In the 1920s when Charles Coolidge Parlin started National Analysts, a research division at Curtis Publishing Company, he became a pioneer in market research and revolutionized how companies gained insight about their customers. Fast-forward 70 years and little had changed. I would know: I’m the son of lifelong Canadian pollster Angus Reid and founder of a company, Vision Critical, involved with a new type of market research.
How market researchers blew it. In the early 2000s, with the increased use of email, the internet, mobile phones and social media, many companies transformed their way of doing business, but market research companies did not.
That's because capturing consumer opinion online was still a challenge since not all customers had migrated to the web. Nevertheless, market researchers didn’t do enough to stay ahead of the curve. They should have worked with early tech adopters to gain insight. And market research companies could have launched products in beta and made some risky decisions. Yet, all they did was undertake the same paper-and-pen surveys.
Beyond pen-and-paper studies. For quite some time, market research firms relied heavily on consultants with sociology and economics degrees. Even with the growth of technology over the last two decades, market research firms continued to do all the work themselves, rather than teaching companies how to gather customer feedback on their own. Indeed a whole new slew of customer-intelligence software companies, including my own, now provide proprietary software platforms so that companies can engage with tens of thousands of customers at once on an ongoing basis for feedback on products, services and ads.
This is how it works: A company recruits customers who have agreed to be contacted on a regular basis for their feedback in what is called a "customer community." What results is customers talking via text in response to questions posed by the company -- with company staff able to listen in. It's an online forum, resembling a chat room. Sometimes the customer will just answer the company's question; other times customers converse with one another as they respond to the question posed. They can ask people, for example, to share photos of clothing they like or how they like to wear a specific retailer's clothing.
Companies can even target certain demographic clusters within that community of customers for feedback on specific topics. It's a lot more than the old-fashioned polling or conducting focus groups on onetime basis in a physical room -- or even one-off online surveys -- because thousands of people are involved and for months or years.
A rebound for market research. The new age of the empowered consumer is helping usher in a rebound for market research. Now more than ever, consumers are poised to collaborate with companies, help inform them and provide direction for future innovations. Market research can become the most important part of a business and customer opinion can increasingly drive product outcomes. Last fall IBM issued a comprehensive report highlighting that second to the CEO, customer opinion matters the most.
When it comes to technological matters, market-research firms should not miss again. Some innovators are working on solutions to tap customer feedback in seamless and insightful ways, creating mobile-friendly products that can integrate social media information, take consumer data and instantaneously translate it into actionable information. The customer-feedback tool can be made more intuitive with an enjoyable user experience so consumers can be addressed in a language they understand.
Deliver research findings like a chief marketing officer. So why do some market researchers still use 15-minute surveys and deliver 60-page reports that companies, their clients, have trouble digesting? Contemporary society is overloaded with information: The proliferation of articles, blogs, social media networks and apps have contributed to today’s extremely low attention spans. In 1998, attention spans were on average 12 minutes long. In 2008, they were five minutes. Now they're even shorter. Time is money and if it's possible to say the same thing in four words rather than five, opt for the quickest option.
In a 140-character Twitter-powered universe, the data compiled by market researchers has to be to the point, easily understood by all staff, whether they're customer-facing or on the board of directors. Instead of creating another lengthy report, researchers should present their results using infographics, availing themselves of designers that can be hired through a service like Visual.ly, a data visualization marketplace. Or they can develop creative, concise presentations using Pecha Kucha, a simple visual style with 20 images shown, each for 20 seconds. They could also leverage Slideshare to share presentations with broader audiences. The possibilities to leverage cool new tools -- and share new insights -- are endless.