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Market research innovation in the era of big data

There is no shortage of people, brands and agencies touting themselves as ‘innovative’, but has the term been overused to the point of losing meaning? In today’s world of big data, what does it mean to truly drive innovation in market research?

While it is easy to talk about innovation, building a reputation as a trusted innovator is quite different. It requires persistent effort and investment in tools and processes that enable truly innovative solutions.

COVID-19 is the latest in a series of massive challenges facing businesses, and has highlighted the need to be agile and innovative as a means of survival.  Climate change and digital transformation present other challenges for which businesses are seeking agency partners with track records of innovation.

The case for market research innovation

We all know that we’re living in the age of big data. Companies are making huge investments in data and business intelligence initiatives, allured by the promise of untapped optimisation potential across their businesses. However, despite great enthusiasm and seemingly endless demand for data scientists, the amount of data available is growing at a rate that exceeds the rate of market research innovation.

The result of this is that the vast majority of data goes unanalysed. A 2016 McKinsey report estimates just one percent of all data has been analysed. Whilst this is certainly true for quantitative data, the problem is even more pronounced with unstructured qualitative text data where analysis methods are less mature and more labour intensive. This amounts to a massive, missed opportunity.

Since the dawn of the digital era, agencies have been presented with a host of solutions designed to improve the way they conduct research and produce higher quality outputs for clients. From media monitoring and social listening platforms (Cision, Brandwatch and Meltwater) to survey platforms (OnePulse), to data research consultancies (Kantar, Datamonitor, and Cavas8) and text analysis platforms (Relative Insight) there is no shortage of options for agencies.

What these solutions have in common is that they help brands, agencies (and their clients) make better use of the mountains of virtual data being created. Cultivating the capabilities to analyse a diversity of data sources at scale should be a priority for all agencies wishing to stay relevant in a ‘big data’ world. Recognising the changing expectations of clients when it comes to data capabilities, Felix Andries of Harte Hanks notes the importance of demonstrating “the ability to combine more and more data sources into the same piece of work.”

Innovating your way to a competitive advantage

But what does this all mean for you? It means that being at the leading edge of market research innovation stands to be a source of competitive advantage.

“The future of the industry, for me, will be continuing to expand the amount of public source information we can analyse, as well as keeping up with the demands for faster and faster ways of analysing that information.”

Felix Andries, Harte Hanks

Businesses are increasingly data literate and are recognising the importance of extracting coherent narratives from data. Despite recognising the importance, a capabilities gap means few organisations are truly doing this effectively. Agencies that master the art of tapping into a wide range of data sources stand to be rewarded.

Research innovation isn’t simply a series of process changes but rather a way to future-proof your agency. Put simply, your ability to demonstrate your capabilities in making sense of unstructured data is going to become essential to winning business (if it hasn’t already). When deals are on the line, the strategic importance of research innovation becomes crystal clear.

Research innovation in practice

Gravity Road provides an illustrative example of a marketing agency that is walking-the-walk on market research innovation. Their inclusion of augmented reality, face filters, and reality holograms in their outputs for clients demonstrate how they are in tune with the latest and greatest in digital marketing.

Such deliverables would have seemed completely alien five years ago, but Gravity Road has clearly demonstrated they understand how digital marketing is evolving. Developing such a reputation does not happen without a purposeful effort. You can’t expect to be viewed as producing innovative outcomes without also changing the way you work.

A troubling trend

Professional services companies, marketing agencies included, have built a reputation for being very good at passing along costs to clients. It’s not uncommon (nor unreasonable) to charge clients for team travel or extra deliverables that fall outside the initial scope. More troubling, however, is when agencies pass along the cost of research tools as line items. Not only is this annoying for clients who feel they are being nickel-and-dimed, but it is also inhibiting innovation.

When research tools are treated in this way, it gives clients the impression that innovation is an add-on. This sends the message that clients can have it one of two ways – the way it used to be done, or the new, innovative way of the future. Any self-respecting agency should be concerned about being perceived as offering the former. The solution? Put your money where your mouth is and invest in tools that support the production of higher quality deliverables that exceed client expectations.

How to be innovation-centric

If you aspire to be an innovator, you need to structure your organisation to support it. This requires investing in tools that are made available across the organisation and support innovative behaviour and outputs. Research tools – such as Relative Insight – fit squarely into this category.

Changing the way you do research (or anything for that matter) requires a sustained effort. People should be encouraged to experiment with new tools and explore different ways of creating value. Considerations of whether these tools are directly influencing client outputs should be almost irrelevant in the early days. Instead, the focus should be on encouraging adoption and experimentation from as many people as possible. Making tools widely accessible will encourage uptake, spark conversation and support organic process innovation.

Taking this approach requires leadership, vision and a willingness to invest in innovation. At the very minimum, this should involve a centralised innovation budget that covers the cost of new tools. In larger organisations, innovation teams can drive the organisational agenda and facilitate the adoption of new approaches.

In all cases, there should be processes for proposing innovation projects and a commitment of resources to support them.

Eat or be eaten

The late Steve Jobs was renowned for being an innovator, and one of his memorialised quotes contains some sound advice for market research innovators looking to follow in his footsteps.

“Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations.”

Steve Jobs

In today’s rapidly changing digital society, organisations need to be experimenting and changing constantly. For agencies, this is imperative to developing data analysis capabilities and delivering client outputs that keep them competitive.

Change management is easier said than done. But, like anything, practice makes perfect and a mediocre attempt is better than doing nothing at all.

It comes as no surprise that larger organisations often have a harder time innovating than their smaller, more agile counterparts. The agency landscape is no exception to this trend. Increasingly, upstart digital-first agencies are nipping at the heels of multinationals struggling under the pressure of short-term shareholder returns, expansive org structures and resistance to change.

Agencies have to earn the right to label themselves as innovators. There is no clear-cut path to follow, but it all starts with making market research innovation a true organisational priority. A major component of this is a willingness to invest in new ways of doing things. The benefits of doing so may not be immediate but are nonetheless essential for future success.

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