The market research industry has utterly failed, and we need a new era

Today, there is unprecedented market opportunity for businesses. Over two decades of digital growth have created massive addressable markets, where multi-billion dollar companies can be created and scaled in a matter of years. Technology-led companies (Amazon, SalesForce, Slack, Bumble, TikTok, Peloton, and the social media giants for instance) are building vast customer bases regardless of geography. By contrast, market research is stagnant. The global industry is estimated at $80 billion, but growth was just 4% in 2019, and dropped in 2020.

This is odd considering there should be an exponentially growing need. Not only are there thousands, if not tens of thousands, of high growth technology companies, but whole swathes of existing industries have to adopt a digital-first approach; a need which has been fast-tracked through the pandemic. On top of that, millions of companies are embracing marketing, and bringing advertising and marketing in-house. Competition is rife, and to succeed as a business, you need an intimate understanding of your current markets and audiences and future customer dynamics.

This is where market research should step in. Its entire remit as an industry is to help companies understand markets, audiences, and key customer segments, yet it isn’t. From my perspective, against this backdrop, the industry as a collective has failed.

Consider this: in a multi-market setting, the vast majority of its core remit requires mind-bendingly large budgets, huge time commitments, and an army of expertise just to get a study off the ground. Imagine you have a market opportunity that spans 20 or 30 countries – this is at least $1 million out of the gate to do properly, and at the true scale needed that budget could keep growing.

Even if you can get past the budgets, you need to think about time. Delivery is mainly still wedded to manual processes, ad-hoc, and predominantly based on offline research collection and a service-based delivery model. Spinning up a large multi-market custom project takes months in its traditional format, with delivery of data out of sync with our ever-changing world.

Where there has been innovation, predominately in self-serve research tools, there is still a need for huge budgets and expertise. The barriers to building surveys have been reduced, but it hasn’t led to the right data. This simply isn’t good enough.

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Solving the problem

For the last 12 years, I’ve been 100% focused on solving this problem. How can we, as an industry, give modern marketeers and growth businesses an up-to-date and detailed understanding of their audience? Not a small proxy from a niche collection of countries, but an actual perspective at scale.

The most effective approach today is to constantly collect data through online surveying at massive scale. The future of market research is millions of surveys spanning multiple countries. By investing in automation to collect, process and publish the data, the timeline from person to analyst immediately shrinks. The immediate availability of data is also crucial to revolutionising market research – businesses need insights in real-time, especially in the digital world where research can quickly become outdated.
This combination of constant data collection and immediate access solves many of the issues with traditional market research. It means accessible, global data that delivers immediate understanding at a fraction of the real cost or traditional market research cost, providing instant answers and insights versus six months of process and incredible cost.

Constantly collected data at scale is the only way to make market research relevant today; the costs, time, and expertise needed to operate globally mean it just does not make sense to approach it the traditional way. This is nothing new, I hear people say: syndicated data has existed for a generation. But crucially, it’s remained traditional in approach; it’s always been local, collected offline, small in scale, difficult to use, and slow to be released. It cannot answer the questions that modern marketers have about their audiences.

This new approach can replace many use cases that historically would have been solely delivered by custom projects, and, where it can’t, the digital approach means businesses can ask new questions and append to their existing data stack. Custom studies are shorter, can be targeted for no extra cost, and a technology-driven approach enables a significantly faster research process from respondent to end user.

I believe we can keep market research relevant, but it requires a digital shift if it is to align with this global age of opportunity.

Written by Tom Smith, CEO and founder of Global Web Index (GWI)

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