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The Achilles Heel of Consumer Research is Time

Imagine a scenario in which you want a new book. You go to an online book retailer and sign up to fill out a survey. A customer service rep mails you a questionnaire or calls to ask what kind of person you are, what books you like, and how much time you spend reading. He may even talk to your friends and family to make sure you gave an accurate portrayal of yourself.

After the form is filled out, a week is required to manually collate the data. Then, the company sends you an email with a suggested book. You hop over to the site and pay for your personalized recommendation, and five days (13 since you started looking) later, you receive it.

See how crazy that is?

Yet most companies conduct consumer research with the same lengthy, manual-intensive approach.

Consumer Research Takes Too Long

Remember how we used to check email? We’d hook a computer up to the phone line, wait for the dial-up shrieking to end, and download our email. Consumer research today is the dial-up Internet of yesterday.

Think about it. It can take weeks at best — usually more like months — to complete a consumer research project. How relevant is the data at that point? What if the competition uncovers a solution everyone’s looking for while you’re still gathering data?

Companies like The Nielsen Group specialize in this kind of research, and for very long-term product strategy, it can work fairly well. But it’s ill-suited to the compressed timeframes demanded of most marketers today. There’s loads of user-generated data available, but the problem is that marketers often don’t know how to use that data, so they rely on the old way of doing things. That’s completely understandable.

And It’s Just a Snapshot

Most consumer research is done manually, right? Think about those survey people you avoid at the mall or the surveys you receive via email. (Cue dial-up screeching.)

Opinions could have changed drastically while you were waiting on survey data. Today, three to six months is a lifetime in the modern marketing world.

Marketing windows are indeed compressing. CMOs today are intrigued by the target moment — the Oreos Super Bowl tweet that won such acclaim. But, for good reason, moment advertising is inherently dangerous. The payoff can be big, but are you willing to tolerate 20 embarrassing moments for every single heroic moment? There has to be a compromise; marketing needs to know what kind of products and content its audience will respond in a timeframe sooner than traditional consumer research can provide. But seat-of-the-pants assumptions just aren’t good enough to risk your brand’s reputation. You need hard data, and you need it now.

Big Data May Be the Answer

Big data may be an unsexy cliché, but it’s the Bill Gates of the marketing world. No one’s oohing and aahing over his hoodie, but Bill Gates has made a lot of money on products that make the world go ‘round.

Big data can do the same for a CMO. Like Bill Gates’ achievements, it’s very hard work that you need to undertake with dedication. It’s onerous, but possible, to sift through tweets and Facebook posts to look for insights. Listening tools like HootSuite will let you follow mentions of your company or product across several social media platforms. Platforms like Spredfast and Salesforce are also fantastic tools to find quantitative data and a few qualitative metrics like sentiment analysis, which can be very helpful when your audience is segmented.

It will take some work, but a good market researcher will learn to analyze the mood and metrics in all that data. How many people loved or hated your recent launch? More importantly, who are the people in your social audience?

Making assumptions about the tastes and personalities of your target segments without data can be too risky. Yet it’s happening more and more because the comfortable alternative is relying on outdated, expensive market research. And falling back on traditional consumer research will have you downloading that file at dial-up speeds while your competition flies past.

It’s about time market research left the dial-up era.