WHERE IS RESEARCH?
|ROBIN CHALLIS SURVEYS MARKET RESEARCH FROM A BUYER'S PERSPECTIVE. HOW HAS THE RECESSION AND DIGITAL MEDIA IMPACTED ON BUSINESS?|
It’s like a scene from some film. An apocalyptic event has taken place. Slowly, as the smoke disperses from the battlefield, the combatants emerge from their bolt-holes and review the situation. How much has changed? What remains the same? Over the past five years the Irish economy, especially the domestic economy – that is to say the ‘market’ in ‘market research’ – has taken a hammering. What, in this new dispensation, is happening in market research?
We conducted 14 qualitative in-depth interviews, mainly by telephone, but some face-to-face, each lasting at least 20-30 minutes. The research buyers are from a range of sectors, including food, drink, tobacco, tourism, telecoms, online marketing, financial services, semi-state bodies and advertising. What follows, in summary, is what these marketers said.
TOP OF MIND
The recurring background noise, not surprisingly, was difficult trading conditions – tales of marketing budgets cut, research budgets cut, as businesses fight tooth and nail to maintain market position. “I find it tough fighting for the research budget,” was a recurring statement. Tough trading conditions for client companies has fed into reduced research budgets and consequently a shrinking market research sector. There used to be a theory that research bobs along happily in bad times as well as good. Not now: research agencies say business is down 20 per cent last year on top of the 20 per cent the year before. Conclusion number one: it’s tougher.
Also, it’s considerbly faster. Several respondents pointed out that marketing and research processes can nowadays be turned around much quicker than in the past. Whereas it used to take four months to produce a TV ad, now it can be done in four weeks and subsequent measuring of the ad’s effectiveness, via an online survey, can yield results in around a week.
The speed of life for research buyers also reflects changes in corporate structure and how the research function now defines itself within client companies. “It’s very different nowadays,” said a marketing manager of an Irish brand, now subsumed within a multinational. The globalisation of businesses is one of the pivotal recent trends in the Irish market, both client-side and also among advertising and research agencies: “they’re all WPP nowadays, if you dig deep enough, aren’t they?” observed one, only half ironically. Some say that this process was beginning in the boom times. Since the crash it has accelerated and become more overt; the new normal.
Which obviously isn’t to say that all consumer-facing businesses in Ireland are multinationals. But even among remaining native companies and agencies it has been impossible to resist something of the flavour and modus operandi of globalisation. It manifests itself in many ways. Firstly, there has been a trend towards the internalisation of research. Nowadays is the era of in-house research departments, described by various acronyms: CMI – consumer and market insights; strategy, development and insights; insight and innovation. The CMI department, or something like it, is increasingly the way marketing operates. They vary in size.
Demographically their staff tend to be young, with at least as many females as males. They work to formal processes and industry metrics. If multinational, there can be some contorting to match, fit and enact ‘group’ findings and initiatives. Specific aspects of research, like trade, online, customer satisfaction, brand health, are delegated to specific individuals. The CMI department has quite self-consciously become the knowledge provider for the organisation, not the external agency which is commissioned to provide specific information and services, when required.
Most of all, the culture of this brave new world is draped around the concept of ‘insight’. In this context of research shifting towards strategy and planning, the successful research agency should ideally be familiar with the client-side world and should deliver research in the language of commercial strategy. In addition, there is a new emphasis on process and participation, which is likely to involve shared activities: workshops, consumer safaris, ‘ideation’ sessions, not only to shape ideas, but also as a means of team-building and morale-boosting; “there’s a pressure on the research manager to deliver a buzzy experience to the brand team” was one comment.
One area that is in good health, at least among food and drink companies, is shopper (as distinct from consumer) research: “people’s intentions can change at the point of purchase”.
TRENDS AND PRODUCTS
There is a changed emphasis in terms of the research products in favour. Online surveys have swept the board, a trend that has been aided and abetted by a current fixation on tracking. It seems that nowadays the basic template for the typical research activity of the typical research department will involve regular tracking of consumer attitudes, regular tracking of advertising effectiveness and possibly an ad hoc qualitative study or two.
It reflects the defensive conservatism of embattled companies: “we use tracking more than before because the market is so challenging and volatile”. Another factor is the preference of global management for statistics: “it’s easier to come to top table with statistics”, “they’re less interested in the soft area of branding”. It reflects the point in the corporate life-cycle where many global firms in Ireland find themselves – the exploratory and developmental work has been done.
Qualitative, on the other hand, is down. Not that it is facing extinction, some companies continue to thrive on it, but it is definitely squeezed. Partly client companies are prioritising different types of information: “I’d do more qual, but there are certain metrics, company KPIs, of which you you can’t let go”. Partly new technology has made other approaches more attractive for the hard-pressed brand manager: “qual has been replaced by fast response online omnibus… although it’s not the same in terms of depth”. Partly too, the allure of novelty is tempting buyers in other directions, towards participative processes and towards digital. Indeed, several spoke of using social media vox pops as their source of qualitative feedback.
One area that is in good health, at least among food and drink companies, is shopper (as distinct from consumer) research: “people’s intentions can change at the point of purchase”. It reflects an emphasis on behavioural economics coming out of the UK, as well as the procedures of category management which the supermarket multiples direct at suppliers. Some novel research approaches ensue: as well as shopper-centric focus groups and accompanied shopping, some companies have been offering eye-tracking cameras in store and even on consumers’ fridges.
As for other exotic research products, there was some talk of touch-screen technology in focus groups; semiotics was mentioned once; Bord Bia has been doing ethnographic work in South Korea, Vietnam and Indonesia. One trend that was mentioned several times is an increase in free background academic and trend studies, which is clearly appreciated. “The big companies have started doing barometers for free – reasonably country and sector specific.” There was little evidence of a wholesale explosion of new thinking and probably little appetite for it.
The one area which does exhibit considerable fizz, at least perceptually, is digital. But one must distinguish between digital marketing and digital research. Marketing-wise “there’s a tremendous urge for people to jump to a social media solution” said one buyer. “People are rushing to digital because we’re seeing relatively low penetration of terrestrial in the young demographic” explained another: “there’s an element of desparation: we need to reach those people… how?”
The jury is out on digital research. The big success is online surveys. Online focus groups, although mentioned once or twice, do not appear to have taken off to anything like the same extent. As for using the internet as a field of information in itself, rather than as a channel for gathering information, it is still early days. Besides vox pop feedback from social media, the standard metrics are fairly basic: site visits, click-through, time spent, Google analytics. Media agencies rather than traditional research agencies are providing this type of information.
It is a trend to watch.
So that’s the scene: embattled clients, spending less, concentrating on tracking and statistics, getting value from fast online surveys, wanting more strategic input, developing internal teams which need participative processes, appreciative of background freebies, pursuing shopper research of food and drink, gravitating towards digital. So who’s thriving, who’s losing?
As the dust settles, a quite new line-up of market research companies emerges in Ireland. Prominent newcomers include Kay McCarthy’s MCCP in the planning space; Red C – familiar from political polling but grabbing big tracking studies, and now teamed up with David Cullen’s Oi Research; Empathy Marketing for online surveys. Other buzz names include: Justin Healy’s SparkQual and Bernadette Coyne's return to agency property with Coyne Research.
Rock solid in the centre of it all is B&A “old and methodical and good”, into qual, of course, and shopper research and tracking, especially for native clients. Millward Brown is a looming presence, but, many say, unexciting. Some uncertainty around Am