Rethinking research in the Social Era

beautiful Amsterdam , canals in downtownOnly three weeks to go until the Insights Innovations Exchange conference in Amsterdam. Below is a synopsis of what I will be covering in my presentation. Hope to see you there!


As a profession, we are aware of the issues facing the market research industry today. Generally, recruitment is becoming more difficult, response rates are down and quality contribution is less. To combat this we have tried to shorten or gamify our lines of questioning. We have offered more valuable and more frequent incentives to encourage participation.

What is stopping us from resolving these issues? Why must we pander and bribe to build a research group? How viable are our current practices to the future of our industry?

An understanding of the cultural shift to the ‘Social Era’ may help us address some of the issues we are observing in the industry.


The impact of digital technologies extends beyond communication. We are entering a new era, one where ‘social’ will influence all levels of business and consumer behaviour. This age has been dubbed ‘The Social Era’.
In the last year or so, Nilofer Merchant has become the lead authority on The Social Era, in her books and articles in the Harvard Business Review. Her focus is on business models, where she predicts functions that use Social will replace traditional constructs. Merchant uses the following business examples to illustrate how ‘social’ moves beyond simply a marketing and communications function.

models 2

Market research too, is able to apply ‘Social’ beyond media, to remain relevant in this new era.


In her commentary on the Social Era, Merchant states that:

“If the Industrial Era was about building things, the Social Era is about connecting things. If the Industrial Era was about efficiencies, the Social Era is about relationships”

If Merchant is correct, this raises some questions for market researchers.

  1. In recent years market researchers have full heartedly embraced the use of social media and new technologies. However, in the majority of instances, when researchers use new technologies, the drivers are lower cost, convenience, and faster response times. How then, can we shift our focus from the efficiencies of the Industrial Era, to the relationships of the Social Era?
  2. Whether we gather participants in a focus group or online in a community, market research has typically focused on a group as a collective. A group in its ‘collectiveness’. However, the Social Era brings with it a new focus, one on a group’s ‘connectedness’. How can the individuals in that group connect together to create value?


Market research’s current approaches allow us to identify groups and count numbers, to aggregate and enumerate. That’s quantitative research. In qualitative research we assemble groups together and interrogate. The most common analysis of qualitative data is observer impression. We formulate questions – some direct, some indirect – which we hope will give us the insights our clients are searching for. The questions originate from us, and as researchers we listen, code the data, and make objective and subjective judgements based on what we have discovered. Both these techniques require co-operation from our targets, but there is no suggestion of collaboration.

In more recent times, we are seeing a growing trend in researchers who recruit consumers to collaborate in the research process. Entering ‘The Social Era’, are we ready with techniques that are built on collaboration, not interrogation, on connections, rather than quantities, leading instead of controlling, aligning participants instead of managing participants?

Author: Teri Nolan

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