Staying in tune with today

Editor's note: Chris Forbes is co-founder of Research Reporter, a Melbourne, Australia, research software company.

In the early ’90s I attended my first market research debriefing as a young marketing manager. Sitting with my colleagues, I listened patiently as a senior member from the research agency presented the findings, starting with an outline of the objectives and finishing an hour and a half later with conclusions and recommendations.

On the way home that night I stopped at a record store and bought a CD (Eric Clapton’s Unplugged, if you must know). At home I put the disc in the CD player and sat down. I liked half the tracks but couldn’t be bothered to get up off my chair to skip the ones I didn’t.

Fast-forward to 2012. What’s changed? To start, we don’t have to go the record store; music can be purchased online – right from my chair. We can preview part of a song and purchase it, rather than buying an entire album and paying for tracks we don’t like. Then once we’ve downloaded the music, we can create our own playlists. We can skip from track to track the instant we get bored. This change in music access and consumption has resulted in the demise of the traditional pre-packaged album and set off a chain reaction that is reshaping the music industry.

But what has changed since the ’90s regarding how research is accessed and consumed? Well, we appear to have finally mastered PowerPoint. We’ve stopped trying to squeeze two pages of data onto a single slide. We understand how to use images and video to enhance our message, rather than distract. We’ve also generally got the right mix of verbal and visual information necessary to keep the audience engaged.

This command over the research presentation would have been appreciated 20 years ago but is “the presentation” the best communication medium for research today? Have we perfected research’s equivalent of the music album just as the medium is being replaced?

Big changes

One of the big changes is that it is almost impossible to get people together for a presentation and more often than not the ones who can’t make it are the most important. The typical response is to send out the presentation files via e-mail. The problem, of course, is that e-mailing the material separates the presenter from the presentation – and a great presentation is designed as a support for the presenter, not as a stand-alone document. E-mailing research presentations may broaden the internal market for research but it also diminishes its value, as people speed through the slides trying to identify and absorb the most important messages the same way they might skip through tracks on a CD.

How we are accessing information is also changing. The projector and darkened room that provided the forum two decades ago are being replaced by the Web browser on our PCs (or smartphones or tablets). This change in how we access and consume research is as significant for our industry as the move from CD players to iPods and MP3s has been for the music industry.

Why? The browser allows client-side marketers and researchers – the consumers of research – to access and compile information from multiple sources. They can search online and save information from most secondary research providers; they may have dashboards for various internal or external trend data that can be combined and synthesized; and they can create their own information “playlists” based on snippets of information from multiple sources and use this information for their own occasions, such as annual market planning, new product releases, etc. Unfortunately, many high-value insights from primary research don’t make it into these playlists because they are trapped inside a 50-slide PowerPoint deck, hidden on a shared drive or saved as e-mail attachments in an archive.

Over the last 10 years, many client-side research teams have attempted to counter this by getting their internal IT teams to develop browser-based, searchable, online research libraries. While this was initially seen as a significant step forward, it didn’t resolve the problem: Once a potentially-valuable file is found, individuals still have to wait for the file to download, then open and search through the content in the hope that there is something of value. It’s like having to download and listen to an entire album when all you’re really interested in is a single track.

One solution to this problem is for client-side research teams to create their own multi-project research summaries, collecting outputs from numerous projects and combining them all into a new file. The resulting file is like a “best of” album that potentially increases the use and reuse of past research. However, these summaries can also reflect poorly on the research team if the business doesn’t find them useful or relevant, in the same way that we’ve seen many “best of” albums diminish the status of the artist as the CDs find their way into the $2 clearance bin.

Take advantage of new technology

Some forward-thinking insight teams have recognized the limitation of the traditional file structure and are redesigning how research is delivered to take advantage of new technology. In addition to storing research presentations in their repositories, they are also storing research outputs as separate, distinct entries. These entries can be searched and displayed using any criteria the organization chooses, similar to how music tracks can be cataloged by artist, genre, etc. Outputs can also be searched based on words or phrases, like searching a lyrics database and then playing the songs. Client-side researchers (and increasingly, their internal clients) can quickly identify high-value research outputs from different projects and create their own insights “playlists” to match specific requirements. Typically, these key entries are linked back to the research project, allowing access to other critical information about the project (i.e., sample size, methodology, traditional project documents, etc.) so that the project context is not lost.

This new way of packaging outputs is increasing and changing the way research is used within enterprises. For example, one company reviews outputs from projects against the organization’s key growth drivers and identifies whether a finding represents a strength, weakness, opportunity or threat (SWOT) for each driver. The result is that research findings have a direct input into the SWOT analysis used by marketers in building their strategic plans.

Another company tags outputs based on the specific responsibilities of its marketers. Whenever new marketers join the company, they can immediately access outputs from past projects relevant to the brand, compressing their learning time and freeing up the research team, who no longer need to educate the new members on what is already known.

The use and reuse of research outputs is also gradually changing the perception of research within organizations. Rather than seeing research projects as a series of one-off expenses, companies recognize that research can be reused and reapplied. As a result, it becomes a continuing investment in intellectual capital and a cumulative strategic asset from which the company can generate a greater return.

Researcher as presenter

The introduction of new technology and processes also means a shift in the role of researcher as presenter. Another interesting change within the music industry over the last 10 years has been the rise of the DJ. Previously an anonymous record changer, many DJs have taken center stage by combining new technology with their deep understanding of tracks produced by other people to create mixes for concerts and events. While client-side researchers may not want to aspire to the role of corporate DJ, the ability to quickly combine and apply research findings to business problems and events – in effect creating insights playlists on the fly – is likely to become a core skill of client-side researchers.

One of the other changes taking place in client-side research teams is that many organizations are moving from Web-based portals to more integrated research management systems. These systems use Web technology to help client-side researchers create, define and manage project inputs, as well as help distribute and control outputs. Typically, these systems reintegrate outputs from past research into current projects. For some client-side research teams, this has also broadened the concept of outputs. In addition to storing and reapplying outputs that relate to what has been learned about the market from a given project, they are also storing and reapplying outputs about what has been learned about the research processes and suppliers they have used.

These integrated research management systems are continually refreshed as projects are completed and give the organization the opportunity to use their combined research expertise when commissioning research. The result is higher-value research projects – without changing the concept or the economics of the project.

The demise of the traditional?

So what does this mean for the future of research? Are these changes in how research is consumed likely to result in the demise of the traditional research project in the same way that we see the demise of the music album? It may be too early to say but it’s certainly time for the research industry to understand the impact of changes in demand for our own products and services. It’s time to face the music.