ESOMAR Congress: Market research is at a crossroads

In many ways, this year’s ESOMAR Congress in Amsterdam was a study in opposites. The sounds of gaming from a video arcade filled the sweeping, high-ceilinged hall of the historic Beurs van Berlage venue, built in 1903. The conference kicked off with a local troupe dancing a modern piece that spoke to the tension between the use of modern technology and the need for authentic social experiences. Speakers consistently acknowledged how critical it has become for researchers to balance new innovations, such as AI, with the human elements of research. 

There’s no doubt that the insights sector is at a crossroads, driven by the lightning fast pace of new technology. Yet, researchers are tasked with uncovering human understanding, something that cannot be accomplished solely with technological solutions. That said, those who ignore the massive evolution and advancements that the industry (and every part of life) have undergone recently, especially with the explosion of AI-driven tools, will certainly be left behind. 

The final day of the conference was focused on presentations that centered on artificial intelligence, but nearly every speaker who took the stage during the three-day event mentioned AI, at the very least. On day three specifically, attendees heard from Cisco about real-world ways to leverage unstructured data, AI, qualitative synthesis, and CX listening to create and audience models in an agile way, followed later in the morning by popular sessions about how to identify AI infiltration of surveys, presented by experts from Ipsos. Ben Page, CEO of Ipsos, was the midday keynote speaker, giving his talk covering “Will AI destroy us or free us?” 

This merely scratches the surface of the many questions being asked, and answered, on stage about how AI is already transforming the face of our industry. In fact, of the three stages at the event, one called “Inspired AI.cade” was mostly devoted to exploring the complexities of applying AI to research projects. 

Also on the technology front, many speakers explored the vast frontier of the Metaverse, with case studies about how it has been used to conduct market research in the virtual world, such as evaluating product packaging in a "meta mini-market" and an examination of methodology effectiveness. We also heard about how to measure the impact of augmented reality on shopper behaviors and how to measure engagement and intent of AR users, plus some intriguing talks on new approaches for behavioral scientists. 

Perhaps the old-school video arcade on the show floor, part of the conference’s “supercharge” theme, was a good reminder of how technology has completely changed our world already - as the advent of the internet quickly shut down arcade culture around the world in the 1990s. Infotools’ video game console, featuring Pac-Man, was a popular attraction - especially since a lucky winner was able to take it back to their home or office after the show:  Dan Foreman of Zappi and Latana. Congratulations, and happy gaming, Dan! 


Another key theme at Congress was sustainability and ESG, something that was dominating the airwaves prior to AI’s abrupt takeover. It is still a top concern for many companies, and speakers covered practical applications - such as a talk by Dopper on how research can end packaged water consumption - all the way to use cases on how insights have helped brands reach their sustainability goals.

A good way to examine the breadth of subjects that were discussed at ESOMAR Congress is to look at the winning papers. The best paper of the year, from Listen+Learn Research and Colart,  grappled with the research world’s difficulty in reaching Gen Z, specifically how to use the wildly popular TikTok to uncover critical insights for marketers. On the qualitative side, Nestlé and Lovebrands won with a more human-centric story about redefining motherhood as a transformational journey rather than simply a role one plays. Finally, the best paper of the 2023 Congress was centered on the Metaverse, as Dow Jones and Kadence International explored its potential for impactful qualitative research. 

Coming out of the show, there was definitely no shortage of practical tips to take back home to the office. However, the sea changes that technology is bringing to the insights space are likely occupying the minds of most attendees as many grapple with the best ways to employ solutions like AI to deliver impactful insights and move the industry, and their businesses, into the future. It’s clear that the industry is at a crossroads, but even in the face of the biggest technological changes, the intrinsically human elements of market research prevail. (And, even as gaming moves into a virtual, highly advanced world, there will always be a place for the 1980’s Pac-Man.) 

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