Is research holding us back?

I think I managed to alienate the entire market research community here today. I was invited to speak at the MRIA’s annual qualitative conference. The theme of the day was “Exploding Paradigms” and the organizers assembled a great list of people to talk about the forward edges of qual. I was really excited to see the list of topics and speakers, and it was a really well done event.

Despite the forward-looking nature of many of the day’s talks, I took a bit of an extreme position to make a point about the problems with much of the status quo. My talk was called “Is Qualitative Research Holding Us Back?” - a subject that I seem to go on about a lot recently.

The gist of it is that given the communications industry is in a period of massive change, it is a time when more than ever, we need to be grounded in an understanding of people’s evolving behaviour and needs. But research hasn’t been evolving at the same rate as culture, and instead of seizing the moment of opportunity, I feel despite the occasional ethnography or metaphor study, a lot of qualitative research still looks like the same old focus groups we’ve been watching for years. It’s based on faulty assumptions, has not kept up with cultural change or scientific learning about how the brain works, and may actually be hindering success.

I don’t assign blame to any party - I think we’re all guilty. Marketers have cut their research budgets to the point where most client research managers are too understaffed and overstretched to think about innovation; agencies have used research too selectively and selfishly for too long to have much credibility any more; and research practitioners are fighting for a piece of shrinking budgets and facing rushed timelines so they often lack the leverage to effect major changes. But that means there’s no one to really push for change. And this situation runs the risk of damaging qualitative research’s value and credibility at a time when it is most needed; and researchers, clients, and agencies need to work together to win that credibility back.

None of this should come as a shock to most people who’ve practiced or commissioned market research, but it’s still a tough subject to bring up to a room full of researchers.
So I have a feeling I ruffled a few feathers. And admittedly I took a bit of an extremist position to make the point. But I also got some nice positive feedback so hopefully I’m still on a few Christmas card lists.
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