Editor’s note: Cassandra McNeill is senior manager, content marketing at market research firm GutCheck, Denver. 

Automation has made significant inroads into market research, with 80 percent of researchers believing automation will grow in adoption, 60 percent saying it allows them to deliver projects faster and 50 percent saying it’s allowed them to lower costs.

Looking at the importance of automation, GutCheck held a roundtable discussion with three market research experts who talked about:

  • the impact it’s had to date on consumer research;
  • where automation will break more ground; and 
  • some of the challenges that have surfaced.

As researchers and marketers alike look for new ways to gain efficiency without sacrificing quality of insights, automation increasingly holds the answers. But it doesn’t come without the need for human oversight and interpretation – some of the most critical and sacred tenets of an industry built around the very notion of being human.

Automation today

“When I think about the last five years, I can divide the impact of automation into a couple of different areas,” says Renee Smith, GutCheck’s chief research officer. “One is the automated types of analyses that we couldn’t do before, like with image coding and text analytics. The other is what I broadly classify as workflow automation – for example, research apps that take a type of methodology and automate it end-to-end.” 

With automation nearly compulsory for businesses in some form or another, automating a critical process start to finish is an ideal achievement. For businesses who have succeeded, the benefits have been immediate and clear, with improvements in workflow speed, accuracy and overall cost-effectiveness. 

And while there’s little doubt that automation is helping market research firms and their clients move in the right direction, as Smith says, it’s also helping in-house market researchers who are operating with smaller budgets. For example, marketing automation tools, which are plentiful and reasonably priced, can help in-house researchers track everything from Web site clicks to e-mail open and response rates to get insight into what’s resonating with their customers. The data can then be used to directly inform product development and advertising efforts.

The net result is that automation today does not have to be cost-prohibitive, nor is it limited to use by large enterprises or their market research partners. 

But with automation’s widespread availability, it’s also tempting to let it stand in for anything and everything, even when it shouldn’t.

Larry Friedman, senior advisor at his own market research advisory firm, says, “One of the promises of automation is that it can take away some of the drudgery and labor in market research and allow people to spend more of their time on what the data means. But I’ve seen some people use it as an excuse not to think at all – they just let the automation do the analysis and that’s it.”


“It’s really best when we work together with it instead of just sitting back, flipping the switch and letting the machine go,” Friedman says, making the case that market research has to maintain a connection to its human roots.

Automation down the road

But can humans and machines coincide in the future?

Right now, Smith is certain of it. “To extract insights at the level needed for successful product innovation takes human brain power, so I don’t see that going away. In reality, to be useful, those research apps have to have the mind of the researcher built into them,” she says. Research fundamentals come from humans who have been trained in it. There’s always going to be a role for researchers and human insights.

And on a practical level, this is proving to be true. Take some direct-to-consumer brands, for example, who have worked hard to understand market segments and their target audiences in a complete and holistic way. These brands are now excelling over other retailers and CPG companies. “As digital pushes us in that direction, it’s only going to get more important to understand the person holistically with human brains, not just machines,” Smith says.

It’s also likely that the co-existence of people and automation will enable a fine-tuned relationship to develop, one in which each plays their part with even more focus and precision, leading to breakthrough moments. 

GutCheck’s Chief Product Officer, Keith Johnson, says, “We may need fewer people doing data analysis if we can have a lot of level-one analysis done by machines and algorithms first, to pre-aggregate information. But when we can understand [what the] business problem or challenge is and connect it with the data, that’s when we get that spark or aha moment. Successful market research companies can blend these evolving technologies with human insight.”

Whether a business is just now integrating some automation into their processes, or has matured their use of automation into a more symbiotic relationship between machines and humans, the future of insights is full of possibility.