Market Researchers are perpetually speculating on the future of MR; at times it is said, as a defence mechanism to save thinking about what needs doing today. In my view, this speculation falls between two extremes – expecting too much change (generally we under-rate institutional inertia in ourselves and our clients), or not anticipating enough (there will be some developments we cannot even begin to imagine).
Yet, there are stirrings in our profession of some genuinely revolutionary changes that will transform the lives of research’s next generation. These are not so much based in the oft heard predictions on new ways to access people’s thoughts (neuroscience, social media research etc.), but on the application of theory and modelling to understand and make sense of such thoughts. What then, might the future look like?
Recently a colleague described a small fantasy in which – hopefully many years hence – in our golden years, we tour around the elegant MR office of a client we helped on the path to success. We look in amazement not so much at the technology – the paper thin screens that bedeck walls, the robotic assistants and the like – but at the luxury of the surroundings. Meeting rooms are filled with top-end virtual reality mind-mapping simulators and are decked with comfortable sofas from which to enjoy fine selections of food and drink. We note the people who glance up as we pass are well coiffed, poised, looking relaxed and in control. They have not been up all night completing a questionnaire or finalising a presentation deck – they look decidedly ‘un-frazzled’.
The only sign of serious “work” activity is in a large room where 3 or 4 slightly more studious, some would say nerdy, executives work with large 3D simulators playing with a wall screen as they create life-size simulacrums representing the inhabitants of downtown Beijing. On asking, we are told they are entering heuristic decision-making parameters into an agent modelling programme. This in turn will power the A.I. underpinning a new product launch prediction show due to be staged later today. Here, the client can actively interact with the simulacrums, ask questions, change parameters in the trial product and check how those will impact his target market. So, almost by habit, we ask – “….where does the basic data for these predictions come from? How many people did you survey?” They look at us benignly, before replying: “well the core is from our client’s customer sales and feedback databases, and for some specific parameters we’ve input data from facial imaging reactions we obtained last night. Then, we have ongoing dynamic up-dates by modelling reactions to similar events in social media. So we don’t really need to actually talk to anyone”.
In this brave new world, researchers have morphed into consultants who brainstorm with clients translating their needs into variables the modellers can apply. Or they have become the technical super-geeks who frame and articulate the key parameters for the design of the research models. Whole swathes of today’s research activities have disappeared: operations, conventional survey design, sampling statistics, and (some would say not a moment too soon) PowerPoint presentations.
Yet this is no fantasy, for in pockets of creativity all around the world, such developments are already well underway. At Gordon & McCallum, we are working with a client who can readily obtain emotional response over the web just by viewing a face though the web-cam – no questions needed. Similarly we are seeing ever more developments in understanding and modelling the vast stream of social media and customer data-base information. Outside of our industry, developments in A.I., machine learning, and agent modelling continue apace. The tools are there – even the 3D simulacrums are not so distant if you look at today’s developments in the media industry. What is lacking is a decent unified theory, an appreciation of how the various reactions we measure interact with each other. How short-term emotional triggers relate to long-term motivations for instance, or how habit and social influences interact in the consumers’ mind.
Yet even on the theory side, recent academic developments imply we could soon be much better at understanding people’s core emotional and decision-making processes. To take advatage of this new thinking though, the research industry needs to invest both in new “methods” and to put more resource into developing a decent holistic model of how consumers and customers actually lead their lives. This need not be too costly; investment in such thinking is less expensive than investing in a new technology. Yet, by its nature, it also seems more “risky”, less “tangible” to many senior MR executives and the financial officers they need convince. Still, I have a strong belief that the firms that make some efforts in this direction will be the first to reap the rewards of all the new applications and technologies we see arising.
So, if we ever do such an office tour, will it really be as we’ve described? Probably not exactly – as I said earlier, there will be many unexpected developments I have not even begun to consider. But the potential for a really radical transformation of our industry, based on new thinking and theory, not just new methods, is real. Whether you regard my fantasy as a dream or a nightmare may depend on whether increased time with clients and the lives of their customers appeals more than hands-on data and questionnaire analysis. But, however you feel, the impact of all the technological advances in MR will certainly be accelerated if accompanied by a conceptual framework to hasten their implementation and application. If you are keen on “trend-gazing” in MR then, watch out for new thinking about the meaning behind the way people lead their lives or navigate though their maze of daily decisons, not just the new methods and tools that describe the elements of those lives. (And, specifically, keep your eyes open for the latest developments in market research simulacrums!)