The democratization of market research

Nearly every product you interact with — from the car you drive, to the TV and movies you see, to the advertising to which you’re exposed — has benefited from market research, a $32-billion-and-growing global industry. Businesses value such research. They demand it. And why shouldn’t they? Good research is vital to innovation and competitive advantage, bringing to light new needs as well as clues on how to satisfy them. Market research has some downsides too. It can be complicated, slow, and expensive — available only to big spenders with plenty of time on their hands.

The democratization of market research

But what if just about anyone could pose questions to a target population and receive unfiltered, immediate answers they could trust? The ability might just change the way a lot of us make decisions.

It’s already begun to happen. When you post a picture on Facebook or ask a question on Twitter, you may get back a number of responses from your circle of friends and followers. Those responses lack the scale, coverage and diversity that high-quality market research promises, of course. And your friends’ knowledge of you will invariably color their replies.

Let’s imagine you want more depth. You’ve got several questions in mind, and you need to know that your respondents will represent your target population of interest. My company’s QuickSurvey enables you to select the respondents yourself, write the questions yourself, pay a small fee with your credit card, and, in a matter of minutes, see a detailed report of what people think. You can even tweak the data to see how responses vary by geographic location, age, income, or gender.

A number of market research buyers are embracing the new tools. Sony Music Entertainment, for instance, relies on Toluna QuickSurveys for a fast read on how consumers worldwide feel about various recording artists, and therefore which ones are likely to benefit from a marketing boost. Sony finds TQS a great way to stay ahead of the game without breaking the bank. The alternatives — phone interviewing or more traditional online research — take a week or two longer, and cost five to ten times more.

Global PR agency GolinHarris uses Toluna QuickSurveys to spot emerging trends in multiple countries, test ideas on the fly, and deepen its understanding of people and issues. Ditto British Airways, whose research and insight manager finds the service “an extremely fast way of getting a snapshot of consumer views.”

The DIY survey market is small at the moment — possibly $500 million in annual sales, a very small slice of the $32 billion pie. So how do companies in that market make money? SurveyMonkey, perhaps the best-known player in the DIY research game, sells subscription services to its DIY survey engine via online channels. SurveyMonkey’s first-mover advantage, low fixed costs and ability to sell the same useful service over and over again makes for a strong offering. Facebook market researcher Sheila Normile says SurveyMonkey makes it easy for her “to conduct, manage and analyze research that drives our business forward.” Polldaddy uses a similar subscription model; its plugin has come in handy for the New York Times, Johnson & Johnson and Microsoft, among many others.

Toluna takes a different approach, complementing its DIY survey engine with access to its community of four million prescreened responders in more than 30 countries. The business model is akin to selling a printer at low to no cost, and making money by selling the ink.

So how large might the DIY market grow? Could it reach $3 billion in the next five years? It might. It depends in part on how long traditional market-research buyers will pay the labor markup for the workers on the market-research assembly lines. Such ‘factories’ will typically assign one group to do the scheduling, a second to select the survey sample, a third to write questionnaires, a fourth to process the data, and so on. Given the available technology, such an approach is no longer efficient. That’s why it’s not cheap, either.

The growth of the market will also depend on the quality of the information DIY approaches are able to produce. If it proves to be credible, trustworthy and comparatively inexpensive, more and more buyers will make the switch.

Finally, that growth will depend on whether or not people change, inasmuch as the teenagers of today will become the market-research buyers of tomorrow. Today’s teenagers will undoubtedly be far more comfortable with DIY approaches than are those they’ll replace.

Moreover, the ability to ask questions and receive trustworthy responses in real time may prove to be as powerful for individuals as it is for companies like Sony Music Entertainment and GolinHarris. Who can predict the new courses of action that will open up now that everyone can get instant feedback? Are you wondering who to take in the fantasy baseball draft? Ask two thousand people if Derek Jeter still has it. Trying to decide what to eat tonight? Ask another two thousand. Deciding whether to marry, or whom? Ask a million people.

Undoubtedly, someone will ask. That’s what happens when valid market research becomes streamlined, and open to all.