How automation is reshaping market research

Just like advertising, market research is being disrupted by enterprise software

Marketers have yet to find a better source of insight into consumers’ beliefs and attitudes than asking them directly. But as the many sources of data have grown faster, more efficient and more readily available, the conventional months-long process of drafting, distributing and analyzing a consumer survey begins to seem outdated.

In response, traditional research firms are looking to automation to find efficiencies similar to those enjoyed by media planners and campaign analysts. Vision Critical, a Vancouver-based research firm with 750 employees and offices across North America, is one such firm that’s invested heavily in technology and fundamentally altered the way its clients access insights. Company executives say it now considers itself more of an enterprise technology vendor, with a mission to develop and maintain an automated platform that enables marketers to conduct market research for themselves.

The company’s cloud-based software-as-a-service platform lets marketers build and maintain their own customer panels, through which they can access real-time insights on topics like pricing, product interest or customer experience. The platform automates much of the process of scheduling, distributing and analyzing survey questions, so that a marketer can effectively pose a question and get a response within 24 hours, without the work-intensive process of running a survey through a big-name research firm.

“It’s not really a research service that we’re providing,” says Nick Stein, Vision Critical’s senior vice-president of marketing. “We’re selling [clients] a piece of technology, and as a result of that technology, they can now essentially curate a community of tens of thousands of customers — that they can reach out to on their own, anytime they want.”

Stein says Vision Critical has seen marketers shifting away from detailed, long-form surveys to more frequent bursts of two or three key questions that provide a semi-regularly updated view of what customers are thinking (though no one wants to get spammed with a new survey every day). And since the panels are made up of volunteers who’ve opted in to give feedback on a specific brand, they’re driving much higher rates of engagement than typical consumer surveys. The company says survey response rates range from 40-60%, and it can take less than an hour for clients to start seeing real-time results.

“It means that over time a company gets to be smarter and smarter about who these people are,” Stein says. “Rather than having to have somebody fill out a very long survey, because you have all this historical data about people who are part of your community, you can go to them with two or three questions when you want to learn something specific.”

The first version of Vision Critical’s solution debuted in 2013 and since then the company’s been steadily building out its functionality. In the last six months, it’s launched specialized versions of the platform targeted at three industry verticals: sports marketing, retail, and consumer goods.

Kobi Ofir, Vision Critical’s CTO, says the key to effective market research automation is to ensure that proven methodology is built-in at every step. That way, even marketers lacking an extensive research background can use the platform to ensure that the results they’re getting are reliable and unbiased. Naturally, that means the platform leans heavily on standardized surveys. For more detailed custom research, marketers will still have to work through the traditional study design process.

But Ofir says the company intends to respond to that issue with increasingly specialized versions of the platform that answer the specific objectives of marketers in different verticals. For example, its sports marketing platform includes surveys designed to measure loyalty, fan engagement, and sponsorship success, while the consumer goods version focuses more heavily on product planning and testing offers. Ofir couldn’t confirm any forthcoming products beyond the three that are in market, but he did say the company is working with financial and healthcare clients and sees a lot of opportunity in those markets for SaaS-based research solutions.

Ofir echoes Stein’s point that the platform builds up knowledge of customers over the course of multiple surveys, offering a better perspective on how customers’ attitudes are shifting over time. He gives the example of a purchase intent survey, which can ask whether a customer plans to buy a product in the next six months and then follow up with the same customer six months later asking if they followed through.

“The ability to retain that information and actually use it as part of the intelligence to decide when to reach out to someone — and take it into context when you ask them questions — ensures that the consumer doesn’t feel as if you don’t know them,” he says. “It also reduces the amount of data you need to collect, making surveys shorter, so you can get to the real value and real insights more quickly.”

It’s no secret that marketers have a growing need for their consumer intelligence to be real-time, so naturally Vision Critical isn’t the only company pursuing this approach. In May, Corrine Sandler, founder of Fresh Intelligence, another established research firm based in Toronto, left to lead ValidateIt, a tech startup that uses Google Surveys to build consumer panels for standardized, real-time surveys on pricing, demand and product satisfaction. Marketers can choose their target audience and survey methodology from an online dashboard, run the survey, and see fast results, without ever sitting down with a research committee. It’s designed to appeal to both smaller marketers that can’t afford big research programs and marketers within larger companies looking for quick-and-dirty reports to inform their day-to-day decisions.

Though ValidateIt isn’t offering an enterprise solution on the scale of Vision Critical, they’re both looking at different ways to automate the traditional research process to make it more efficient and give clients more control. Although it’s perhaps less shiny and new than programmatic or dynamic creative ad serving, automated research looks like it could have just as big of an impact on modern marketing.

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