Does Marketing Research Suffer from a “Crisis of Confidence”?

There’s a school of thought within the market research profession, that many have lost confidence in the value and accuracy of research. I’d redefine the issue more as one of collective indifference, brought about by a number of factors:

  • Clients are overwhelmed by the exponentially increasing abundance of data, commensurate with a lack of resources to fully and succinctly synthesize it.
  • The classic “drunk and lamp post metaphor”…ie research as a means of support rather than illumination”…When findings challenge the status quo or a preconceived assumption or strategic direction, it is often marginalized or discarded
  • Related to the above is a laziness or reluctance to question the status quo–particularly in organizations where research or metrics are simply “have to do” mandated items to punch on the checklist, we continue to see a failure to challenge poorly designed and often antiquated historical currency.  This remains an acute issue in rapidly evolving verticals like media and sponsorship/advertising efficacy testing, where measurement continues to often rely upon less relevant reach metrics, rather than a more challenging but important barometer like engagement.
  • An over-reliance on the vocal minority…The rapid, and pervasive adoption of social media, provides ubiquitous commentary, reaction and posturing that can often be easily repurposed as a no cost or low cost surrogate for more representative and rigorously designed formal research.
  • Similarly, greater migration to low cost D-I-Y platforms that are designed by and for technologists, rather than researchers  marginalizes the value of research conducted by professional and thoughtful suppliers.  Though I’d add that the failure of many research suppliers to effectively differentiate their offerings, is also a strong contributor.  As I’ve said many times, too many in the profession look over their shoulders at the threat of lower cost DIY than over the horizon at consulting, where good research can be seen as a value substitute. 
  • The deleterious impact of incorrect polling and often media driven, convenience sample polls that aim to create provocative, but often misleading content (Dare I say, “fake news?”)
  • The trend towards over-simplification and dumbing down for an A.D.D. society–Our upfront “Two minute take-aways” executive summaries, have literally devolved to 20 second take-aways–often one slide of info-graphics, clip art icons and simple bullet points, because that’s the limited appetite that overworked, multi-tasking clients have.  The negative by-product of this shift to simplified data visualization, is that, by design, it often obfuscates the nuance and provocative debate and incremental ideation that good consultative research can provide, thus ultimately marginalizing good MRs added value.  Because of the heightened demand to  increasingly deliver simple and succinct “facts”, the watered down findings can often be seen as underwhelming, and by the time that these reach top management, any strategic nuance has been drained from research, whose value can now be questioned.
  • Fundamental issues in sample/data quality and project scope creep are often brushed aside because more rigorous alternatives would be seen as cost prohibitive or less efficient.  Yet the catch-22 is that results can then be underwhelming, seem illogical or simply affirmative of pre-conceptions.  This casts further questions and concerns about the value of the research in the first place.
  • The Bigger, Faster, Newer is Better fallacy permeates today’s business culture in all but the most traditional verticals.  This often relegates traditional MR modalities as dated and less relevant.  The unproven new methods fail or underwhelm and that creates more questions about MRs overall efficacy.  At the heart of it, good MR is and always will be about structuring the right inquiries or observations to the right group of people, and that often gets lost in the pursuit of shiny new toys that are all about marketing sizzle and less about substance.
So, what do we do about it?  There isn’t a simple magic bullet of an answer, beyond continuing to hardwire throughout the client organization, implore a need to have a seat at the ultimate table and make strong efforts to align and customize research solutions with the client’s specific strategic challenges and ultimate utility that they desire for the research.  That is often easier said than done, and can often require the research supplier to mitigate a number of inherent contradictions.  But absent the necessary contextual framework—ie without knowing where you need to wind up, it’s tough to plot a course that is seen as in lockstep with a client’s organizational objectives.