Editor’s note: Yazid Jamian and Steve Murphy are co-founders of Malaysian market research agency Green Zebras.
How has market research fared in Asia-Pacific in the last year? Like other industries, it’s been affected by the economic slowdown in China, which blew an unprecedented chill across the entire region and caused alarm in world markets. Meanwhile the growing availability of better, faster and more accessible survey technology has also redrawn the client-vendor relationship in ways no one ever thought possible.
The following trends are our take on the industry’s opportunities in a continent that, despite the recent challenges, continues to be the engine of global growth.
1. Market research is no longer recession-proof. At some firms, the days of the market research budget being sacrosanct, especially during economic downturns, are pretty much over. As part of the marketing mix, market research is now treated in the same way as other cuts – such as advertising, communications and branding activities – during tough times. Only market research that delivers clear and compelling insights survives. Goodbye big, predictable and – quite frankly – boring trackers. Qualitative research has become more powerful and is being seen as more direct, more nimble and able to bring greater depth to the market research agency's response to an issue.
2. The race for “better, faster, cheaper” continues at a punishing pace. New market research techniques, platforms and processes have emerged that allow clients to get insights back quicker. Online panels and platforms have allowed more-developed markets to get lower costs for their projects and given them a methodology that is more in line with today's consumers, compared to some outdated, traditional methods. Community panels, with a high investment at the outset, pay back in the long term by giving clients bang for their buck. Questions are back almost overnight and insights are tailored to the questions of the day, as opposed to the questions most prominent eight weeks ago. Although Asia-Pacific still lags in investing in the new technologies, the larger companies across the region have moved ahead in this area and are now reaping the rewards of their outlays.
3. Mobile research still has some way to go. The state of mobile research as a methodology in Asia-Pacific, on the other hand, varies from market to market. It is more prevalent in the more developed areas like Hong Kong and Singapore but the key barrier is the lack of robust mobile phone panels. This makes it a more expensive methodology compared to the more traditional routes. There is also a continuing reluctance on the part of clients to move to a maximum five-to-10-minute questionnaire more suited to mobile research. We fully expect more experimentation with mobile phone research as smartphone penetration rates continue to grow, especially in markets like India and Indonesia.
4. Clients are experimenting with DIY research. The current business environment and accessibility to better technology are causing more and more Asian clients to embark on their own market research internally. This ranges from clients using the widely available DIY platforms such as SurveyMonkey, the Thinking Shed, etc., to setting up self-administered community panels (admittedly, usually in conjunction with external agencies). Clients are also increasingly conducting their own focus groups and surveys in-house and employing ex-market research agency staff to run the analysis. There are several research software platforms such as Q that are readily available to clients. This DIY research is typically blended with the external work still commissioned to MR agencies that might be the larger programs, consultative or more strategic work. On the surface this trend may seem disadvantageous to market research agencies but we think it actually represents opportunity. Companies doing their own research expect more from their agencies if they are to continue being their vendor. It’s forcing agencies to innovate, to increase the breadth of the research solutions that they offer, while providing deeper insights and value.
5. Outsourcing fieldwork and all operations is the new normal for agencies. Once upon a time, all of the large market research agencies had in-house fieldwork and data processing departments. It was a seal of quality and a reason for clients to commission them rather than the smaller agencies. The in-house model was used as part of the sales pitch to clients. However, over the years, the need for more nimbleness and cost-efficiency, combined with operational difficulties in maintaining in-house fieldwork and data teams, has meant that many agencies in Asia and elsewhere began to outsource. While the trend to outsource data processing began some time ago with the setup of large data processing houses in low-cost markets such as India, the Philippines and Malaysia, the larger agencies have been slower to move to a model where fieldwork is also outsourced – until recently. In the meantime, boutique agencies had adopted the full outsource model, where fieldwork, data processing, qualitative facilities and all operational aspects were outsourced. The business model that companies such as ours and others have adopted is one whereby the agency is lean in structure, with a focus on research and researchers. Outsourcing to operational partners, whether it is fieldwork, quality control, data processing or facility providers, has become the new normal, fueling an increase and an improvement in the quality of independent fieldwork, data processing and facility providers in local markets. In turn, the larger agencies are following suit. Slowly but surely they are dipping their toes in the water, with some hesitation to let go. As economic pressures continue to affect all, they too see the need to be cheaper, better and faster in order to compete with the new challengers.
6. Market researchers need to up their game more than ever before. Clients want to work increasingly with agencies that really know their business well (based on an accumulation of knowledge across multiple projects/years for brands or stakeholders) and are able to present the insights to them in a very actionable, tangible way. The days of market research agencies data-dumping and then quietly leaving after their presentation are (thankfully) disappearing. Clients want to engage senior market research staff who are able to have credibility in the boardroom, who can offer compelling recommendations on a client's business objectives. This trend benefits the agencies that have a closer or more focused relationship with clients.