Why Market Research is Failing at Innovation


The steady drumbeat of ‘innovation’ continues to echo throughout the market research community: Client-side research departments are under constant pressure from senior leadership to ‘innovate or die’, research vendors are incessantly hawking their ‘innovative solutions’ and research conferences continue to attract starry-eyed attendees with promises of ‘research innovation.’ With all of this talk of innovation, one would think that the market research community is successfully innovating from year to year. However, one could argue that this is not the case. In our conversations with clients about research innovation, we consistently hear clients express two things: 1) a hesitancy to embrace innovation, and 2) skepticism about its value. So, what’s driving this hesitancy and skepticism about research innovation? There seem to be three contributing factors:

  1. Innovation is risky. Let’s be honest: innovation means doing something that is new and unproven. In today’s cost-conscious environment, researchers are hesitant to embrace an unproven solution. One of our clients put it this way: “I feel like stakeholders get used to seeing things a certain way and are comfortable. It’s inertia. [Innovation] is risky because you don’t know what you’ll get until you get the work completed. If resources are constrained and you’re on the hook for information, it can be hard to make a case for something new.” Given this natural aversion to risk, it’s important for organizations to proactively create space for researchers to experiment (and potentially fail) using innovative approaches.
  2. New is not always better. With the constant drumbeat for more innovation, it’s easy for organizations to mistake innovation as an end in itself, rather than a means to achieve larger business objectives. Rightly so, market researchers are pushing back on this blind push for innovation. One of our clients captured this perfectly in saying, “I’m not sure we need to be innovative for the sake of being innovative. I know that there are new methods, but does it give you more value than traditional methods? I don’t know.” Although this sentiment may slow the rate of innovation, a healthy dose of skepticism is effective in ensuring alignment between innovation and larger business objectives.
  3. Innovation is narrowly defined as new data collection methods. When asked for examples of innovation, researchers often point to new methodologies: MROCs, social media monitoring, online qual, mobile surveys, etc. However, conflating innovation with new methodologies is perhaps a symptom of the ‘data herder’ mentality that has traditionally plagued market research. If market researchers continue to narrowly define innovation as finding new ways to collect data, then we will confine our role to being data collectors rather than strategic partners. Overall, it is important for the market researcher community to broaden the push for ‘innovation’ beyond the search for new ways to collect data.

As we examine the factors that contribute to this ‘failure of innovation’, the whole definition of failure begins to look very different. While I agree that the market research community has been hesitant to blindly embrace innovation, I don’t necessarily think that this constitutes a ‘failure to innovate’. Instead, I think that this hesitance represents a concerted effort to discriminate between good innovation and bad innovation. So, why is market research failing to innovate? Because we’ve all seen plenty of examples of bad innovation, and we’re all trying to avoid making those mistakes again.

Dan Callahan is the Founder and President of Vivisum Partners. He specializes in creating multi-phase research programs that combine quantitative, qualitative and strategic facilitation methodologies. Email Dan at dan.callahan@vivisumpartners.com