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From Overwhelmed to AI-nspired


I attend a lot of marketing conferences where I hear over-excited pitch people telling me all about The New Thing that will Change Every Paradigm Forever.  So much over-enthusiasm can jade just about anyone, so it was with relief that I joined a much more sober group for their conference.  I spent the last few days at the Advertising Research Federation's (ARF) re:Think 2010 conference taking place in New York City. I found, however, that even here among the stodgiest of marketing researchers, there's talk of ... a paradigm shift.

In typically understated fashion, the theme of this conference is "The New Normal."  Apparently, the world went and changed without consulting us.  Bob Barocci, president of the ARF put it thus, "If we accept the new normal, we have to change the way we think, and that's hard and scary.  We deny its existence, but can we deny its signals?"

Many of these signals of change are very real, but not really paradigm shifts in and of themselves.  Some examples that came up during the conference are newer waves of immigrants are replacing older ones, consumer spending is down, and digital media fragmentation keeps making it harder for marketers to find captive mass audiences.  Most of this is old news.  What I find fascinating is how the entrepreneurs of marketing research are "thinking different" and responding to these shifts.

There tend to be two schools of thought on how to proceed in the new normal.  Big spenders and traditional media stalwarts keep pursuing the elusive single metric that can be used to dispassionately, automatically, and accurately sort out the entire media universe into a range of good to bad investment choices.  Smaller, more cash-strapped marketers tend to take a very different approach, and simply find whatever metric that suits them for the moment.  In a presentation for Decipher on guerrilla marketing measurement strategies, Kristin Luck encouraged those present to get as creative with their measurement as they are with their marketing.  She makes a convincing argument for using mobile to help track the spread and effectiveness of marketing materials by word-of-mouth.  Luck advocates using tactics like survey widgets in mobile platforms, GPS tracking, pass along pings, tracking mobile bar code coupon redemption, and mobile downloads.  While researchers can spend all day arguing about the continued relevance of metrics like GRPs, it's clearly important not to let that stop anyone from taking advantage of all the new metrics at our disposal.

Back in the days of analog media, researchers made due with sample data generated by research companies.  The complaint with research was more often that the data was too limited to reflect reality.  These days, census level data tracks billions of people in real time, and now the problem is figuring out what to do with all this data.  Most analytics departments are simply overwhelmed with the amount of data coming in.  It was pointed out during a panel that Walmart collects data on 100 million transactions per hour.  Traditional research methods simply aren't designed to handle this level of data.

Stepping up to this challenge in a rather innovative way, Discover Card uses text mining software to analyze and quantify the content of their customer service calls and compare the frequency of certain kinds of complaints, and even compare this to the incidence of chatter about the brand on blogs and social networks.  By converting speech to text and analyzing this huge source of data, Discover can get a much more accurate idea about whether a specific complaint is being generated by a few lone individuals, or if it truly is a widespread problem deserving of attention.

Two great examples of how qualitative research is adapting to this new norm of overwhelming data came from CBS's David Poltrack and Global Park's Dan Coates.  Both have accepted the fact that "pure" research has its place, but a research program that incorporates itself into the data stream of everyday life makes a lot of sense.  Global Park creates online communities for companies that act as CRM tools to keep customers engaged, while simultaneously mining the communities for product insight and feedback on marketing.  Coates calls this approach "large-scale listening with accuracy".  He is also quick to point out that it isn't representative of the general population, but the feedback is authentic in large part because "the community goes on even when the research stops; 95% of communication is repetitive management, 5% is real research probing the community."  He also points out that this approach can make research more enjoyable for the subject by making survey vehicles less boring.

CBS has taken this approach to a new extreme by opening a research facility in Las Vegas that's as much about entertaining people as it is about research.  Las Vegas is somewhat unique in that it's possible to meet someone there who traveled from just about any town in the United States.  At their research facility, they invite the public in to watch new material, running 700+ focus groups over 365 days per year. Poltrack calls this approach "immersion research."

This combination of new streams of data, new methods of data collection, and more powerful processing tools mean that marketing research, like media itself, is becoming a real-time endeavor.  As software takes up the challenge of collecting and processing data, researchers can focus more on finding insights and affecting business decisions.  Who knew research could be so exciting?

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Rethinking Normal: The Newest in Marketing Research From the ARF's Annual Conference

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Tim McAtee is director of research at MarketingProfs ( Reach him via