NEW YORK: The future of online market research may rest on recognising that consumers believe they are now in "complete control" of all their relationships on the web.

At the ARF Audience Measurement Conference – covered in more detail here – Jim Forrest, svp, Ipsos Open Thinking Exchange, argued flexible technology, fast delivery and understanding content and context are all vital.

While these basic principles are nothing new, Forrest suggested that working with potential respondents in original ways would be critical to success.

"The best innovations are the result of uninhibited exploration and collaboration. The key tenet is that transformation requires taking risks and challenging conditions," he said.

"Consumers have come to think that they're in complete control ... and if we want to use digital media to replicate real-life experience, the last thing we want to do is offer a disruptive experience."

With an internet population of 230 million people, Forrest further asserted that the obstacles facing the industry in the US have undergone a fundamental shift.

"The old assumption was that the hardest part of research was finding people, the belief that you needed to interview them at the point of experience or you'd lose them forever. The reality is that finding people is easy."

"You have reach in a digital medium … but it's hard to get people to do a survey at a specific time of day at a time when we researchers want their feedback, especially after we've interrupted them."

Introducing more flexibility would provide access to millions of participants willing to fill in surveys in their own time, and thus may serve to empower researchers to "measure what they never could measure before."

At the same event, Steve Kantscheidt, co-founder of the Three Group Research Group, predicted that "virtual ethnography" is set to play an important role going forward.

The main problems for practitioners, he said, is to "find out how to connect with people more naturally" and leveraging emerging channels for "listening in to conversations."

Kantscheidt said this would require making "contact with people outside a specific point in time," giving the example of monitoring the preparations for a trip as well as talking about how it went.

"It's push and pull," Kantscheidt told the ARF audience. "Everyone has an iPhone. Ask them to take a picture of what's in front of them. It's more natural engagement."

Elsewhere, Ed Cotton, director of strategy at Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners, said that qualitative research using new media "can be a powerful tool that helps creatively-driven agencies create work."

"We're all overly familiar with focus group; their strengths and weaknesses," he said, but interactive media "offer us a means to look at people in other ways."

More specifically, adopting a wide range of tools, from online communities to messaging and digital diaries, is likely to generate intriguing insights.

Webcam panels represent just one instance of how this can be employed in practice, according to Cotton.

"They give us a new and exciting way to rapidly organise groups of consumers ... interact with them, and see their responses," he said.

In contrast, widespread concerns about privacy, partly fuelled by concerns relating to the security of personal information on the internet, mean β€˜on-the-street' ethnography is more difficult than a decade ago.

"You have to be really careful. People are more protective; they're asking questions they would not have asked before," Cotton warned.

For more detailed coverage of the ARF Audience Measurement Conference, click here.

Data sourced from ARF 2010 Audience Measurement Conference