I’m so late in writing this post that not only have I missed the rash of 2011 market research predictions posts, I’ve even missed the BACKLASH to the predictions posts (cf Simon’s fine skewering of the genre here).
But nonetheless, here are some - well, not quite predictions, let’s think of them as bite-size ideas about 2011, canapes at a research New Years Eve party. Or, less charitably, full-length posts I haven’t been bothered to write.
What Do You Give The Man Who Knows Everything?
The only safe prediction about 2011 you can make is that it will break new records for the amount of data people generate. Everything else I want to talk about derives from this, really. It’s a kind of corollary of Moore’s Law I guess, just as storage expands exponentially so people come up with new kinds of information to fill it. At the moment the distibution of said information is patchy and links between pieces of information are scarce, and the analysis of the information isn’t exactly top notch. But the information itself - blimey, yes, there’s plenty of that. It seems to me most researchers pay lip service to this and then say “well, our selling point is that we’re data providers”.
And actually this isn’t wrong, because at the moment we’re in a kind of data bubble. The instinctive reaction to a glut of information still seems to be to want EVEN MORE INFORMATION. Corporations are still issuing RFPs so absurdly vast and all-encompassing in scope they might have been commissioned by Ozymandias. Only this morning I was reading on Ray Poynter’s blog about the “exposome”, the sum total of external influences on an individual’s biology, which scientists are looking to metricise and crunch and learn from by means of sensors and tracking devices and all sorts of other devices each of which will be new sources of data, data, data!
The Invisible Researcher
So here’s the first of our buzzwords for 2011 - paradata - the data you collect invisibly from monitoring someone’s interactions with an environment. That environment might be the real world but it might as easily be something we set up - a virtual environment or even a survey. There have already been some experiments in seeing what we can learn from the order people answer grid questions or the relative time between their first, second and third picks in a ranked order question. Collecting more by asking less will be an ongoing theme.
Quant v Qual 2011
So the quant vs qual which is going to matter was we go through 2011 isn’t quantitative v qualitative but something much older: quantity v quality. The bursting of the data bubble, whenever it comes, won’t mean less data, it’ll mean a collapse in credibility for “data provision” as a selling point. The quality of the analysis, framing and usefulness of the data (or information or ‘intelligence’ or whatever you’ll end up calling it to try and avoid the d-word…!) is what will matter. But this isn’t a radical observation! What’ll be interesting are the specific ways this shift shakes out.
Beauty Is Truth?
Smart presentation of data seems to be one bridge between quantity and quality, and 2010 was the year researchers got excited about infographics and started dropping names like Tufte into their conversations and blog posts. But infographics are generally a compromise between beauty and insight, and one which can end up tilting sharply towards the former. Sometimes the elegance of the infographic can serve to tell a pointed and useful story, sometimes it simply dazzles and makes you feel informed when you’ve actually learned nothing new or substantial. Not that research has ever been guilty of that, oh no. Anyway, expect the infographics bandwagon to become mightily overburdened in the next 12 months.
“We Had To Destroy The Respondent In Order To Save Him”
Another related division - between those who still believe in respondents and those who don’t. The latter are more vocal, and gaining ground. It’s never been more fashionable to disdain people’s very ability to tell us anything useful about themselves, and most of the innovations in research right now seem to be building on this rejection (which mirrors a wider shift away from the idea of individual agency and rationality - the whole subject is too big for a vol-au-vent post like this but it’s a constant background noise in a lot of interesting conversations.) (and it’s fascinating to look at WHY it’s so seductive too… but these are stories for another day…)
The return of the representative
An early casualty of the data explosion has been the idea of “representativity” - not that people don’t care about it exactly, but the non-scarcity of data and the non-reliability of respondents chip away at it a bit. But I think it’s due a comeback - not so much the representativity of sample populations but the representativity of conversations or social media events. After all, representativity is first and foremost a way of describing a relationship, and it’s going to be more important than ever to understand the relationship between the stuff we see happening and the wider world. What, for instance, is the relationship between the conversation your 300 tame respondents are having in an MROC about your product and the conversation people outside it might be having? What is the relationship between the people on Twitter mad about your latest redesign and the people using it?
The Great Game
We care how representative people’s activities are, but that’s not what they’re interested in. People using social tools don’t want to be passively representative, they want to be actively influential - on their friends, on their peer groups, on the companies they deal with. And brands are happy to encourage this - the transformation of “influence” into a (horribly flawed) currency will gain pace in 2011. Just in the last year or two we’ve seen a shift from consumers being surprised when they mention a brand online and that brand responds, to them coming close to expecting it: the self-awareness of the research respondent pool will be an increasingly significant factor in designing work (and in designing ‘social media strategies’). So the most important thing about ‘gamification’ from my perspective isn’t even the possibilities it offers researchers - which are very double-edged - but the way gamifying influence and personal importance changes the expectations around people’s public relationships with brands, which are relationships research has always done its bit to broker.
And gamification is the tip of another iceberg - probably the biggest research growth area right now, in my opinion. We’ve had DIY research, and the next step is self-research, made considerably easier by the vast range of mobile and computer apps. Music playlist data, financial data, pedometer data, calorie counting data, “decision engines” like Hunch - and new services or apps launching every week. Consumers’ own interest in what they do (and using that information to help them do it better) is the spur for a growing proportion of data collection.
Assuming researchers do still want to research people directly, how can they possibly go about it? One way is by unbundling studies - breaking them down to tiny chunks of work, perhaps even down to question level, in order to better adapt the research work to live in an environment of smaller screens, higher mobility and shorter moments of access. Finding ways to make this nanoresearch work will be a really fascinating challenge for researchers over the next year or so.
The social media backdrop against which much of this is taking place is one in which Facebook’s dominance can be taken as a given: if it’s going to falter, it would take something spectacular for the turnaround to happen next year, IMO. But looking simply at “who’s winning” and the raw numbers doesn’t help anyone understand how people are using social sites and what else they might be looking for. If everyone is on Facebook, then Facebook’s utility changes - some of the more personal things it used to be good for can be cannibalised by niche sites. Facebook has based a lot of its appeal on the philosophy of “one person, one identity” - but a single identity presented to everyone quickly becomes a lowest common denominator. Still enormously useful, but we might find that people do their most interesting things elsewhere - even if the user numbers keep rising.
So there you are - a clouded look at the state of play as I see it. If there are any of these you’d like me to write more about, please do ask! And - of course - have a very happy New Year!