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TMRE 2016 Reflections

Judging by titles and content you might come away from October’s TMRE (The Market Research Event) 2016 Conference with a perception that we market researchers still aren’t being heard, that the “data scientists” are taking over (aren’t we data scientists as well?) and that millennials are the only group that matters (despite the fact that Boomers, for instance, generate 50 percent of all CPG purchases while only being 45 percent of the population.)  After attending the conference, however, we at MMR tend to have a far more optimistic viewpoint on these topics.

Table Influence Happens

The theme of “Commanding the Boardroom” is always a good reminder that we can only do so when we position ourselves as consultants with a viewpoint rather than simply researchers with a set of insights.  Research is a critical function whose influence ebbs and flows but has never disappeared. Our seat at the table opens when it needs to and when we appropriately communicate that we have a decisive viewpoint to offer rather than just “Great Insights.”  In fact, our experience suggests we influence outcomes far more often than not. If we didn’t, our $45B industry would shrink precipitously.

Need for Qual+Quant Integration

The one theme that resonated strongly was the need for a confluence of quantitative and qualitative research.  Many of us are thinking through research implications from the evolving understanding of the brain that David Eagleman shared with us – “System 1 and System 2 thinking” is now endemic to our research discussions.  And we all want to convey compelling viewpoints as well as Disney tells stories and find insightful connections like those unearthed by Steven Dubner and the Freakonomics team. We at MMR believe that holistic approaches to research will accomplish those goals – and that means we must cast any particular research as a piece of the viewpoint puzzle and often we must look to both quantitative and qualitative input.

Perhaps paradoxically in this age of algorithmic prediction, we frequently still need to get “into the heads” of consumers to get ahead of the market rather than solely relying on predictive data. One of our favorite stories described how some people just didn’t respond to marketing initiatives even though the data clearly suggested that they should!  Just as big data insight doesn’t end with the analysis of one data set and development of a never-changing algorithm, qualitative initiatives can often benefit from expanded inquiry to create greater confidence in the intuitive leaps to action we seek. Probability is great but imperfect, and certainty is likely folly in our industry, so qualitative efforts continue to help fill gaps and uncover possibilities. High precision tools help archaeologists know where to dig, but once zoned in, they still need some qualitative exploration of the site – the archaeologist still needs to painstakingly brush away some areas to uncover the relics and fossils that make the civilization in question come to life.

Zain Raj related the story of the McDonalds turnaround with a streamlined menu and All Day Breakfast and suggested that, as long as they were winning dollars and mindshare, they didn’t need to worry about winning hearts.  We respectfully disagree – dollars and mindshare are notoriously short-term phenomena – they are like the Big Data predictives that can easily change with new information. We believe McDonald’s personnel are correct to be concerned with a longer term “heart” strategy as well. To us, this is like looking at the nexus of quant and qual research.

Future Topics…Please?

We would like to see three items addressed in future gatherings:  groups in addition to millennials, pricing approaches and technology impact.

First, while US millennials are certainly an important group to understand, they do not seem to us to be “more important” than others – and yet they dominate topical discussion. In fact, we wonder if too much research resource is being deployed here. This extensive focus on US millennials overlooks growing groups such as middle class markets in India and China that will dwarf US millennial buying power in the coming years.

Second, we continue to wonder about a lack of focus on pricing – certainly a critical marketing element.  The fundamental equation of Revenue = Volume x Price has not changed, nor will it. We find that TMRE and other conferences have focused almost solely on the volume part of this equation. There is so much attention given to this group or that group, on how to be effective in an organization, and on new tools to impact decision-making such as gamification, virtual reality design, and immersion sessions. We don’t mean to dismiss these important elements. We simply observe that if we want to Command the Boardroom, helping organizations better understand pricing seems to be squarely in our bailiwick, yet continues to be nearly absent from discussion. In many ways, pricing is at the core of behavioral economics and while an entire track was developed around BE, none of it really spoke to this central element.  What are companies doing to better understand pricing tolerances?

Finally, we can and should dive deeper into the research implications of emergent technology.  We found an interesting apparent contradiction between two of the keynotes.  In one, a commentator on video posited that we have 10 Gutenberg-press type innovations happening at the same time now. Later, Alec Ross posited that there are really only three future “big innovation industries” that will rise to the economic activity level unleashed by the internet:  robotics, genomics and monetary transfer/evolution.  It seems to us there is a tendency to elevate every innovation to game-changing status which could set up false expectations for needed information. In actuality, many of the innovations we talk about are more like books on the Gutenberg press – not the press itself. Content and distribution changes enabled by that game-changing press are analogous to what the Internet has enabled today:  Late Middle Ages Inking=Digitization Now.  And we know from history that the Gutenberg press is the lynchpin that created a move to an entirely new epoch as the “Late Middle Ages” quickly became the “Early Renaissance” and established our current modern period.

We believe that the internet, digitization, and miniaturization will have the same impact. Perhaps a focus on what this might mean for research is warranted.  For instance, our industry has always focused on the individual in decision-making. Might we be entering a period where understanding GROUP decision-making is equally and sometimes more important?  Ostensibly, the consumer is now armed with more information than ever before – has decision making changed in any important way and won’t that consumer by definition also have more false/misleading information than ever before?  What does that mean for research and messaging?  And what does the continually rapid pace of change in communications and distribution imply for content, reliability and agility?

We remain optimistic and bullish about the role we play every day in understanding and meeting wants and needs and look forward to whatever’s next on the conference calendar.

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