Why you can still rely on market research agencies

Last Friday, Marketing Magazine published an article called "Why Nestle doesn’t solely rely on research agencies anymore" based on a recently concluded research conference, where a Nestle marketer from the Hong Kong office spoke on stage about the research panel, Nestle Conversations.  This implied that the panel was both faster and more customisable than using a research agency.

However, it is worth noting that Nestle still spends millions of dollars globally with market research agencies and has almost 100 people on LinkedIn with the title "Insight Manager". But the article does help to spark a key debate – that the term "market research" is a much-maligned term in need of updating. Any current definition of online panels or communities places them within the broad realm of market research. A point made by Ray Poynter, one the heads of Vision Critical – the research agency that powers the Nestle Conversations platform, and upon which the brand, in actual fact, relies. Online communities are just one of the tools that a market research agency can use.

This raises the question then, of what is and isn’t true market research?

Over the last decade – if not more – market research has diversified into a multitude of areas, thanks in large part to technology. From mobile surveys, and big data to passive data and, yes, online communities; these are areas that didn’t exist 10 years ago. But can we continue to call such a diversified industry by only one term, market research? It is true that by definition each of these areas above researches (in some form) the market, but it probably doesn’t fit into our assumption of what market research is. A point this agency has raised before.

It’s easy to pigeonhole this argument as semantics. But it’s an important discussion, as it can lead to a false dichotomy – such as the one in the article – of splitting out "traditional" market research agencies from newer entrants that fit less into our mental model of what market research agencies are. Neither one is better or worse than the other – they are different and have different strengths tailored to different needs.

In the article, Tin-tin Siapno, head of marketing communications, Nestle Hong Kong, speaking at Research Interactive, cites the power of Nestle Communications as being able to collect information such as "what did you have for breakfast" within a matter of days. Clearly this is where online communities come into their own – quick answers to simple questions. But it doesn’t mean they eschew all other forms of research, Siapno said during a separate follow up conversations with me. Online communities are not best placed to undertake a taste test or a market entry analysis or a choice analysis or a future trends assessment. This doesn’t mean communities aren’t useful – it just means they are not the only research tool in the box.

Online communities produce fast and quick results, but only once set up. The setup and management cost alone can push beyond SG$100,000 before one question is asked, and can take months to organise. Again, this isn’t an issue – as long as it’s the right tool for the job. In contrast, many other forms of research can produce quicker and richer results for less time and money. As Poynter, himself, notes "panels are almost always long-term, since, usually, the cost of creating a panel needs to be offset by the savings in using them over time."

The point is, there’s a time and a place for investing in a research agency to develop your online community, but there’s also a time and place for investing in a research agency to run a project for you. When you need their expertise and experience on a more complicated question that goes beyond breakfast trends.

Unfortunately, however, not all research agencies are created equal and there are a "mixed bag’"of  agencies – especially in Asia. But the answer is not to turn away from giving projects to research agencies, rather it is to ensure you are finding the right agencies to partner with.  So, to move the conversation along, and help you find your right research partner we’ve put together our top tips for finding the right agency.

Five tips for finding the right agency partner

1. Passion. The most important aspect in my opinion. You need to find people that love what they do. If they do not demonstrate a passion for their work or their industry, what makes you think they will about your project?

2. Cheapest is not always best. You want professionals to work on your project. With that comes their experience and their ideas. You have to pay for that. Yes, there needs to be a clear benefit in using them – but you often get what you pay for.

3. Imaginative. The best agencies are always bringing in new ideas and innovations. They don’t rest on their laurels. Ask your agencies to describe what interesting research they are doing at the moment and how it could be used for their benefit.

4. Be specific. Know what you want to achieve at the end. What business decisions are being made. How will this research benefit your business and then communicate that to the agency. They can then recommend some options for achieving that goal.

5. Let the agency into the business. This is perhaps the most important point. Once you do find an agency that you like, you need to work with them. How can insights be actionable if they do not know your business? Agencies are experts in what they do – but clients are experts in their business. Only by working together can you get actionable findings.

Ultimately what every client should be looking for is a market research partner, whatever form that takes. We shouldn’t be decrying the industry, rather we should celebrate our diversity, which allows every client – with a little bit of investigating – the chance to find the perfect partner. No matter what we call ourselves.

The writer is Philip Steggals, managing director of Kadence International.