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Research factories

“Research factories” are those global market research agencies that produce packaged surveys in exactly the same way that manufactures produce soap or washing powder. The analogy ends there: while soap has a clear role in people’s lives, the role of fast-moving surveys in helping manufacturers to make better stuff for people is questionable.


Fortunately things are changing and as per usual, the Internet is at the heart of the change. Research factories have seemingly embraced the Web – they have killed pen and paper field work (in Western Europe, the US and increasingly in other places) but they have not embraced and built on the core values and nature of the medium: openness, interactivity and active participation.

What they’ve done instead is to use the Internet as a cheap substitute for their existing strategy of conducting surveys: they put up online ad tests, concept tests, simulated market test questionnaires and concentrate on developing benchmarks, sticking to the old research model that is driven by academic criticism, “scientific” methodologies, control and isolation of elements (elements of product concepts or advertising) out of a wider context. While a simple concept or ad test might be a helpful tool for a client or creative agency, research factories tend to add complexity to these simple tests and then claim that such complexity is added value. The client ends up with traffic lights, indices and profiles that seem sophisticated but are little more than straight jackets. This might not be an issue for a client who is happy to based her/his decision solely on an output from fast moving research.

Strong clients will ignore such attempts to put reality into a box. Complicated research methodologies distance the client from the real people out there who buy stuff. We need quantitative data to help with decision making but if we rely solely on this data and don’t combine it with getting out there and listening to people face-to-face in their own world and on their own terms, we’re doomed. Complexity has nothing to do with added value. Knowledge and the interpretation of brand and product performance in the wider context of people’s lives does. I’m not sure that such knowledge and depth can come from research factories. The best people in qualitative research have already left these factories and the best minds in quantitative research will surely follow soon. Online fieldwork has become a valuable commodity and the way forward for strong researchers is to team up with global panel providers like GMI, Ciao or Lightspeed. Data that independent researchers gather through global panels will be as robust as any data from the factories. They are bound to deliver real value for clients by thinking of new ways to get a glimpse of what is really going on, rather than trying to churn out new pack tests or ad tests.

Clients could also commission simple survey themselves, using global panel providers. We have partnered with one of these and conducted a very simple, multinational study in Hungary, the Czech Republic and the UK–five questions for 100 women in each market. It took a few days to complete and the total cost was around £650!