Techno probe

In the past, commissioning market research could be very much like playing Russian roulette, in terms of the quality and honesty of the end results, but advances in computer-aided techniques mean that clients can expect a faster, more accurate

SBHD: In the past, commissioning market research could be very much like playing Russian roulette, in terms of the quality and honesty of the end results, but advances in computer-aided techniques mean that clients can expect a faster, more accurate and accountable service. By Sue Norris

When companies are spending several thousand pounds on market research which will influence their advertising and marketing decisions for the next year or more, they expect the best service possible. Firms demand accurate and representative results – and fast. But are they getting their money’s worth?

Anyone who has been on the front line as a market researcher will have found it an eye-opening experience. Much of the job is based on trust: that the researcher will interview the representative sample set out in the survey and not use family, friends or imaginary characters to fit its elusive socio-economic categories.

The only form of quality control exerted by many companies is a spot-check by phone to the occasional interviewee. Some market researchers are prepared to risk being caught manipulating their findings if it means not having to tramp around endless streets getting doors slammed in their faces.

Today, however, with competition tougher than ever, suppliers are having to provide more than verbal assurances that the results they produce are of the highest standard. And many are turning to information technology to improve the quality of their services.

Research firm BMRB International claims technology has significantly improved the level of service it can offer clients. Managing director John Samuels says: “Eighteen months ago we went from manual interviewing to 100 per cent computer-aided interviewing. This has given us a huge number of advantages. Accuracy is obviously an important one. We can now record when the questionnaires are being conducted and the length of time each interview lasts, to ensure no corners are being cut.

“Another significant benefit is speed. Our Omnibus survey [an established weekly survey of 2,000 interviewees, where customers pay to place one or more questions], which used to take 21 days to produce a result, now takes only nine days – and that’s including the seven days’ core fieldwork,” says Samuels.

BMRB’s field workers are now armed with portable computers, so that they can input responses directly. These computers are fitted with modems, so the interviewers can plug their systems into a phone line and download the prepared questionnaires from head office.

Similarly, once the survey is complete, fieldworkers can transmit their responses back to HQ. HQ calls its electronic mailbox, which takes a single phone call. Since the results are already in an electronic format, they can be turned straight over to the data analysis people.

Samuels admits competition prompted BMRB to use such technology. The company was bidding for a large BT survey, and BT had specified it would only consider an agency that practised computer-assisted interviewing techniques.

Samuels claims BMRB’s Omnibus business has grown by 50 per cent since it adopted the technology.

The financial investment to migrate from paper-based methods to a completely compu-terised approach was con- siderable, and the learning curve steep.

One might expect a market research company to seek to recoup that cost by increasing its charges, but Samuels insists this isn’t the case. “Clients are simply getting more for the same money. One of our competitors tried selling their computer-aided service at a premium but soon found customers weren’t prepared to pay more. Now most organisations look for their return in the increased volume of business they can do as a result of computerised techniques,” he says.

Research International has much the same philosophy. Vice-president David Cahn says: “The market is too difficult to try and put up our fees to cover the costs of IT. This is forcing some medium-sized consultancies out of the market. While the smaller providers have realised they can’t afford to keep up with technology and are sub-contracting their fieldwork to large providers like ourselves, the middle suppliers are being squeezed because they can’t compete.”

Technology is certainly making a big impact in telephone interviewing.

IT supplier Pulse Train Technology (PTT) specialises in software applications for market research organisations. It recently enhanced its computer-aided telephone interviewing (CATI) system to make it more accurate and efficient in recording open-ended data. It now also allows qualitative information (why a respondent gives a particular answer) to be recorded as part of a normal quantitative survey. “Previously, the collection of qualitative information was far more expensive,” says PTT head of marketing John McGinnes.

Market research company Taylor Nelson AGB is investigating the benefits of speech-recognition technology to improve telephone-based research projects.

Surveys technical director Bill Blythe explains: “Speech recognition can be used to conduct two-way, interactive telephone surveys without having to employ an interviewer. This is more convenient for respondents because they can do the interview at a time which suits them. It should also reduce the cost of doing the research. Moreover, the questioning process is more consistent and, because the system can edit the data as it comes in, the results are very clean.

“The technology could have a dramatic effect on customer satisfaction surveys. Instead of it only being practical to interview ten per cent of your customers who have grievances, you’re able to interview all of them because the technique is so efficient. And customer service is a big issue for most companies at the moment,” he adds.

Perhaps the most futuristic aid for data gathering is virtual reality. The medium was backed by Stephen Needel, director of simulation services at US-based MarketWare, at an Esomar (the European Society for Opinion and Marketing Research) seminar in Brussels in January, entitled Information Technology: How Can Research Keep Up With The Pace Of Change?

MarketWare’s solution to the pressure on market researchers is Visionary Shopper. This service involves placing respondents in a laboratory-type setting, where they are asked to shop as they would normally using a 3-D virtual reality simulation. Consumers can manoeuvre around store shelves, pick up, examine and purchase products. The computer system automatically records what they choose to pick up and examine and what they actually decide to buy. This yields far more in-depth data than the traditional approach, that is, “Do you buy brand X every week, more than once a month, seldom or never?”

Most of the above technology applications are concerned with improving the accuracy and quality of information gathered. Yet collecting the data is only part of the process. Far more important to the marketing organisation is interpreting the data so it can be of use to future campaigns.

PTT is working with neural technology (which emulates the complex inferences and associations used in the human thought process) and has developed a data analysis technique which it refers to as NDA (neural data ascription). “This uses the patterns inherent in market research data to learn about the relationship between data,” explains McGinnes.

“NDA can then use this information to ascribe missing data, or to create new questions in a database. For example, a set of demographic questions may be common to two databases, with questions on sport and leisure only present in one. NDA can learn about the relationship between demographics and the questions on sport and leisure in the first database, and use this information to ascribe data to the second database where this information is missing. This allows market research companies to extend the life and scope of the data they collect. It has produced some promising results,” he says.

McGinnes is describing an advanced form of data fusion, a technique which so far only the top handful of market research consultancies have employed. Taylor Nelson AGB uses data fusion to combine the information it gathers from its AGB SuperPanel (8,500 households which report all their grocery purchases) with BARB information gathered from 4,500 households on their TV viewing habits.

Taylor Nelson acquires TV and advertising schedules from broadcasters, assigns them to the TV viewing data which it gathers under contract for BARB, and this is then merged or “fused” with the AGB SuperPanel research data using sophisticated mathematical software. “We find an overlap between the two groups of candidates, and every six months they are given a questionnaire, the results of which are used to link one set of data to the other. This technique provides a basis for simulating the data as if the two samples were the same.

“We are looking at the relationship between advertising and purchasing, which provides essential information for planning the timing and repetition of TV ads. We’ve been using the technique for more than 18 months now and our blue-chip customers are very pleased with the results.”

Technology also makes a wide range of secondary market research reports available to end-users.

Business intelligence provider MAID claims it has one of the most comprehensive and up-to-date on-line research databases in existence. It boasts a file of 4,000 research reports from 190 countries around the world Рcourtesy of 46 different publishers. And, because the agreements MAID has with its information suppliers are non-embargoed, the data is available as soon as it is published. The service is subscription-based Рit costs just under ̼6,000 a year, plus the cost of the data one takes down. Meanwhile, all the user needs to access the service is a PC, a modem and some standard communications software.

MAID vice president of sales Russell Ward says: “The beauty is that you can go into a ú5,000 report and just take one page for ú1. It’s inexpensive, instant information. And it’s very user-friendly. We’ve created menus and tables of contents so the user can preview what’s available, but take and pay for only the pages they’re interested in. Most ad agencies use the service, but it’s also very popular among the banking fraternity, and in the retail and pharmaceutical sectors.”

Sue Norris is features editor at The Var magazine.

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