Market Research is going through exciting times – mobile, communities, biometrics are just some of the new ways technology is helping us get closer, and for longer, to the audiences we wish to understand.

DIY providers are another "exciting" innovation (more exciting for some than others….) – if you have time, inclination and hopefully ability, it's easy to link up to online access panels, use survey software at a very low cost and reduce the price-per-complete radically. Zappistore, Gutcheck are two of the higher profile DIY providers who are addressing the perception of research being slow and expensive.

Google Consumer Surveys is another major entrant – making the microsurvey a serious contender for insights gathering, and giving mobile a considerable boost in the process as a data collection mode.

Where does this leave the concept of insights? Is it flourishing, with all the exciting array of data points available almost immediately? Is the circle effectively squared – better tools + lower price points = better insights?

Are clientside researchers, and the industry overall, in good shape – or are we simply one of many industries being disrupted by web-based technologies?

I fear the two concepts – masses of ever-cheaper data and insights excellence – may not be in synch with one another, possibly even going in opposite directions – data virtually omnipresent, insights increasingly rare, not to say endangered.

Here's my take.

1. Insights Departments are Challenged.

Clientside research departments are – according to consistent anecdotal evidence – not growing. On the contrary, fewer client researchers are often expected to handle more work, more datapoints – with budgets that are often flat, perhaps in slight decline.

This equation often doesn't add up – with MR turnaround times becoming ever shorter, volumes increasing, with less time to add value strategically.

This is a double-edged sword – a commodity trap, that can lead to the erosion of perceived value at higher levels of an organisation.

Outsourcing is a potential option – but there is a limited number of those on the Agency side with the sufficient all-round business understanding and interpersonal skills to make a significant impact. 

2. More Data doesn't Necessarily Help

We are currently witnessing an extreme, almost frightening drop in the costs needed to access many forms of "insight" work – qual. and quant. This leads to a surge in volume – and an expansion of the market overall, as more companies can afford to execute a form of market research.

It doesn't automatically mean an increase of value delivered, and it doesn't per se lead to an explosion of insights. The option of having easy access to more data can actually easily be a distraction – find out this quickly, include that additional survey question last-minute…..perspiration for sure – but inspiration?

Asking the right business questions, spending more time working on the implications, comparing with alternative data streams, focussing on critically relevant data – these added-value areas easily get squeezed out. The MR discipline is in danger of becoming increasingly tactical. We need to regain strategic weight – which leads me to the next point.

3. Insights Culture – How Deeply Ingrained?

Many companies state that they are driven by the customer – definitely included in corporate literature, VOC commitment reads well as a necessary part of corporate philosophy.

The reality is often somewhat different. The "customer" is often a major corporate account rather than end users – the voice of the sales person the dominant factor. Operations – finance, sales, supply chain – often hold more weight internally than those paid to represent the outside view, such as Insights.

There are many reasons for this – a topic for a future blog. The critical question is: what does it take to create a strong Insights culture? I'd suggest the following:

– the attention and support of senior management
– a marketing-infused culture
– a strong departmental profile for insights
– an insights attitude characterised more by goal- rather than process-orientation
– the ability to speak the language that resonates amongst budget-owners.

How many of the seminars and congresses we attend look at these issues, and how many still focus on methodology?

Returning to my original question: is it an exciting time for insights? I see the glass as half full.

Market Research no doubt has the potential to be an immensely powerful tool; we have a more refined understanding of the limits of direct questioning techniques, seemingly unlimited access to data, and an enhanced toolkit.

All this should add up to more impact – if we can consistently demonstrate and communicate the impact insights have. Improved tools on their own won't generate superior insights – it's our skillsets that have to improve and deliver.

As economies emerge from a recessionary climate, companies' confidence to invest increases, we need to grab all opportunities to add value, not just reduce cost, and ensure that insights is a discipline that gets at least its fair share of the marketing budget. Curious, as ever, as to others' views.