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Market research evolution: from data to consumer to human

In the future, the market research industry will increasingly rely on the notion that people are more than just consumers or respondents.

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Changes to the market research industry sometimes feel as slow as evolution itself. In truth, the changes have long been driven by technological advances, often adopted from other industries. Many of us remember when paper surveys were the norm, and the adoption of online, and then mobile, methodology was slow. Today though, a paper survey is virtually unheard of.

Putting people first – acknowledging the human element – is becoming increasingly important as people expand their social presence into digital spheres, and demand to be recognized as individuals.

While our space has often been sluggish to advance, new technologies, such as automation and machine learning are catching on fast. However, to stand out from the clutter, market research professionals need to look at more than just the adoption of new technologies – which will, as history shows us, eventually be democratized.

We are in the age of the consumer – or I should say “human”. People have more power than ever before, due to widespread access to information. What’s more, they are demanding ease and convenience. Putting people first – acknowledging the human element – is becoming increasingly important as people expand their social presence into digital spheres, and demand to be recognized as individuals.

At a conference I once attended, Eric Salama, then CEO at Kantar Group, gave a presentation on the future of research and he said something that has always stuck with me: “I won't call them consumers, I'll call them people.”

Speaking to him afterwards, I confirmed his belief that our industry will increasingly rely on the notion that people are more than consumers or respondents. As market researchers, we need to recognize this and have this belief underpin our approach to every project.

Taking it to the people

Every research project starts with the data. And the data starts with the people. Reducing a “person who consumes” to a resource called a “consumer” conceals what is most important to us about that person – that he or she is a person!

So much of research is grounded in a sort of brand narcissism, focusing on the product, service or brand, rather than the needs of the person answering the question. We need to shift this thinking or the actions we take, be they marketing, advertising, product launches will not be successful.

Market research agency Alter Agents has published an eBook - Magnetic Moments: Activating Promiscuous Shoppers - on this topic, in which they state that market research focused on loyalty and brand engagement is missing the mark. Instead, research needs to focus on humans – and what they need in any given context.

The age of the “human” is pushing a shift toward creating empathy and emotional connections in order to garner the best data. By understanding the individual within the target (and potential) audience through direct interaction and innovative qualitative approaches, and understanding the real-world environment in which that person is operating, we are closer to getting the outcomes we need.

The time is now

I started hearing these sentiments more than 10 years ago, but we still have a long way to go. Despite leaders in the market research space emphasizing the need to view respondents as people, they are still often reduced back down to “consumers and respondents” in any type of discussion about them.

In a blog post ‘Consumers are people too!’ Peter Smith of IDExperiential in the UK makes light of the consumer/person conflict – something that would only work if it was a well-established conversation in that field.

Smith says, “As dedicated marketers, so obsessed with brands and advertising that even our parents are just another couple of consumers to us these days, it’s sometimes nice to slip off the ole marketing flat cap and remember what it’s like to be a regular person, I mean consumer, no, person.”

As history shows us, the market research industry can adopt to change and move forward to align itself with advances, both technological and societal. While slow, industry leaders can forge the way toward a different way of thinking, advising us about what’s coming next. I believe that bringing the human element to our research process and keeping people top of mind no matter what we are doing, will help deliver the outcomes that instigate true change.