No longer a joke

Editor's note: Eric Whipkey is a Washington, D.C.-area researcher. 

Twenty years ago, when folks talked about DIY research, what came to mind was SurveyMonkey, which was pretty much a joke at that point. Nonetheless, both client- and supply-side researchers were threatened, especially the vendors. Client researchers felt that their internal clients would soon be fielding their own, very bad studies. Likewise, suppliers feared that clients would use the tools to do all of their own market research. Clients thought this would lead to misguided business plans and suppliers saw it as a threat to their livelihood. All of these were valid concerns and the fears were realized to some extent. But for the most part, client departments remained intact and research suppliers were not put out of business. 

At that time, the marketing research ecosystem was much more insular than it is today. Research suppliers were less likely to collaborate with clients (working “for” and not “with” them), more likely to position tools and methods as proprietary and not excited about using DIY as it’s being used today (largely regarding it as substandard).

Despite all of this, the market for DIY tools did grow and researchers of all stripes found value in leveraging them. As DIY research tools expanded and new players (from outside market research) entered the marketplace, innovation and the quality of the offerings were enhanced. 

As often happens with open markets and disruption, DIY research became a thriving option for both client- and supply-side researchers. The combination of new software, technology and now artificial intelligence solutions has created a different world for researchers. The black box has opened and the relationship can now be described as more of an open book – more of a partnership in some cases. 

This is not solely due to DIY but many factors have fed into the need and acceptance of DIY. For example:

  • DIY tools, from text analytics to advanced survey fielding and analysis, are now readily available.
  • Client budgets have remained restricted, necessitating creative approaches.
  • Client researchers have upped their game and advanced their market research education.
  • Tools are much better now.
  • Software as a service (SaaS) has made DIY much easier.
  • The new players (programmers, engineers, etc.) are bringing new perspectives.

So much more than using software 

At this point, DIY is so much more than using software or even a SaaS tool to field surveys. DIY can be anything from that to sample access, analytics, text analysis or even real-time AI tools. Part of the “open book” DIY world or “do it together” (DIT) world (recently coined during a DIY research conference in New York) is that research providers are now partners helping clients at various points during projects. Clients count on them to help where needed and it is DIY that helps all parties. 

All researchers are now using DIY tools to some extent. When it comes to DIY, it’s more than software; it’s getting the work done faster and covering for lack of bandwidth. Some of what now defines DIY includes: 

  • the client using sample recruitment but facilitating their own qualitative research;
  • the client using sample providers but fielding their own surveys;
  • the client paying to fully field the survey but handling analysis on their own;
  • the client using a SaaS tool to field qual or quant but getting help to leverage results for strategic marketing recommendations;
  • the client leveraging their open-ended survey results and/or other unstructured data for text analytic work carried out by a research partner;
  • the client leveraging a text analytic SaaS solution to analyze their own unstructured data; and
  • within any of the above scenarios, the research partner is likely to be using one or more other partners and/or SaaS tools to help them efficiently assist their clients. 

Those are just a few of the possibilities. The options are limited only to the tools available and the creativity of the researchers. Needless to say, this new world of DIT is bringing clients and supply-side researchers closer. We are becoming stronger allies because of DIT/DIY research and this renewed partnership is helping client-side researchers become trusted advisors within their organizations and helping suppliers’ businesses thrive in the process. 

Never the enemy

DIY was never the enemy and it certainly is not now. DIY research at its most basic remains a way for researchers to save time and (sometimes) money. But more importantly, with the “black box” open, we have new flexibility among client researchers for how they work with their research partners. This more-open relationship is helped by software, SaaS or AI but not completely defined by it. DIY research methods and tools are used by both clients and suppliers to reduce costs, create efficiencies and do things differently and faster but perhaps as important, they truly allow client-side and supply-side researchers to work together more closely as partners. These partnerships have transformed the supplier/client relationship from suppliers completing projects “for” clients to supporting the business together “with” them using various research efforts.

Let’s look at a recent example based on my transition from a very large company with many moving parts to a much smaller, almost start-up-like non-profit. I went from working for an organization with complex politics across multiple departments (some of which included more employees than my current employer’s entire payroll). At my old company, selling-in an enterprise-wide DIY tool was very difficult for many reasons, such as: security, “too many cooks” (i.e., the politics I mentioned) and, finally, the sheer difficulties of pulling in all of the enterprise parties required to get things off the ground. 

At my current company, many of the same issues turn DIY into a win-win. We are already trying to get more done with less so a tool that can be shown to have utility and value across several areas – from operations to research to marketing – is an easy sell. In part because there are so few moving parts and people to complicate things, the obstacles fall away. 

But what does it mean for a researcher? Well, from where I now sit, I have access to great data from a small call center that can be turned into text and used to create new theories and hypotheses to be tested. That means new studies to carry out with yet more DIY tools that my team and I can either do ourselves or farm out to other more traditional research houses. The possibilities are endless and only made possible by an initial investment in a strong DIY tool. 

So we have truly gone from a black box that no one wanted to an open book that some of us cannot quite put down. Of course, working for a small non-profit also comes with limited budgets. But again, many DIY tools are designed as SaaS and come with lower price points. The goal is, after all, to allow for market researchers to “do it themselves,” presumably for less money. Add to this the idea of “do it with us” along with a “trusted advisor” mentality and DIY becomes the new way of doing business rather than some new alternative to be “sold-in.”

Feel pretty good

Where do we go from here? I think that if I were I working for a DIY provider, I would feel pretty good about now. Seriously, what is going to be next? Once we can leverage these tools to “read” text and discern sentiment from open-ended responses and/or phone call transcripts, what will our companies need with us? The truth is, if all that was needed was to understand the what or the when – or even the who – then we would truly be working ourselves out of jobs. But those questions are NOT enough. 

To truly gain and leverage insights, companies need to understand the why behind needs, dislikes and trends. It is here that researchers will always be needed. Even so, DIY will still play an ever-present role. As the typical “why” engines like the focus group or the individual interview move online and virtual, the DIY tools will again be key. They will eventually play even more important roles as a means to better connect us to our research participants. Technology like 3-D virtual reality or holographic VR will eventually make online focus groups or in-depth interviews seem quaint. Future researchers may marvel at the days when their older colleagues had to travel from city to city over the course of several months to complete a series of groups that they could complete in one week in a holographic VR studio. 

There are truly exciting and interesting times coming to research and they are not very far off. Hold on tight folks, because DIY is just getting started.