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A guest post by Andrew Reid of Vision Critical.

When market researchers want to find out what customers think, they do everything---except ask them directly. Face to face. Or even Facebook to Facebook.

For decades, market researchers have surveyed customers anonymously by using methods that haven’t been cutting-edge since telephones and paper surveys were the last word in marketing technology. The results may or may not be accurate because response rates are so weak that many surveys aren’t statistically significant. These efforts don’t do much, if anything, to expand our brands.

Enough of that.

We in marketing research can strive for better results. We don’t have to bore customers with “do you agree, strongly agree, strongly disagree …” surveys that go on longer than the last Harry Potter book. By combining social media, business intelligence and customer interaction technology, we can initiate ongoing conversations with our customers that yield instant, bankable market intelligence.

Welcome to the era of the eternal focus group

Using business intelligence and customer relationship management systems to identify highly engaged customers, market researchers can invite them into ongoing discussions about products, services, branding, pricing---everything we study by blind surveys now. Social media is the glue that holds these panels together. It’s the conduit for quick, visual surveys that replace the time consuming paper-based questionnaires. Market researchers can send customers interactive images, full-motion video, even links to virtual worlds where the respondents “act” their replies. Companies distribute the questions to the panels as e-mail attachments, or through Facebook groups, or by tweeting links to Web portals. More engaging content increases response rates and accuracy while keeping customers from dropping out from boredom or overload.

Instead of a massive campaign that takes weeks of planning, marketers can tap into these online panels for input in real time from real customers without sacrificing research validity or missing out on an evolving trend or opportunity in today’s instant gratification society. The online panel and surveys are brand experiences in themselves and will keep online panel members engaged well beyond the single interactions of yesterday.

The philosophical base for this new marketing model is engaging customers directly. Objectivity has its place, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of marketing research. Tell your customers who you are and what you want to talk to them about. Somewhere along the line, marketing latched onto the idea that customers won’t answer honestly if they know who you are. They’ll be too nice and won’t yield a complete picture.

Not true.

There’s enormous value in having open conversations with customers who know they’re talking to you about your brands. Customers who like your product and want it to succeed so much that they’ll tell you exactly what they don’t like about it in unmerciful detail. It might not be objective because they know who you are, but it’s unvarnished and motivated by the right impulses---they like you and want you to succeed.

The future of market research lies in ongoing conversations. True insights and competitive intelligence come from open conversations with customers who know they’re talking to you about your products it’s time for a long talk at the kitchen table---a virtual kitchen table and a multimedia chat.

Andrew Reid is CEO of Vision Critical.

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