Is Market Research Having Its Napster Moment?

In 1999, Napster forever changed the way audiences consumed music – moving us from physical albums and CDs to digital file-sharing and eventually to the downloadable music that we enjoy today. Now in 2020, the field of market research is experiencing the same paradigm shift due in large part to the migration to eComm and the corresponding surge in user-generated content, and further accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to acquire insights in a socially distanced, more cost-effective way.



This year, industries of all sorts, from hospitality to consumer goods, have faced challenges as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic. Market research is no different. Born from the practice of political polling in the 1930s and perfected by Procter & Gamble as it built its brand management function, it serves one objective: to help us understand who our consumers are, what they want, and why.


Over the years, changes in the field have been largely incremental and related to methods of gathering data. For example, online surveys were not a radical new concept but simply a paper survey that moved online. With the pandemic, there have been additional incremental changes (e.g., traditional focus groups are now moving online), but challenges in social distancing mean that contactless research is imperative to gain the same critical, authentic insights, and the surge in millions of new data points online creates an opportunity.


When we look back on this moment, it will be seen as the market research industry’s “Napster moment” – that moment where there is no turning back. The field that we have come to know and cultivate is no longer producing what we need. Like the various influences converging in the late 1990s that enabled Napster (like widespread broadband and home PCs), culture and life had already shifted online when precautionary health measures accelerated those changes. Looking back, Napster was inevitable; so, too, is mining the real-time data that exists at one's fingertips online.


Now, with cuts to budgets and the inability to do in-person research, compounded by the pressure to innovate and pivot, more brands are realizing the power of user-generated content (online reviews & social media comments) to understand their consumers in real-time. This is even more imperative as consumer behavior shifts and new habits are formed. Brands are realizing that insights can be extracted from user-generated content faster than traditional research methodologies have previously allowed for, and that the unfiltered and unsolicited data is more authentic and raw – the consumer’s unbiased voice.


If this is in fact a “Napster Moment” for the market research industry, what does that mean for the path forward – what’s important?


1. Time matters.



We live in a rapidly changing world where digital content travels just as quickly. Fast, real-time data represents what is happening right now, giving unprecedented insight into consumer behaviors and choices. User-generated content is swiftly and organically outpacing traditional models of consumer analysis, and the content’s timeliness and transparency can speed up brand performance and problem-solving.


Focus groups and surveys can take months to produce the data needed for impactful decision-making because they’re often backward-looking. By the time the data provides the information that we need, the information itself has already changed or has introduced new and different questions and conclusions.


Time is not only “of the essence” but of critical importance. Systems that can analyze activity on-the-fly offer up the latest information at the moment it becomes available, giving brands the chance to correct and address negative experiences, maximize the reach and impact of positive experiences, and manage their relationship with consumers.


2. Size matters (Qual + Quant Insights).


Qualitative focus groups have always been rich with insights, but in today’s world, what they lack is the scale of analysis necessary to best serve brands. They’re limited to a smaller portion of feedback of 20 to 50 participants, or however many individuals are recruited.


The ah-ha characteristic of user-generated content is that similar insights are possible but in a qualitative and quantitative way — with longitudinal results that span years. Focus groups with a handful of participants can now evolve to an in-depth analysis of 20,000 to 50,000 consumers who are vocalizing their needs and reflecting brand performance directly to the brand (and the brand’s competitor) itself.


What’s more, the ROI with real-time data systems is plaintive: days of time, energy, and waiting are replaced with information pulled directly from the source without the need to recruit and motivate. User-generated content relays information from a ground-level source, and that ground is flush with firsthand accounts from a spectrum of demographics who are organically willing to share their opinions. When it comes to mining data and collecting insight in this way, size really does matter.






3. Trust matters.



In a world where consumers are increasingly skeptical of brands and their promises — especially as information spreads rapidly online — measuring trust is harder than ever. The pre-Napster Moment of asking consumers whether they trust a brand is over. According to the Nielsen Global Trust in Advertising Report, 92 percent of consumers trust organic, user-generated content more than they trust traditional advertising. People trust the experiences, recommendations, and criticisms from people they know or have no hidden motivation with more than they may trust the brand’s messaging.


Consumers who document their reviews of products and services offer a level of transparency that’s remarkably illuminating. Their word choices and emotional lexicon have become more advanced and nuanced, deepening the kind of feedback that brands crave. The content itself represents their relationship, which can no longer be measured as merely good or bad, positive or negative. It’s complex. For brands, that means the ability to understand and measure trust — especially over time — turns out to be more robust than pointedly asking the left-brain question, “Do you trust this brand?”




What’s Next


As the pandemic drags on and we all get tired of hearing about some ‘new normal’ that will emerge, in the case of market research, that ‘new normal’ is a Napster Moment. Consumers have been spending months online – whether it be buying online even more or posting videos to TikTok – and with that comes an avalanche of data directly from the consumer’s own fingertips. This authentic, and unfiltered, data is an opportunity for brands to drive competitive advantage – competitive advantage derived from having better, faster, and more robust data.


In a future where 5G delivers faster speeds and consumers continue to flock online, this moment is pivotal, one from which we will never go back as an industry. And while Napster itself is in the dustbin of history, the changes it wrought hold lessons for the market research industry as it experiences a seismic shift away from the methodologies honed in the 1930s to embracing a diverse combination of methodologies – including mining user-generated content – which will continue to explode as a resource for marketers.



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