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How Has Market Research Been Disrupted?

By: Jackie Lorch, VP, Global Knowledge Management, SSI

Market research is an industry that is very (some would say notoriously) slow to change. Through the second half of the 20th Century and well into the 21st, research was mostly done how it had always been done:

  • When online research became the dominant methodology in the late 1990s, we simply kept the same questionnaires we’d always used for phone and face-to-face research and programmed them for online.
  • Most research was done by dedicated research agencies, and a few in-house research teams at larger corporations.
  • Lists of “top market research companies” didn’t change much from year to year.
  • Researchers used tried and true methodologies; there were clearly defined “quant” and “qual” methods and researchers took their time to deliver detailed, accurate data.

Market research’s Identity Crisis

Within the past decade almost all that has changed – and within the past couple of years the pace of change has increased tremendously and the industry has undergone something of an identity crisis:

  • A few years ago, ESOMAR redefined market research for its annual Global Market Research report, adding additional company types and thus demonstrating a bigger increase in industry size than with the former definition.
  • Some of the biggest companies on the “top market research company lists” are struggling and traditional market research agency growth is, largely slow or flat. Meanwhile multiple new and often fast-growing companies have entered the sector.
  • The Market Research Association has changed its name to The Insights Association; ESOMAR, formerly the European Society of Market Research now defines itself as “The global voice of the data, research and insights community”; and organizations like Greenbook, Quirks and TMRE have become major forces in the industry information and conference space.

Technology and globalization the “macro” trends forcing disruption

Technology and globalization have led to:

  • A global labor market allowing new entrants into the research industry to provide services like data analysis and programming less expensively
  • Integration of silo’d research departments into the broader insights function.
  • Demand for demonstrable ROI on research money spent by companies facing greater competition and slimmer profit margins
  • Fragmentation in media consumption including the rise of multi-channel consumption
  • Massive change and additional complexity in purchasing habits and the purchase decision-making journey.
  • Ability of technology to replace a lot of human work like data coding, text analytics sample selection and management and questionnaire creation
  • Technology allowing new approaches such as in-store research at scale, DIY tools, sample exchanges and analytics for video and text

The disruption we’re experiencing is not necessarily at the core of what we do, but more in the way our work is done and who does it. In such a fast-changing world DIY tools and automation are making it practical for anyone to ask just a few questions without doing a full-scale study. Researchers can more easily divide their budget into multiple small projects rather than a few large-scale ones because automation facilitates speed and lowers the need for project minimums. Plans can adapt quickly to environmental, business and budget changes.


Instead of traditional research teams, researchers are more likely to be working across multiple departments, functions, geographies and with teams outside their own company. In this environment, automation and DIY tools offer a consistent way to manage multiple projects and share information accurately between teams and across time zones. With automated processes to rely on, researchers gain consistency and a reliable deliverable with all relevant details securely stored, reducing the risk of error.

Disrupting what we do as well as how we do it

The development that is most likely to disrupt what we do as well as how we do it is the increasing availability of passively-collected and other types of “big data.” That’s because this new data source has the potential to deliver insights faster and cheaper (and with good enough quality) without having to ask questions and rely on people’s sometimes flawed memories.

A risk of complacency 

Researchers are the right people to be at the intersection of these new data types, since they are skilled at gathering and assessing data, analyzing it and extracting the story from it. But unless we’re willing to change as the industry changes around us there’s a risk that others – analysts, technologists and marketers – could take over as the data gurus of the future.


Part of research’s role in a disrupted world is to defend, advocate and promote the research science that underpins what we do. While anyone can create and program their own questionnaire, get results, draw conclusions and make recommendations based on the data, that doesn’t mean anyone should. The wrong question, the wrong sample or the wrong analysis, can make the resulting insights dangerously misleading. Getting and staying educated on the science behind what we do and understanding the tradeoffs between methodologies and research approaches is even more important today.

There are signs that the current period of disruption in the industry could lead to researchers becoming more central to strategy development and strategic decision-making – but only if we are more willing to embrace change than we used to be.

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