About the Industry

Trends and Technologies


The market research industry is changing rapidly and its horizons broadening. Both the range / amount of information we can collect and the range of tools available for collecting it are far larger / wider than they were ten years ago, never mind twenty, and the pace of change is probably accelerating rather than showing any signs of slowing.

Like most change, it's possible to view this pessimistically or optimistically. Glass-half-empty types think changes are sweeping away research jobs and standards, and they're not entirely wrong; glass-half-full types see rising awareness of the usefulness of information, new fields in which we can employ our skills, and huge new opportunities for us to use what we know to help people navigate the new possibilities and make the most of the information revolution - and they're certainly not wrong. On the whole we think the changes are positive, and we think people sometimes forget that MR has never really stood still, and has come through all the previous changes bigger and bolder than before.

Some of the specific new technologies - among them mobile, big data, online communities, social media analysis and neuroscience - are discussed below, with stats from a leading survey of research innovation showing the scale of their adoption to date. But as we're in introductory mode here we'll return to our four-part definition and use it to elaborate on what 'doing MR' actually means in 2017.

Data Collection, Old and New

The second of the four activities in our definition is seen by some as the principal (indeed sometimes the only) activity of market researchers. Collecting data, whether by surveys, searches, passive monitoring or other means, is a big part of what we do and can in itself be highly skilled, but arguably it's the easiest to automate and the area where traditional skills are most under threat.

Do not be fooled however into thinking that a) it's the single main activity of research professionals, or b) that traditional skills even in this area are rapidly becoming obsolete. What tends to happen is that a new technology or approach arrives, makes a splash and is much talked about, and then follows one of two curves: it either quietens down and becomes a smallish niche, or it grows and takes a share of one or more of the main existing methods. The existing methods do not disappear, but are used for particular types of study, problem or audience - and they tend to remain more than a niche. The 'toolbox' used by researchers to gather information gets more and more crowded.

Thus a well-known industry pundit stood up at a conference I attended in 2011 and said 'traditional research' would be dead within five years - by this he meant surveys conducted by means such as face-to-face interviews and telephone research. It's 2017 now, it ain't dead, and not only are people still doing these things, they're still building call centres and they're still recruiting graduates for careers doing it. The Shire is not the only place where 'change comes slowly, if it comes at all' - and this isn't only because a majority of researchers are not on the leading edge - it's because we reflect our market, and the majority of people are not on the leading edge. It's also because new methods aren't always as good as the old ones, depending on what you're trying to achieve - 'though they are often faster and cheaper, and they do allow us to do things we never even dreamed of before, mobile 'phones being perhaps the most glaring current example.

Change in Analysis

Technology is also having a big effect on the analysis and interpretation of results - software can not only collect and display answers to a survey, it can write you a report. It's worth remembering that it can't think about the meaning of the answers, and it's only as good as the people who programmed it - plus it generally works with information that's been stored in a very standard format, rather than pulling in and comparing data from widely different sources. As above, 'big data' technology is beginning to change this - one of the things that defines big data is its diversity - there's lots of it, but also it's not in nice neat fields for analysis. But there are many kinds of challenge for which it's not yet appropriate, and the interpretation of a skilled human will add plenty to whatever it can do for a long, long time to come.

Technology is opening up exciting new possibilities in the way we display and present data, and an understanding of data visualization techniques is one of the key skills seen as 'in demand' in the industry at present. A number of companies focus on software and solutions which turn jumbles of numbers into beautiful, clear, comprehensible charts and pictures: others argue that we never really used half the stuff PowerPoint can do - and continue to use it religiously.

Back to What do researchers actually do

On to Hype & Reality - what impact are these new options actually having?

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All articles in the 'About the Industry' section written by Nick Thomas of MrWeb during July - October 2017, and © MrWeb Ltd 2017. Thanks to GRIT, ESOMAR, the AMA and the MRS for stats and tables used.

About the industry - contents...

1. What is MR and how is it changing?

A comprehensive guide to what we do, how it's changing, and who else does similar stuff.

2. The global industry today

The supply side: revenues, rankings and company info, full listings.

3. Careers in MR

An introduction to the career ladder, activities, salaries and choices.