Will automation make market research redundant?

On the 11th May 1997 world chess champion Gary Kasparov lost a very important game, not to a human opponent, but to a computer.

The computer in question – IBM’s Deep Blue – became the first to use artificial intelligence to beat a world champion in a six-game match under standard time controls.

The world – and certainly Kasparov – could not quite believe it, and the event is credited with sowing the seeds of the primary existential crisis of our age: Could humans be replaced by robots?

Certainly, more than 20 years after this event, this is a question that is becoming increasingly pertinent for a number of industries, one of which is market research.

There are multiple ways automation could be deployed in the industry. With many market research processes so reliant on collecting and processing data – typically qualitative or quantitative surveys – automation clearly has a role to play in collecting, sorting, analysing responses and creating associated images such as infographics. Automation could also be used to good effect in many of the ‘back office’ current processes in market research, such as managing quotas and samples.

However, there is also scope for automation to add new value to the industry via more advanced processes such as analysing facial coding, social media listening and even the application of Electroencephalography (EEG), which can be used to measure neural activity and therefore emotional responses as those being studied watch, for example, a piece of advertising.

Naturally, all these changes can be expected to have considerable impact on how people work in the industry. A positive is that many cumbersome, time-consuming processes that currently drain resource from market research teams can now be put in the robot’s in-tray. Similarly, removing the human touch in many processes will naturally reduce the scope for human error, increasing the accuracy of results and therefore the value of the insights generated. New automated technologies may be able to produce insights that simply weren’t possible before.  And computers, of course can assimilate and process information at a considerably faster pace than most humans – sometimes with just a few clicks of a mouse – meaning turnaround times on projects will be considerably shorter.

One of the negatives, at least at an individual level, is this outsourcing of processes to computers can reasonably be expected to lead to job losses. For example, a 2016 report from NewMR and Greenbook predicted that 40-60% of existing market research jobs would disappear over the next five to 10 years. However, it also predicted that the industry could bolster its number by 20% to 30%. So while some job losses will be inevitable, headcount in the industry will be almost immediately maintained to some extent by new roles being created.

Partially, this will be because improved market research processes – the potential to obtain more meaningful research, much more quickly – can be expected to lead to an increase in demand for these services. Similarly, new jobs – with undoubtedly quite different skillsets to those that are typical in the industry now – will be created to manage these automated processes.

There will also be potential for the creation of other highly skilled roles in the industry. With computers handling much – if not most – of the processing, market researchers who may previously have been caught up in laborious tasks will now have the bandwidth to be more creative, more analytical. More time spent thinking, less time spent doing has the real potential to create a much more valuable industry – using both intellectual and commercial parameters.

And, of course, there are some things that computers cannot do (yet). A 2018 report, ‘(Wo)man vs Machine’, by behavioural insight analysts SKIM seemed to confirm what many of us suspect. Automation alone is not a silver bullet in the industry. While it can certainly speed-up and streamline many of the time-consuming responses in market research they do not yet have the capability to provide the sort of nuanced analysis that humans are capable of. The report found that the optimum way of working was not humans working alone, or robots working alone, but humans and robots working together.

This, perhaps, is the major change we can expect to see in the market research industry in the short to medium term, and it is largely for the better. Automation will allow market research professionals to achieve better results and insights with considerably less resource. This will benefit both the industry and its clients and, over time, may see the industry given even greater primacy as part of the marketing mix.

Posted on 25.09.2018

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