The rise of automation in market research

Brands are increasingly turning to automated research techniques to prune the market of poor methodologies, toxic panels and anecdotal results, but there will always be a need for human analysis.


Machines are being used to automate a rising number of processes in the marketing world. Programmatic ad buying, artificial intelligence, chatbots and other emerging technologies are changing the landscape and bringing with them new efficiencies and ways of working.

It follows then, that market research also stands to benefit from automation. One such example is the use of robots to test the effectiveness of advertising.

Brands want answers to specific creative campaign questions before their activity starts (around messaging and execution), while it is live (to assess how the target audience is responding) and when completed (to determine what ROI it has delivered).

Automation improves the accuracy of this kind of research, speeds up the collection of data and can save brands money. It also makes ad testing more intuitive and should mean human researchers can spend more time analysing the results to produce the actionable insight that brands crave.

READ MORE: Artificial intelligence: A force for good or evil?

One British multinational to invest in a fully-automated creative testing process is Reckitt Benckiser (RB), owner of brands including Dettol, Durex and Cillit Bang.

It is working with market research technology provider ZappiStore to improve ad testing results. By automating processes it has been able to increase the number of ads it tests in a year by 77%, from 188 to 333, which has resulted in a 14% jump in market effectiveness. Previously the business focused primarily on analysing the effectiveness of TV commercials but it now examines creativity across Facebook, point of sale and online video.

Automation allows large brand owners to think and act with the agility of a startup.

Mathilde Levy, RB

The company has also increased the number of brands it can evaluate from 25 to 32, which has improved overall ad effectiveness from 45% to 59%.

Mathilde Levy, RB’s senior consumer and market insight manager for Europe and the US, says automation has made a big difference.

“In the FMCG world there is the internal clock of the marketing function and the external clock of the life of the customer. These two clocks are not always synchronised,” she says. “By using automation the internal clock is more in tune and allows large brand owners to think and act with the agility of a startup.”

The company is keen to introduce automation into other areas of its research, such as qualitative work enabling more interviews to be carried out in people’s homes using machines.

“Automation is also removing barriers internally,” says Levy. “The research we provide is not always as timely as marketers want it to be and we can be regarded as blockers. Automation changes this. Instead of serving as a validation function and being the policemen, we become more of a consultant, providing insight that can help to drive the business forward.”

RB is now looking to upgrade its automated efforts, which will enable its brand marketers to cross-compare previous studies with new ones to reveal trends that would previously have cost too much time and money to uncover.

Improving accuracy through automation

For Dominic Grounsell, former global marketing director at Travelex and Marketing Society board member, it is the improved accuracy provided by automation which appeals.

“I am not a fan of traditional quantitative and qualitative research methods and interviews on street corners that provide unnatural reactions when people are pressured for time,” he says. “Things have evolved, with tools such as neuroscience technology assessing the emotional impact of an ad or messaging.”

He also points to the development of mobile phone tracking in providing more reliable analytics.

“The more brands use [smartphones] to track consumer behaviour on a granular level the better answers they will get to more specific questions on where people go and how long they spend there.”

Grounsell believes technology that provides retailers with real-time location-based behavioural data about consumers, will be a huge help to marketers going forward. “You can actually see people walking into a restaurant or a retailer, which provides a greater understanding of footfall,” he says.

Driving efficiency through automation


It is the ability to understand consumer reactions in the moment that prompted the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) to begin conducting real-time fan research during races, enabling it to improve the experience for viewers and advertisers.

The organisation, which sanctions more than 1,200 races across the US, Canada, Mexico and Europe, understood that people watch with their friends, chat about the races on social media and engaging with sponsors while drivers battle it out but needed to be part of the conversation in order to learn from it.

Working with machine learning platform Remesh, NASCAR has been able to engage statistically significant number of fans simultaneously to drive research. It works by a single moderator asking an open-ended question about a specific moment to the entire community but results in members of the fan council responding individually, providing qualitative data that NASCAR can then analyse.

People are complex, and to capture this complexity you need a human element.

Ian Pring, TfL

Fans are asked for their views on which manufacturer has the most attractive car, what they think about the companies advertising and how they rate the race on a scale of one to 10.

While some of the techniques outlined above are new, many brands have been using aspects of automation in market research for years. Transport for London (TfL), for example, started using online quantitative methods to evaluate its different marketing campaigns 13 years ago.

TfL is now employing an element of automation in its qualitative work, via online discussion forums, and it has introduced mobile apps into its ethnographic research so customers can record their own experiences in real time.

Don’t lose the human touch

TfL’s customer insight manager Ian Pring welcomes the benefits of automation but says it is not time yet to lose the human element of market research completely.

“TfL isn’t just about running a transport system, we are a customer service business and we’re aware that people don’t always report their behaviour, thoughts and feelings in a straightforward way,” he says. “People are complex, and to capture this complexity you need a human element, not just in qualitative fieldwork but in analysis, interpretation and integration of all customer insights.”

READ MORE: Rise of the machines – Are robots after your job?

In the publishing sector Trinity Mirror’s group’s marketing director Zoe Harris says there is an internal debate on whether the automated analytics it uses for online brands would work for its print products.

“Our editor-in-chief Lloyd Embley observes that if we used the same analysis for print as we do for online we would put the crossword on the front page,” says Harris. “Many people turn to it first and it’s the piece of content that people spend the most time engaged with.”

There is a serious point to this observation. It demonstrates how in any content-driven business the data generated must inform long-term thinking and be authentic.

“If all the research was automated it would not be as genuine. One of our most traditional and trusted methods of research is our postbag,” says Harris.

Automation should be viewed as just another tool we can use as we try to do more with the same research budget.

Zoe Harris, Trinity Mirror

Trinity Mirror also has its 10,000-strong online research community Mouthpiece, which brings together readers and web visitors from more than 20 of its national and regional news brands. This provides feedback on how the big news stories are being covered and how people are feeling about the country or politics.

“The research is informing our advertisers to help them get their content right,” says Harris. “We have seen, for instance, a shift from a north/south divide to more of a London versus the rest of the UK split. Brands need insight into underlying trends to remain in touch with mainstream Britain.”

When it comes to automated ad testing, she does worry that it hinders creativity.

“Some of the best ad campaigns are the ones that initially test badly. Automation should be viewed as just another tool we can use as we try to do more with the same research budget.”

The speed of change in research automation is almost as rapid as NASCAR champion Kyle Busch flying around the Kentucky Speedway track at July’s Alsco 300. However, for the immediate future at least, robots and human researchers will co-exist so that brands benefit from the accuracy and pace of using computers without losing the creativity and gut feel of a real person.