Hardly a day passes when an article about the fallibility of marketing research does not cross my desk. The latest is from Forbes, and I was compelled to read it by its somewhat incendiary title, "Why So Much Market Research Sucks." Roger Dooley makes the typical arguments, although they are couched in the context of the strengths of neuromarketing. You have heard them. Consumers can't explain why they do or prefer anything. They rationalize; they can look only backward, not forward.
There are always horror stories of findings that made little sense but were "followed" nonetheless. These problems lie not with the consumers or the "research," but with the marketers and the researchers. They want the research to tell them what to do; they don't want to use it to stimulate their thinking and help them make good decisions.
Dooley says surveys are fine for simple behavioral questions and little else. "If you want to get the real story on the behavior of your customers, readers, etc., don't rely on self-reported data. While such data can be fine for simple facts, like, 'Did you eat breakfast today?' It will rarely answer questions like, 'Why do you prefer Grey Goose vodka?'" But, the fact is it will.
A good researcher and listener can ask a Grey Goose partisan, "Tell me everything you can about vodka and drinking vodka." And, she will respond with a laundry list of associations. The researcher will ask the same question of a Belvedere fan and generate another list. From the differences between those two lists (really, a sufficient number of similar lists) the savvy researcher will be able to infer why Grey Goose drinkers prefer that brand. Research, after all, is as much interpretation and analysis as it is data.
As this sanctimonious defense of traditional research was forming in my mind, a conflicting vision entered. We have all seen the new IBM "Smarter Marketing" ads targeting CMOs with the message of customer analytics. The "customer is the new boss." Through comments, social networks, and reviews, she tells the company "what to make, what it's made from, how it's shipped, and the way it's sold." The customer has immediate impact on the company, and the company can respond in near real-time.
Now, this throws the model of traditional research into disarray because that paradigm is built on time. From the "Market Research Sucks" perspective, consumers cannot predict what they will do in the future based on their rationalizations of past behavior. From my ideal perspective, a sensitive analyst can infer future behavior based upon consumers' descriptions of categories and past behavior.
Fine. But, what if a marketer is able to offer a consumer a red dress right after she tweets that she just "loves red dresses"? Her tweet may be just as much a rationalization as it would be had she told it to an interviewer, but in the moment it has emotional weight and validity. Six months hence, she might say "the dress isn't for me," but in the moment it feels like the marketer in talking right to her, and the dress is just what she wanted.
And, no more need for research to mediate time.
So, in this new world of immediate communication between marketers and customers, market research will still have a role in explaining the big trends, the big social movements. It will provide strategic insight that can drive large-scale planning. But, on the day-to-day tactical level, it may simply be the conduit of the marketer/consumer conversation, aggregating and synthesizing all that is said.