Don’t Just Hand Over Research to Joe in IT; the DIY Age Demands a Lot More Finesse


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The practice of marketing has been seriously impacted by changes in technology, in part because of technology’s effect on consumer behavior, but at least as importantly because of its contribution to management’s ability to collect reliable data. Customers are using technology in ways that make it difficult for marketers to get messages to them and to obtain information from them. They are accessing information on their own terms and deciding what they will and will not be exposed to. They are screening calls and demanding privacy.

At the same time, businesses are capturing data at every turn; with every swipe of a card, every click of a mouse, and every ring of a cash register, and many seem to be then doing little or nothing with the data they have. Technology has raced ahead of management’s ability to use it effectively in obtaining true customer insight. It’s easy to capture data these days. It’s much more difficult to figure out what to do with it.

The result, especially in many mid-sized firms, is an overabundance of data and little to show for it. Businesses are sitting on their customer databases and often using them as little more than a blunt instrument to generate mailing lists to send out promotional offers. There is, in some firms, little analysis of the data or strategic application.

The ready availability of certain technologies and tools has also made it possible for companies to break into the marketing research business on their own. With access to instruments such as Survey Monkey, any business, large or small, can design a questionnaire, put it up on a web site, and wait for the responses to roll in.

Research has entered a DIY age. The increasing amateurization of research creates a number of problems. The first is a devaluation of research in the minds of mangers — “if it’s this easy to do, how come you want to charge me $50,000? I’ll just get Joe in IT to run that for me.” The second is that it contributes to bad information being produced because Joe doesn’t know much about statistics or how to minimize bias. He can’t design a questionnaire and can’t do the proper analysis because he’s a programmer. And his boss who is saving all that money doesn’t know enough to provide direction and doesn’t know when he’s receiving worthless information.

Advances in technology have made it difficult to reach people. Caller ID and the advent of do-not-call lists mean that customers are generally unavailable and unwilling to participate in survey research in particular or to be recruited for focus groups and other qualitative projects. The result is that most researchers in recent years have resorted to the use of customer panels, and to online panels in particular, to allow them to collect the data they need. The problem is that a very large percentage of research projects these days involve consumers who have “opted in”, rather than being selected in anything approaching a random manner.

There has never been a research project designed that did not have a certain bias associated with it. But, the fact that large portions of the population are currently ruling themselves out of participation in research projects must be a cause for concern as many samples currently being used are anything but representative. As a result, an ever-present danger is that marketing decisions are being based on data of specious quality. The challenges of data collection today mean that many organizations are grasping at whatever straws are available to allow them to get the sample they need. Data quality must suffer as a result and, as a consequence, so too must the quality of decisions being made.


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