1 + 1 = 3. Why Research Vendors Should Collaborate

As mentioned in some earlier posts, in the past quarters, I have been looking into the role that Market Research professionals play (and can play) with regard to information management. I’ve had many enlightening conversations about this topic with both vendors and client-side market researchers.

Technology developments result in more and more information becoming available internally, and at different parts of the organization. Just think about all the data an average company collects or buys — media measurement data, advertising awareness, advertising spend, retail data, sales data, competitive intelligence, Web-tracking data (from listening tools), Web site tracking, marketing data (e.g., Nielsen Claritas), customer satisfaction surveys, brand trackers, and other primary research data, to name just a few. One vendor estimated that the average research department handles around 50 different research sources!

When I spoke with vendors about their relationship with clients, each and every one of them was looking for ways to increase the level of engagement. For one thing, they are working on best-in-class reporting tools to make it easier for clients to process their data and make it visually more interesting — and hopefully easier to use. However, not many vendors think further than their own set of data. When questioned, they mention that their systems don’t allow for third-party data. Yes, it’s possible to link to internal CRM systems, but that’s about as far as things go.

But that’s not good enough. For another report, I interviewed heads of market research (MR) departments about the data needs of their executive teams. It will come as no surprise that these needs have nothing to do with how fancy things look. What really makes or breaks the usage of MR results by executive team members is an easy-to-grasp overview combining the key indicators for the organization — such as, for example, brand awareness, advertising awareness, advertising spend, and sales (brand position). With the current standalone data setup and reporting tools, it requires a lot of work to create reports that appeal to the executive team’s needs.

A technology solution I was briefed about recently by a research vendor was a market research dashboard that forms part of its survey software: Not only does it allow clients to manage the surveys, databases, and deliverables from this vendor through the tool but it also offers the possibility of managing access to other vendors through the same platform — having it all in one place. Do you think this type of solution will work? Or should smaller or specialized data providers take things even further and develop plans to aggregate their data to serve clients' needs better? Because if they don’t, they ultimately run the risk of being replaced by companies like Nielsen or the Kantar Group that have multiple products in their tool set and are already working on delivering their data in one reporting tool.

Do you see the same thing happening? How does the ideal research offering look in the future? Do you agree that aggregation of multiple research sources will result in increased client engagement?

Comments

Reineke, Couldn't agree more.

Reineke, Couldn't agree more. Good to see this being said. A major barrier to MR innovation and our often criticised failure to better meet client needs is "silo" thinking, either within the units of bigger firms, or between smaller firms. There are lots of reasons for this, ranging from a failure to grow the right skill sets through to a lack of appreciation of what's needed to drive real "triangulation" across a client's information sources. But a big one is simply a lack of effort we put into talking in more depth and more informally to people who work in related, but different MR areas from our own. I tackled this a while back in a Post on our Research.Opinionated.Insightful blog called "Need a Next Step Strategy? Take Someone Different Out To Lunch". It's at: http://tinyurl.com/22vwaxp (and other posts on the site also touch on related topics). I do think we need to stop thinking of ourselves simply as competitors fighting for a small, finite amount of MR budget, but instead think of ways to collaborate to unlock far bigger opportunities outside conventional MR budgets.

I for one would tend to

I for one would tend to disagree. From my experience, client engagement comes from how the data is interpreted and linked to the client's specific needs, not from the actual quantity of data aggregated.
Sure, at first glance, more data is better, an automated regression can yield some interesting points, but that is only a marginal improvement in client experience (and can be a real problem if the conclusion is irelevant, as it is sometimes the case). The most important part of the customer experience comes form how the data (little or a lot) is interpreted and made relevant for the client, and that is, at this point more about people (account managers or client service) and less about SW. Which is incidentally why we are reading and commenting on your blog and not on an automatically generated page showing the 10% decrease in TCO generated by aggregating two more research sources.

My two cents...

I think it's useful to break down the need for information management along two interaction/engagement models. One is between the research vendor and the MR department, and the other is between the MR department (sometimes including the vendor) and the executive team/stakeholders...

If it's the vendor to MR department relationship, aggregation of data across multiple streams is definitely useful if for nothing more than having to not have to login to proprietary vendor dashboards (although I'm not sure how much this will actually lead to increased client engagement). People will do anything to avoid having to remember two passwords :-)

If it's the MR department to executive relationship, it's all about data interpretation in as dead simple of a format as possible, as well as the relevance aspect that Dragos mentioned above. In fact, simple aggregation of cross-vendor data streams should be avoided in the MR department/executive relationship, unless these executives miraculously find a few spare hours (and the strong desire) to interpret the data themselves...

Reineke - thanks for continuing to write about this and bring attention to this "other half of the equation" in research. I think we're all so focused on data collection and getting that small piece of the MR pie that we lose site of the client experience entirely. Posts like this will hopefully keep that conversation moving...

Why aggregation leads to increased engagement

Alistair, Dragos and Matthew, thanks for your responses.

I'd like to make clear that I agree it's not a good idea to put more information in front of the executive team and have them figure out what it means. However, what the executive team does need is to understand the connection between all the different research outcomes. This is indeed a task of the market research department, but currently a very labor-intensive, complex exercise - with a high risk of errors.

At this moment I see two trends that influenced me to write this post. The first one is from a technology perspective. There are more and more software vendors looking at how they can offer a solution to help clients analyze large amount of data. Just yesterday Mashable did a story on a company called Leftronic "Leftronic Launches the Business Dashboard of the Future" http://mashable.com/2010/08/24/leftronic/ Honestly, I prefer the market research industry to fill this void, and add additional value, instead of seeing our data aggregated in a third party tool.

Secondly, we already see that clients are asking their vendors to collaborate and bring their data sources together into one dataset. In the past year for example Forrester has worked on a couple of projects where we merged data from our Technographics product with data from other vendors. And I heard similar stories from other research vendors. But, doing this one client at a time is far too costly and time intensive, with limited chances on long-term success for both vendor and client.

Why I think that aggregating data into one platform leads to increased engagements is that it first of all leads to better insights. Research is valued by the insights it generates and analyzing across data sources will reveal connections that are currently hard to spot. Secondly, it makes it much easier for companies to set up automated reports which they can distribute internally. Because it's easier to do, the market research teams can make customized reports for sales, product managers, or by region. And if these research reports combine all information necessary to make a call or take action it will increase usage and, to a certain extent, dependency.
Please let me know how you see this.

On the two points: 1) This

On the two points:
1) This was what I was addressing in my post. Automated data analysis solutions, as I have seen them so far, are gaining in sophistication but remain very inflexible. It basically means you need to have the manager go into the data if it needs more insights. But the reasoning goes that if they had that time (or qualification) in the first place, they would not need to build specialized MR departments would they? Not to mention that real world situational complexity is increasingly higher and more difficult to manage for the company and manager actually requesting the analysis (which are in THAT industry). It must be 10x more difficult for a vendor automating complex decision making in an industry it is not actually acting in, right?

2) This is a very good point, but I don't see this being driven by all vendors, as it should be a zero sum game (if products become more commoditized, then someone will lose). However, if we take the IT outsourcing industry as an example, we should be watching out for a consumer trend similar to multisourcing (which is outsourcing different IT towers to different IT vendors and leaving them to sync tasks). I can tell from experience that there is a distinct concern with certain clients in putting togheter a framework for interpreting data from different analyst sources and reconnecting that with their own data, but this is a very complex and error prone process, like you mentioned. Moreover, very difficult to prove ROI on that, so funding might be an issue.

Seeing beyond technology

Dragos, thanks for your comment.
Please get me right - I don't think that technology for technology sake will be the solution. Also, I don't expect vendors to analyze each other’s data. Maybe in time, this could be a market for research consultants to jump into, but for now my focus is on how we can make clients' lives easier.

It feels like yesterday that research vendors delivered research results to the client only on paper, sending big binders with cross tabs and a summary report at the end of each project. Aggregation of results across projects and the interpretation of the data kept the research team very busy: They typed over the numbers from different sources and put together a report or presentation for their internal clients.

However, technology has moved on and research deliverables are now almost always shared in an electronic format. At the same time the amount of data has multiplied with the uptake of the Internet. Clients have more customer data available than ever before, but the aggregation of the results across sources hasn't really changed. Ok, they can copy and paste now, but for the rest the process is still quite similar. And here I see a role for a new technology tool across vendors, that aggregates the research results and gives clients the opportunity to analyze from different source by comparable variables, e.g. time period, or postal code (to name some variables that should be easiest to aggregate).

Your point on ROI is very valid and, to be honest, I don't think there's a ROI short-term for any of the research vendors participating in a project like this. Long-term I think that deeper engagement, the earlier mentioned client dependency, and the ability to keep competing with the large research players will definitely benefit their business.

Synergy can do a lot!

Reineke, thanks for mentioning this important point. I totally agree that research vendors should work together to produce sufficient data that meet the expectations of their clients. The collaboration between these vendors, will not only increase the clients' engagement, but also will help to reduce the research's costs, and avoid the duplication of data collected. I liked the technology solution that you mentioned at the end of your post, and I think it's going to be a great solution for sharing data; however, this MR dashboard should be monitored very carefully by its developer, in order to avoid the manipulation with and duplication of data provided; otherwise, this platform of shared data will not achieve the goal that it has been created for.