The similarities between the music industry and MR may not be immediately obvious, so allow me to paint you a picture…
Imagine an industry that has essentially operated in the same way for 50 years or more. There have been some changes in this market in terms of the format the final product is delivered in over the years and certain efficiencies have also been gained along the way, but essentially the input/manufacturing process at one end and the output/distribution at the other end have followed the same model. This input/output model has also created fairly high entry barriers due to the technical skills and infrastructure required to deliver them at an acceptable standard. This industry has gradually become more and more concentrated through mergers and acquisitions – whilst there are some more radical/innovative independent outfits on the fringes, the vast bulk of the industry’s sales can be attributed to around 4 major players.
So that pretty much describes both industries – so we all know what happened next in the music industry right? Some clever boffins at the Moving Picture Experts Group invented the MP3, without really meaning it for the application it is now widely used for. Shawn Fanning invented Napster and suddenly it was possible to distribute thousands of songs around the world without paying a penny. The vast distribution networks that the industry had spent years building up, which they saw as a core competency (you can’t get your music to market anyway except through us) suddenly became a massive liability. Further, anybody could now create and distribute their own music to a good standard at a fairly negligible price, raising a question mark over the value the industry adds on the input side as well.
Now, the thing about truly disruptive technologies, is that they almost always come from outside the industry that they end up either revolutionising or destroying – think of any truly disruptive technology, and consider whether the company or individual that delivered it to market was in the industry it went on to displace (iPod, the motor car, VoIP). The reason they are able to start a revolution is that they have no vested interest in the status quo. The natural response of the current major industry players is to try to defend their ground rather than use their current strength to embrace and leverage the new technology – after all, they’ve been doing this for 50 years, they know what’s best. So the music industry decided to sue the life out of their own customers.
So where’s the disruptive technology that’s going to bring ‘Big MR’ to its knees? Well I’m not sure we’ve had it yet – but there are murmurings. Conventional MR is too slow, too inflexible on the input/manufacture side and too cumbersome and unattractive on the output side. The availability, pliability, richness, immediacy and volume of people’s online data trails and the brilliant visualisations they make possible are likely to have a huge impact on the industry – and generally require skills that most market research agencies currently just don’t have.
What are we doing about it? Well like most other incumbents have done in history, we’re defending our position – we’re harping on about representativeness, inputs designed for specific problems, improving the quality of our data. Even when major clients are telling us this isn’t really the issue, we’re forging onwards bravely. We know that our huge investment in data collection and traditional processing infrastructure risks becoming a liability that we can’t afford.
But it isn’t, by any means, hopeless. In the music industry, what major labels have gradually started to realise is that it wasn’t distribution that was their key barrier to entry and reason for being – it was the identification and marketing of acts all along. They’re still limping, but actually, if there is more music out there than ever the selection and promotion of new artists becomes more important than ever – some clever bods have even rolled the whole A&R and marketing process into one and packaged it into a TV show that I’m assured remains popular despite Rage Against The Machine’s recent intervention.
Similarly, MR needs to recognise that its core competency isn’t data collection, data processing, questionnaire design. Our core competency is analysis leading to insight. If there is more data than ever out there, then we should be the people who know best when and how to approach which bits of it and what to do with it once we’ve done so.
We might not be able to write the algorithm, but we should be the people defining the research problem and telling the guy who is writing it what we need to discover. We might not be able to create the visualisation, but we should be writing the brief that says what it should communicate. I see a 3 person team – researcher, programmer, creative. We’re going to need some programmers and some creatives and we’re going to need them fast.