One of the biggest trends and developments in the market research industry is the rise of in-house do-it-yourself solutions. So, should DIY be the new normal? This isn’t a one off decision when you start a new project; technologies, techniques and options are changing all of the time. Every client side market researcher should ask themselves this question at least once a year. Maybe even on every project.
I have been agency-side my entire career. I’ve experienced the whole range of tools and techniques and changed our agency’s business model to fit the new reality of market research. We empower DIY research, provide the flexibility of part serviced and full service projects. So while I’m not client side, I see how clients benefit from it and know when it works and when it doesn’t.
Despite my agency career I believe there are many situations when clients should do the research themselves.
Clients don’t need agencies for many of the reasons they once did. There was a time when an agency was necessary to collect data — they had the scale to build armies of street interviewers and CATI call centres. Without these functions, how could a client get the consumer feedback and data they needed? It made sense that agencies process and analyse that data too.
The internet has changed the game. It is now easier and cheaper to collect data. Web-based survey systems have grown in scope. CRM systems make it possible collect and store huge volumes of customer interaction data. You can send surveys to specific customer lists and mine huge volumes of behavioural data without the need for an agency.
The True Benefit of DIY
The ease with which we can collect data is not the point we should focus on when considering the benefits of DIY research. It is only the catalyst to making it possible. In-house data collection and analysis does reduce costs and speed up the process, but it also brings risks.
Client-side researchers have a different knowledge base than an agency. True insight, the golden nugget, often comes when knowledge and experience combines with the research data and findings. An organisation implicitly knows things about the organisation that an agency can’t. They’ve seen and read all previous research reports, making it easier to triangulate new findings.
Knowledge of the whole range of products puts reports into context, by seeing the bigger picture and being able to prioritise what matters most. Understanding the strategy, the priorities, budget and technical constraints all improve the interpretation of research findings. Even having an understanding of the politics, the power brokers and influencers will impact on what is actionable and what is not.
It is this implicit understanding that takes research findings and turns them into powerful actions and business plans. Being able to use this layer of expertise can make it far more effective and efficient to run research in-house. It reduces briefing, analysis and reporting time. It improves actions, prioritises them and places them in front of the right people.
Why do Clients Need Agencies?
If client knowledge can better turn insight into actions, why do they need an agency? An agency brings a different skill set and expertise. Sometimes, they simply have more time and a broader, more experienced resource. An agency specialises in market research; it their livelihood. As with any outsourcing relationship, this brings a focus, professionalism and skill that might not be available in-house. For example, moderators who run focus groups all of the time, data analysts who know conjoint or an agency that can advise on different segmentation models.
There is also an expertise and skill to writing even the most simple surveys and efficiency in experienced project managers who know how to manage response rates. Frequency of practice brings expertise that adds value to the research process.
But more than this, independence is a powerful benefit. It is almost counter to the benefit of in-house knowledge. Sometimes we need an external party to challenge widely held assumptions, to break through politics and shift focus back to the customer. It is for this reason that one of the main benefits an agency brings is their ability to put the spotlight firmly on customer needs, without stakeholder politics, assumptions or constraints diverting the focus.
There is also a sector specific experience that can bring an understanding of what others are doing, which trends matter most and how technology may disrupt a sector.
The Risks of DIY
Agencies may argue that the risk of a client taking a DIY approach is lower quality but I’m not sure this holds true for DIY research. It is all research — agency-led or in-house. Employing an agency does not immediately mitigate that risk. Quality is a subjective judgement; it depends on your viewpoint as to what matters most and what you value more. Do I get higher quality because the survey questions are ‘better’ written? Or do I get better insight because I know the right questions to ask?
The decision to use an agency boils down to weighing up the benefits of specialised knowledge. Do I need a specialist or independent expert? Do we have the knowledge of our business within our client team?
The main risk of DIY is that stakeholders become too involved in research — without the need for an in-house market research team or an agency. There is a skill in knowing how to run research, the different collection methods available, the best analysis approach to take — and of course, how to phrase the questions to get a balanced and accurate result.
Which is Best: DIY or Agency Research?
So what is the answer to: should I go DIY with my research? The answer will change for every project. I don’t think it is an either/or decision. In a world challenged by budget constraints, all clients need to be asking themselves these questions on a project-by-project basis. In many cases, the best approach may be a hybrid one, where part serviced options are considered. For example, use the skill of a specific technique to gather data but report in-house, provide data direct to the stakeholder instead of compiling a long report. Encourage the use of new methods by using specialist moderators on specific tasks, while running other elements yourself.
The Internet has change the market research industry. One of the main reasons a client had to use an agency (for data collection) has been removed. Clients and agencies need to revaluate how value is added and how actionable insight is created. Each of us needs to be clear about the value we bring to the research process and understand the models we have used in the past may have been replaced with newer, more accurate ideas.