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The Marketing Research Ghost Town By Guest Writer Marshall Toplansky

In the past 8 weeks, I have visited with more than 3 dozen marketing research departments across the United States. Every one of them has the same story. “2 years ago, there were 10 people in this department. Today, there are only two of us.”

When I ask them what areas of marketing are getting incremental funding, the answer is almost always this: “Data and analytics. Those departments have seen a lot of growth in people, data sources and technology spending.” When I probe on why this is, the typical response is, “Well, the business needs have changed. We are now focused on things that have a much faster rhythm to them than the old days. We can no longer afford to sit back and think about things that have happened in the past, and track long-term trends. We are now dealing with a “real time” world.”

What does this mean for the marketing research industry? These are the 2 important takeaways, from my perspective:

  • Research is perceived as being “old and slow”, operating at a different pace than the business itself. As such, it is perceived as being “disconnected” to the operating rhythm of the core business.
    • Here’s an interesting sidebar –- One of our marketing research partners was presenting a fabulous model they had created for forecasting the future penetration rate of new products. Years of work had gone into the model, and it was clearly a sound methodology. The prospective client responded by saying, “You look at the growth of a product over a 5 year life cycle. In OUR business, we are lucky if we get an 18 month life out of a new product concept. Your approach simply won’t work in today’s compressed time frames.”
  • Research is no longer thought of as being “strategic”. It may be necessary, but it is “outsourceable” to suppliers. Marketing research has been “downgraded” in importance within companies. By contrast, if companies are increasing their analytics staffs in an era of overall downsizing, they consider analysis of data to be more strategic to them. Not something they would want to outsource to the same degree.

This is a potentially fatal problem for the marketing research industry. There is an obvious answer: Redefine ourselves to INCLUDE the analytics function. Sounds simple, right?

Wrong. The problem is that marketing researchers are generally unwilling to redefine their own existence. They look at data-driven analytics as having to conform to the conceptual framework of research. They apply the same evaluative criteria to the methods used by the real-time analytics world as they do for traditional marketing research. Think of it this way. Imagine you were alive at the dawn of the automobile. Would you hire a veterinarian to analyze whether a car is operating correctly? The vet was the expert in understanding transportation methods (the horse) of the day. But, does he really “get” cars? The only touch point between the two worlds was the metric of “horsepower”, to measure relative power. Nothing else was the same.

We are our own worst enemy. We have generally been in denial that companies are being forced, by competition and the technology environment to operate at a near-real-time pace. We long for the “good old days” when we could take our time to analyze the longer-term trends.

What is required here is a major attitude adjustment on OUR part. We need to learn an entirely new set of concepts . . . not just add a few new tricks to our current magic show. We need to do our own ethnographies and live inside of the shoes of the top management of our client companies, and grow beyond the marketing research department.

  • Are you noticing the same trend?
  • Are you hearing the same thing from your clients?
  • What do think of my opinion?

I really look forward to reading your comments.

Marshall Toplansky is President of WiseWindow

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