The right answer depends on the strengths and interests of each individual or agency. I have listed some of the biggest pros and cons to each. Speaking for Six Degrees, we are already predisposed to the Insights Guru as our future in market research. We already apply psychological principles to our work and will find it easier to add the Data Scientist (or AI) and Tribal Expert as needed. Others in the agency already serve to execute marketing programs.

When every brand gets the “what,” the competitive advantage will go to the brand that also gets the “why.”

What are your thoughts? Have I missed anything? I’d like to hear from you.

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Frank Schab
An experienced marketing and branding strategist, Frank has been helping clients optimize the value of their brands through insightful analysis and effective strategy for more than three decades. Along with holding positions at General Motors and Pfizer, Frank served as a Managing Partner at Interbrand New York and VP of Global Brand Research at Opinion Research Corporation before co-founding Six Degrees. His brand-building work in various sectors including hospitality, medical device, pharmaceutical, automotive and technology has taken him to 17 countries on four continents. Frank holds a doctorate in psychology from Yale University and speaks fluent German.

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