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Market research tries to find ways outside of polls

Instant opinion polls merely add to noise and are getting it wrong these days

Gulf News

Dubai: These days, if an opinion poll — mostly the instant online versions — say something, the results could be just the opposite. Last year was when such polls took a big hit on their efficacy, getting everything from the Brexit and US Presidential elections wrong.

Now, into the new year, is it time to give market research — and the way it is conducted — a rethink? Or will the flood of big data make it impossible to sift through and come up with the right answers?

“The practice (of market research) is definitely transforming to adapt to new developments ... particularly the role of big data,” said Ziad Skaff, Managing Director at the consultancy Hall & Partners MENA. “It’s important to note that big data only enriches market research and cannot act as a substitute.

“At present, the industry is in the best position to make sense of these new data sources and help brands understand how, when and where to use it, in order to deepen their understanding of their consumers. Again, online resources are complementary to market research and should not be viewed as an alternative to it.”

The problem these days is that online methods of seeking perceptions is trumping all other processes. With such instant responses, the polls are only likely to reinforce what marketers or pollsters want to hear rather than ferret out what respondents are actually thinking.

In markets such as the UAE, the problem gets exacerbated by the absence of hard data. The only option then is to take in the views generated by spot polls done online.

“Live and mobile research are just some of the ways that companies measure consumer sentiment in a quick, time-sensitive manner now,” said Skaff. “However, this is just one technique and not the solution to every problem. Every research study endeavours to understand something specific and therefore has its own unique objective.

“For example, the communications industry may require instant feedback whereas other industries may have more strategic objectives that need a longer time to study.”

According to ESOMAR, the industry grouping for market research, the Middle East and Africa has the “lowest per capita investment in research in the world”.

“Research is relatively new to this region in comparison to other parts,” said Skaff. “It developed when large multinationals set up here and needed to understand the market.

“Secondly, although you have many clients who understand the value of deep and insight-driven studies, you have just as many who are looking for a cheaper and quicker way of doing it. This pricing duel leads to another issue — compromising on quality.

“Adding to that, in this region, there’s still a scarcity of secondary data and a lack of public information. Even social and cultural norms can act as potential barriers.”

A longer term solution, according to industry sources, would be for clients, governing entities and research firms to engage in a “broader discussion”.

But there is no denying that in the short term at least, clients will need to be weaned off the instant gratification online outreach offers.

“Of course clients are always looking to get results back more quickly, and without the cost of paying a premium for this return,” said Deepa Shah, Chief Financial Officer, Europe and Asia at Hall & Partners. “Technology plays a huge part in this and helps us keep our competitive advantage.

“Online studies have the potential to reduce margins because we are unable to charge clients in the same way we used to for face-to-face research. So for our business our margin remains resilient because we are not relying on solely selling online fieldwork.

“Online studies create the opportunity to bring in a new diversity of clients who can afford research for the first time. In addition, the data collection part of our income decreases as the application of intelligence through consultancy increases.

“New fields, such as behavioural economics, help us to better understand and bridge the gap between what people say and what they really mean.”