Staying Afloat – Keeping Dry in the Data Deluge

Nov 21 2012

Yesterday’s MRSS Asia Research Conference focused on the the coming changes in market research and particularly the role of big data. Interestingly, many of the papers came back to the same Vs (sometimes 3, 4 or 5 of them) to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of big data.

The first two speakers spoke eloquently on the inability of big data to capture the ‘unspoken’ aspects of human behaviour. Dan Hill gave a clear overview of the role of emotions in behaviour (the driving force) and their importance in developing communications which can motivate consumers (emotion and motivate come from the same root word meaning ‘to move’). He then shared case studies and examples of using facial coding to ‘decode’ human emotions and provide real insight into their unspoken reactions. Gemma Calvert focused on unconscious behaviours and implicit knowledge, sharing examples of how emotional reactions and brand associations were captured using indirect approaches to measurement (measuring reaction time which reflected the strength of association between brands and words or feelings). She reiterated that emotions came before rational thinking and decision making and not after.

Later in the morning, Manisha Dikshit talked about ‘the individual as big data’ and gave a very clear critique of the inability of big data to capture context, meaning and the fringes of an individual’s life and worldview (for example, what can big data tell you about the friend in Norway who has no Facebook account?). Manisha shared two case studies from Asia which highlighted this weakness and the importance of using qualitative approaches to understand context and meaning which was impossible to capture through even the largest and most comprehensive data set.

Martin Anso started the afternoon by giving an overview of behavioural economics and its relevance to the job of a market researcher, highlighting examples of the biases which can influence the behaviour of even the most ‘rational’ researcher at each stage of the research process. His presentation highlighted that humans are not always predictable or rational, and that very small changes in the environment can make huge changes in behavioural outcomes. Much data is not able to catch these subtleties, although, some of the experimental (split or A/B testing) approaches adopted by online companies can measure these outcomes, without necessarily understanding ‘why’ these behaviours happen. Similarly, Yong Shih Hoon and Melina Tsui, demonstrated how social media data can be used to segment consumers into meaningfully targetable groups based on their online behaviours.

Other presentations during the day highlighted the importance of mobile platforms for the future of data collection, and their ability to capture ‘small’ and ‘big’ data on the individual, as well as the use of real time data to build consumer engagement with game-based approaches to content and behavioural change.

It was left to Ray Poynter to summarise the day with an overview of the role of big data and market research in building the future of business intelligence, talking about SoLoMo (Social, Local, Mobile) and the strengths and weaknesses of some of the current big data tools. A specific example from Porsche showed the time and energy spent on understanding big data could sometimes provide incremental value to research, but often missed the majority of insight which could be captured using more traditional methods (and in passing highlighted an interesting trend to more time spent on manual coding!).

He pointed to the inability of big data to answer the ‘why’ (while providing powerful answers to the ‘what’) and its focus on looking in the rear view mirror, and shared a view of an integrated future with customer (or advisory) communities at the heart of the market research industry, integrating MROCs, qualitative approaches, surveys and co-creation and innovation under one paradigm, and sitting between social media and big data.

He came back as other speakers had to the Vs of Volume, Velocity and Variety which big data embodied, leaving Veracity as an open question as had many speakers before. His closing remarks gave five tips for market researchers to keep dry in the data deluge. Firstly, he argued that market research should complement big data and not seek to compete with it. Secondly, he advised the audience to spread their bets, arguing that new research companies, panels and tools were likely to come and go over the coming years. Thirdly, he argued that research should focus on why rather than what. Fourthly, he believed that researchers were better placed than data analysts to ‘tell the customer story’. And finally, he spoke of the need to synthesise research, big data and the broader pool of ideas to create value for business.

So does market research have a future in the world of big data? The most eloquent argument for a bright future came from the five young researchers who gave a series of smart, clear and impressive presentations on their takes on the future of research. Indeed, one of them highlighted a fifth V in Value, and for my money the five presentations provided the best value of the day.

With young researchers of this calibre, we have nothing to fear in the future!

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