“Gen Z” should make you cringe!

Adults have a number of misconceptions about youth generations. A glaring one is a tendency to think that a new generation will become a more intense version of the previous generation. That is rarely the case – new generations tend to sharply break with the old.

Let’s start by reviewing what a generation is. A generation is a cohort of people who share a common location in history. A generation progresses through life stages together and experiences key life events (childhood, adolescence, family life, retirement) at the same time. While our life stages change as we age, our generation does not. There is a commonality of experience and perspective that influences how a generation reacts to challenges presented by any given life stage.

While generational beginning and end points are hotly debated by academics, they tend to be bounded by historical events. For instance, the Boomer generation is known as the generation born after WWII ended as birth rates rapidly grew. Xers are those that were born during the subsequent demographic dip. Millennials began as an “echo” boom occurred as the large Boomer generation had their own children.

Generational change is abrupt and disruptive.  My own experience with this goes back to when the Millennial Generation (born 1982 – 2004) was coming of age in the 1990’s. At the time I was conducting studies of young people and was noticing clear breaks in the data sets. Inflection points often appeared when we graphed research measures by age. It took me years to realize these inflection points weren’t linked to a stage of development or age as they were migrating upwards over time. Eventually, I discovered these inflections were happening right at the generational break line – as soon as individuals born in the early 80’s came into the data sets, things changed.

It took me years to figure this out because this generation was most commonly referred to as Gen Y at the time. What does Gen Y mean? To me, it meant this new group would be a continuation of Gen X – only they would exhibit Gen X traits at higher intensity. I went to many youth conferences where speakers said precisely this. I often left puzzled, as what they were saying didn’t line up with what I was seeing in the data we gathered.

This new generation wasn’t behaving anything like Gen X. While Gen X was filled with latchkey kids who had developed a strong sense of individualism, independence, and self-worth, this new generation was all about teamwork, parental structure and oversight, and continuous feedback and validation. Calling them Gen Y seemed ridiculous as it implied they were merely an extension of Gen X. Thankfully, although the Gen Y moniker persisted, the term Millennial soon took hold.

Generations have unique characteristics and tendencies. These characteristics are almost never simply continuations of a previous generation’s characteristics. We can all agree that Boomers have not acted at all like their Silent Generation predecessors or that Xers haven’t been at all like Boomers. Millennials represent a further break with Xers.

There is no authority that has been commissioned to name a generation. Generations prior to Boomers weren’t really named during their time and many will claim that the Boomers were the first named generation. Prior generations were largely named by historians long after they had existed. For example, nobody called the WWII generation the “greatest generation” or the “GI generation” at the time – these terms took hold well after Boomers had been named.

Generational names evolve. Names often begin as something that underscore how adults don’t understand that generations are not just continuations of the previous generations. As an example, Gen X was most commonly called “the baby bust” generation at first, implying that they were  merely a consequence of a birth rate decline extending from the baby boom era. The term “Gen X” was popularized in a novel by Douglas Coupland. It became popular not because of the letter X but what this letter signified – a lack of a name for a largely forgotten generation, but also one that wasn’t particularly interested in being categorized or targeted.

The term Millennial was also established relatively late in the game. It was popularized in a book called Millennials Rising, and prior names either reflected a continuation of a parental generation (“the echo boom”, the “boomlet”) or of Gen X (“Generation Y.”). Millennials is a much better name and has largely taken over for “Generation Y.”

The whole purpose of naming generations from a marketing sense is that generations represent segments of consumers with unique needs. Our goal in naming them should be to show how they are distinct from each other.

Which brings me to Gen Z. This is a term we are seeing more and more, and I am tending to feel that those who use it are displaying a fundamental ignorance not only of generational change but even what a generation is. Gen Z tends to be used to describe today’s adolescents. But, because the youngest Millennial is currently 13 years old, the term Gen Z isn’t being applied to a new generation at all. It is being used to describe young, late-stage Millennials, which is sort of a segment of a segment.

The key characteristic of this microsegment (late-stage Millennials) of interest to researchers is that their parental generation has changed. Whereas the oldest half of the Millennial generation was largely parented by Boomers, the younger half has been parented by Gen X. This has some implications, but today’s teens are still Millennials and will exhibit Millennial traits.

The term “Gen Z” makes is cringe-worthy as it lays bare a fundamental misunderstanding of the generations. I even saw a study released recently on “Gen Z college students.”  Not sure I understand that, as the leading edge of the generation after Millennials is at most 12 years old currently. We are at least five years from the first member of the next generation showing up on campus.

“Gen Z” is also being used to refer to the generation that will come after Millennials (currently children aged up to 12 and yet to be born).  I have also seen this new generation referred to as “post-Millennial.”  And, what are we to name the generation that comes after this Gen Z? We’ve run out of letters, so perhaps we will have to use a spreadsheet convention and call them Generation AA.

Just like for previous generations, I’d expect to see today’s youngest generation eventually named in a way that describes who they are. I have heard some reasonable candidates:  The Homeland Generation, the iGen, The Pluralist Generation, etc. These all are descriptive. If the past is any indication, sometime in the next 10 years some name will achieve consensus (and it won’t be “Gen Z”).

For now please join me in cringing whenever you hear someone say the term “Gen Z.” J.

Will Blockchain Disrupt Marketing and Research?

The field of survey research was largely established in the 1930s and matured in the post WWII era as the US economy boomed and companies became more customer-driven. Many early polls were conducted in the most old-fashioned way possible: by going door-to-door with a clipboard and pestering people with questions. Adoption of the telephone in the US (which happened slowly – telephone penetration was less than 50% before WWII and didn’t hit 90% until 1972) made possible an efficient way to reliably gather projectable samples of consumers and the research industry grew quickly.

Then the Internet changed everything. I was fortunate to be at a firm that was leading the charge for online market research at a time when Internet penetration in the US was only about 20%. By the time I left the firm, Internet penetration had reached over 85% and online market research had pretty much supplanted telephone research. What had taken the telephone 40+ years to do to door-to-door polling had happened in less than 10 years, completely transforming an industry.

So, what is next? What nascent technology might transform the market research industry?

Keep your eyes on Blockchain.

Blockchain is best known as the technology that underpins cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. The actual technology of Blockchain is complex and difficult for most people to understand. (I’d be lying if I said I understood the technology.) But, Blockchain is conceptually simple. It is a way to exchange value and trust between strangers in an un-hackable way and without the need for middlemen. It allows value to be exchanged and stored securely and privately. Whereas the Internet moves information, Blockchain moves value.

Those interested in the potential for Blockchain technology should read The Blockchain Revolution by Don and Alex Tapscott. Or, if you’d like a shortcut, you can watch Don’s excellent Ted Talk.

If Blockchain gains steam and hits a critical mass of acceptance, it has the potential to transform everything including our financial system, our contracts, our elections, our corporate structures, and our governments. It has applicability for any aspect of life that involves an exchange of value that requires an element of trust – which is pretty much everything we do to interact as human beings.

A simple example of how it works is provided by its first widespread application – as a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin. Currently, if I buy a book online, my transaction passes though many intermediaries that are often transparent to me. My money might move from my credit card company to my bank, to another bank, to Amazon, their bank, to the bookseller, to their bank, and I suppose eventually a few crumbs make their way to the author (via their bank of course). There are markups all along the way that are taken by all the intermediaries who don’t add value beyond facilitating the transaction. And, at every step there is an opportunity for my data to be compromised and hacked. The digital shadow left allows all sorts of third parties to know what I am reading and even where I am reading it.

This is an imperfect system at best and one that a cryptocurrency resolves. Via Bitcoin, I can buy a book directly from an author, securely, with no opportunity for others to see what I am doing or to skim value along the way. In fact, the author and I remain strangers.

Blockchain is mostly known currently as Bitcoin’s technology, but its potential dwarfs its current use. Blockchain will clearly transform the financial services industry, and for the better. Buyers and sellers can transact anonymously and securely without a need for intermediaries. Stocks can be exchanged directly by buyers and sellers, and this could lead to a world devoid of investment banks, brokers, and hedge fund managers, or at least one where their roles become strictly advisory.

A useful way to think of the potential of Blockchain is to think of trust. Trust in an economic sense lowers transactions costs and decreases risk. Why do I need lawyers and a contract if I can fully trust my contractor to do what he/she promises? Why do I need Uber when I can contract directly with the driver? As transactions costs decline, we’ll see a much more “democratized” economy. Smaller entities will no longer be at a disadvantage. The costs of coordinating just about anything will decline, resulting in a smaller and very different role for management. If Blockchain really ignites, I’d expect to see flatter corporate structures, very little middle management, and a greater need for truly inspirational leaders.

Any industry reliant on payment systems or risk is ripe for disruption via Blockchain technology. Retail, insurance, government contracting, etc. will all be affected. But, Blockchain isn’t just about payments.  Payments are just a tangible manifestation of what Blockchain really facilitates – which is an exchange of value. Value isn’t always monetary.

Which brings me (finally!) to our field: marketing and marketing research. Marketers and market researchers are “middlemen” – and any middleman has the potential to be affected by Blockchain technology. We stand between the corporation and its customers.

Marketers should realize Blockchain may have important implications to the brand. A brand is essentially a manifestation of trust. In the current digital world, many marketers struggle to retain control of their brands. This is upsetting to those of us trained in historical brand management. Blockchain will result in a greater focus on the brand by customers. They will seek to trust the brand more because Blockchain can enable this trust.

As a researcher I see Blockchain as making it essential that I add value to the process as opposed to being a conduit for the exchange of value. Put more simply, Blockchain will make it even more important that researchers add insight rather than merely gather data. In custom research about half of the cost of a market research project is wrapped up in data collection and that is the part that seems most ripe for disruption. There won’t be as many financial rewards for researchers for the operational aspects of projects. But, there will always be a need to help marketers make sense of the world.

When we design a survey, we are seeking information from a respondent. This information might be classification information (information about who you are), behavioral information (information about what you do), or attitudinal information (information about what you think and feel). In all cases, as a researcher, I am trusting that respondents will provide this information to me willingly and accurately.  As a respondent, you trust me to keep your identity confidential and to provide you an honorarium or incentive for your time. We are exchanging value – you are providing me with information and your time, and I am providing you with compensation and a comfort that you are helping clients better understand the needs of their customers. Blockchain has the potential to make this process more efficient and beneficial to the respondent. And that is important – our industry is suffering from a severe respondent trust problem right now. We don’t have to look much past our plummeting response rates to see that we have lost the respondent trust. Blockchain may be one way we can earn it back.

Blockchain can also authenticate the information we analyze. It can sort out fake data, such as fake postings on websites. To its core, Blockchain makes data transfers simple, secure, and efficient. It can help us more securely store personal information, which in turn will assure our respondents that they can trust us.

Blockchain can provide individuals with greater control over their “digital beings.” Currently, as we go about our lives (smartphone in pocket) we leave digital traces everywhere. This flotsam of our digital lives has value and is gathered and used by companies and governments, and has spawned new research techniques to mine value from this passive data stream. The burgeoning field of Big Data analysis is dependent on this trail we leave. Privacy concerns aside, it doesn’t seem right that consumers are creating a value they do not get to benefit from. Blockchain technology has the potential to allow individuals to retain control and to benefit from the trail of value they are leaving behind as they negotiate a digital world.

Of course as a research supplier I can also see Blockchain as a threat, as suppliers are middlemen between clients and their customers. Blockchain has the potential to replace, or at least enhance, any third-party relationship.  But, I envision Blockchain as being beneficial to smaller suppliers like Crux Research. Blockchain will require suppliers to be more value-added consultants, and less about reliable data collection. That is precisely what smaller suppliers do better than the larger firms, so I would predict that more smaller firms will be started as a result.

Blockchain is clearly in its infancy for marketers. Its potential may prove to be greater than its reality. But, just as we saw with the rise of the Internet, a technology such as this can grow up quickly, and can transform our industry.

Are Teenagers Widgets?

Many educational strategy proposals to better engage students assume that all students are similar in how they are motivated to do their best. Yet, students are likely to respond to educational challenges put before them very differently. Students may be engaged in different ways and perhaps not fit into a “one best model” of schooling. Ask any parent that has more than one child, and he/she is likely to tell you just how different their kids are.

Crux Research recently completed a project for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute entitled What Teens Want From Their Schools: A National Survey of High School Student Engagement. This project was based on more than 2,000 interviews and six focus groups of US High School Students. A central feature of the project was a segmentation model that highlighted that although there are many aspects of student engagement that students hold in common, students tend to be strongly associated with one of six primary engagement tendencies. In short, it is unlikely that one model of schooling can be optimal for all children.

A full report of this project is available here.

Yes, your CEO has an attention span!

Corporate market research departments are a support function. They support decision makers in marketing and often the C-suite by providing market knowledge and insight. Even though research is a support function, since information truly is power, researchers play a powerful role in many organizations. Those that control key information in an organization have a unique responsibility.

Nothing puts research directors more on edge than a presentation to the CEO. Many times this research presentation represents the only point of contact the researcher will have with the firm’s top manager.  That often makes the researcher understandably nervous about what might happen in the presentation.

I’ve seen research directors make many mistakes in these presentations. The most common is presuming that the CEO is so time-pressed that he/she can’t handle a presentation of the full story of the study. Researchers seem to feel that their presentation has to be boiled down to a few key takeaways, colorfully presented so that anyone can understand them. Either way, there often seems to be an undercurrent of fear among researchers when it comes to CEO presentations.

Why do so many researchers live in fear of their CEOs?

I’ve presented in front of a few dozen CEOs in my career (including three billionaires) and have never felt this fear. Perhaps this is because as an outside supplier, I don’t have as much at stake during the presentation as the internal staff does. I have often found that the CEO will give more careful consideration to what I (who has been studying the issue at hand for a few weeks) have to say than what the internal researchers (who have been studying these issues for years) have to say.

I’ve often wondered why. I think this is partially because when you have paid for a consultant, you feel a bit obligated to listen to what he/she has to say. But I think it is more because of the fear internal staff have when they get in front of the CEO.

I have found that CEO presentations tend to go smoother than presentations to marketing departments. The CEO tends to grasp the study quickly, ask insightful questions, and is almost always an excellent communicator and is good with people. In fact that is the one thing I think they all have in common – you really can’t get to the top without strong people skills. This makes them easy to present to.

It is common for the market research department to feel that they have to somehow “dumb down” the research for the report or presentation that goes to the CEO. That is a mistake. This is a very capable audience. It is true that CEOs are often time-starved but I have found that they value the nuance in the story and grasp it well.

Yes, we don’t want to waste the CEO’s valuable time so we want to be sure to tell a clear story, outline important takeaways, and provide implications. But researchers also should be of the mindset that their top-level manager really shouldn’t have anything more pressing to do than to listen to what his/her customers think. Stop being so nervous – it almost always goes better than you think it will!

Are our public places too noisy? Americans think so!

Crux Research recently conducted a poll for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. It found that many Americans are concerned about their exposure to noise when taking part in out-of-home leisure activities. Many also say that noise lessens their enjoyment of many activities and causes them to decide not to take part in them at times.

Perhaps most surprising is that Millennials were just about as likely as Boomers to be concerned about noise when taking part in leisure activities.

For more information on this poll, ASHA’s press release is here.

And, a detailed summary of the poll can be found here.

Americans value money and brains over looks

We recently posed a question on a national poll which required Americans to make an interesting choice:

If you could have one of the following, which would you choose?

  • I would have more money than I have today
  • I would be smarter than I am today
  • I would be better looking than I am today

This is a provocative cocktail party question. How would you answer it? How might your answer change depending on your life stage – would you answer it differently 15 years ago or 15 years into the future?

Across all ages (18+), 61% of Americans choose more money. It would be interesting to pose this question internationally to learn if this finding reflects American culture and capitalism or if this result reflects something universal to all people. Overall, 26% of US adults choose being smarter and 12% choose being better looking. So, it can be said that Americans value money and brains over looks.

We should note that there wasn’t a gender difference in the results. Males and females were just as likely to say all three options. There were a couple of interesting racial differences. Hispanics were least likely to say they would like more money and most likely to say they would like to be smarter. Blacks were as likely as others to say “money” but were more likely than others to say “better looking” and less likely to say “smarter.”

But, by far the largest and most interesting differences in this question related to the generation of the respondent. We’ve seen the Millennial generation maligned quite a bit recently, hearing that they are entitled and a bit lazy. We’ve never quite believed that, as the perception that a youth generation is disrespectful and lazy has been true since before the term “generation” was coined.

For instance, this is a quote from Socrates, and is about 2,400 years old:

“Children today are tyrants.  They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers.”

Mark Twain, late in his life, had this to say about children:

“When a child turns 12 you should put him in a barrel, nail the lid down, and feed him through a knot hole… When he turns 16, plug the hole.”                                              

One of the more cynical (and unintentionally humorous) quotations about children came from Clarence Darrow, almost a century ago:

“The first half of our lives is ruined by our parents and the second half by our children.”

But, back to our poll question.  There are currently five living generations:

First birth year

Final birth year Current youngest member

Current oldest member

Silent

1925

1942 75

92

Boom

1943

1960 57

74

Gen X

1961

1981 36

56

Milllennials

1982

2004 13

35

Homelanders 2005 2017 0

12

Which one do you think would be the most apt to choose “more money” in our question? We’d presume that most people would predict it would be Millennials. But, in reality, it is Boomers who are most likely to say money:

More Money Smarter Better Looking
Silent

54%

37%

9%

Boom

71%

19%

11%

Gen X

65%

26%

10%

Milllennials

52% 31%

17%

There are fascinating generational differences in this table.  Howe and Strauss have developed an excellent generational theory, and one aspect of it is that a generational cycle recurs through four archetypes. So, typically, a current youth generations will have a similar type and outlook as the oldest living generation. This theory is supported by the table above. It is the oldest (Silent) and youngest (Millennials) generations that are least concerned with money and relatively most concerned with being smarter.

Boomers come across as the most money-obsessed generation, which is interesting as they are in a life stage where personal net worth tends to peak. 71% of Boomers would prefer more money to being smarter or better looking.  Of course, with all generational conclusions, it could be more of a life stage issue at work – Boomers are currently between 57 and 74 years old and perhaps pre- and early-retirement are particularly money-centric life stages. But, we suspect that if we had conducted this poll over time Boomers would have been highly concerned with money compared to other generations throughout all life stages.

Finally, these results underscore a point we like to make with clients. It is challenging to fully understand a generation unless we widen the sampling frame and interview other generations as well. Had this question just been asked of Millennials, we may have concluded that money was an overriding concern for them. It is only when comparing them to other generations that we see that they value intelligence and smarts more than others.

NEW POLL SHOWS THAT IF US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION WERE HELD AGAIN, INCREASED TURNOUT WOULD LIKELY RESULT IN A CLINTON VICTORY

Crux Research poll shows 92% of Trump voters and 91% of Clinton voters would not change their vote

ROCHESTER, NY – MARCH 12, 2017 – Polling results released today by Crux Research show that if there were a “do over” and the election were held again tomorrow, Hillary Clinton would likely win the Presidency.  But, this would not happen as a result of voters changing their vote – rather voters who didn’t turn out in the fall would provide an edge to Clinton.

In 2016, the popular vote was 48.0% for Hillary Clinton and 45.9% for Donald Trump (a gap of 2.1)[1].  This new poll shows that if the election were held again among these two candidates, the popular vote would be estimated to be 52.9% Clinton and 47.1% Trump (a gap of 5.8).

Further, few Clinton or Trump supporters would change their voting behaviors:

  • 92% of those who voted for Trump in November would vote for him again tomorrow.
  • 91% of those who voted for Clinton in November would vote for her again tomorrow.

A new election would bring out additional voters.  57% of non-voters in 2016 would intend to vote. Their votes would split approximately 60% for Clinton and 40% for Trump.  So, increased turnout would likely provide a decisive edge to Clinton.

A closer look at swing states (the five states where the winner won by 2 percentage points or less[2]), shows that Clinton  would win these states by a gap of 9.3, likely enough to change the election result.

WHO WOULD WIN TOMORROW?
Suppose there was a “do over” and the US presidential election were held again tomorrow. 
Whom would you vote for?
Actual 2016 Election Result March 2017 Crux Research Poll*
Donald Trump 45.9% 47.1%
Hillary Clinton 48.0% 52.9%
Others 6.0%
*2017 Crux Research poll is among those who say they would vote if the election were held again tomorrow.
VOTE SWITCHING BEHAVIOR
Suppose there was a “do over” and the US presidential election were held again tomorrow. 
Whom would you vote for?
Voted for Trump in 2016 Voted for Clinton in 2016
Donald Trump 92% 1%
Hillary Clinton 1% 91%
Others 4% 7%
Wouldn’t vote 2% 1%
SWING STATES RESULTS
Suppose there was a “do over” and the US presidential election were held again tomorrow. 
Whom would you vote for?
Actual 2016 Election Result in Swing States Swing States March 2017 Crux Research Poll*
Donald Trump 48.0% 47.1%
Hillary Clinton 47.2% 52.9%
Others 4.8%
*2017 Crux Research poll is among those who say they would vote if the election were held again tomorrow.
** Swing states are five states where the election was decided by 2 percentage points or less (PA, MI, WI, FL, and NH).

###

Methodology

This poll was conducted online between March 6 and March 10, 2017. The sample size was 1,010 US adults (aged 18 and over). Quota sampling and weighting were employed to ensure that respondent proportions for age group, sex, race/ethnicity, and region matched their actual proportions in the population.  The poll was also balanced to reflect the actual proportion of voters who voted for each candidate in the 2016 election.

This poll did not have a sponsor and was conducted and funded by Crux Research, an independent market research firm that is not in any way associated with political parties, candidates, or the media.

All surveys and polls are subject to many sources of error.  The term “margin of error” is misleading for online polls, which are not based on a probability sample which is a requirement for margin of error calculations.  If this study did use probability sampling, the margin of error would be +/-3%.

About Crux Research Inc.

Crux Research partners with clients to develop winning products and services, build powerful brands, create engaging marketing strategies, enhance customer satisfaction and loyalty, improve products and services, and get the most out of their advertising.

Using quantitative and qualitative methods, Crux connects organizations with their customers in a wide range of industries, including health care, education, consumer goods, financial services, media and advertising, automotive, technology, retail, business-to-business, and non-profits.

Crux connects decision makers with customers, uses data to inspire new thinking, and assures clients they are being served by experienced, senior level researchers who set the standard for customer service from a survey research and polling consultant.

To learn more about Crux Research, visit www.cruxresearch.com.

[1] http://uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/index.html

[2] PA, MI, WI, FL, and NH were decided by 2 percentage points or less.

Let’s Make Research and Polling Great Again!

Crux Logo Final 2016

The day after the US Presidential election, we quickly wrote and posted about the market research industry’s failure to accurately predict the election.  Since this has been our widest-read post (by a factor of about 10!) we thought a follow-up was in order.

Some of what we predicted has come to pass. Pollsters are being defensive, claiming their polls really weren’t that far off, and are not reaching very deep to try to understand the core of why their predictions were poor. The industry has had a couple of confabs, where the major players have denied a problem exists.

We are at a watershed moment for our industry. Response rates continue to plummet, clients are losing confidence in the data we provide, and we are swimming in so much data our insights are often not able to find space to breathe. And the public has lost confidence in what we do.

Sometimes it is everyday conversations that can enlighten a problem. Recently, I was staying at an AirBnB in Florida. The host (Dan) was an ardent Trump supporter and at one point he asked me what I did for a living. When I told him I was a market researcher the conversation quickly turned to why the polls failed to accurately predict the winner of the election. By talking with Dan I quickly I realized the implications of Election 2016 polling to our industry. He felt that we can now safely ignore all polls – on issues, approval ratings, voter preferences, etc.

I found myself getting defensive. After all, the polls weren’t off that much.  In fact, they were actually off by more in 2012 than in 2016 – the problem being that this time the polling errors resulted in an incorrect prediction. Surely we can still trust polls to give a good sense of what our citizenry thinks about the issues of the day, right?

Not according to Dan. He didn’t feel our political leaders should pay attention to the polls at all because they can’t be trusted.

I’ve even seen a new term for this bandied about:  poll denialism. It is a refusal to believe any poll results because of their past failures. Just the fact that this has been named should be scary enough for researchers.

This is unnerving not just to the market research industry, but to our democracy in general.  It is rarely stated overtly, but poll results are a key way political leaders keep in touch with the needs of the public, and they shape public policy a lot more than many think. Ignoring them is ignoring public opinion.

Market research remains closely associated with political polling. While I don’t think clients have become as mistrustful about their market research as the public has become about polling, clients likely have their doubts. Much of what we do as market researchers is much more complicated than election polling. If we can’t successfully predict who will be President, why would a client believe our market forecasts?

We are at a defining moment for our industry – a time when clients and suppliers will realize this is an industry that has gone adrift and needs a righting of the course. So what can we do to make research great again?  We have a few ideas.

  1. First and foremost, if you are a client, make greater demands for data quality. Nothing will stimulate the research industry more to fix itself than market forces – if clients stop paying for low quality data and information, suppliers will react.
  2. Slow down! There is a famous saying about all projects.  They have three elements that clients want:  a) fast, b) good, and c) cheap, and on any project you can choose two of these.  In my nearly three decades in this industry I have seen this dynamic change considerably. These days, “fast” is almost always trumping the other two factors.  “Good” has been pushed aside.  “Cheap” has always been important, but to be honest budget considerations don’t seem to be the main issue (MR spending continues to grow slowly). Clients are insisting that studies are conducted at a breakneck pace and data quality is suffering badly.
  3. Insist that suppliers defend their methodologies. I’ve worked for corporate clients, but also many academic researchers. I have found that a key difference between them becomes apparent during results presentations. Corporate clients are impatient and want us to go as quickly as possible over the methodology section and get right into the results.  Academics are the opposite. They dwell on the methodology and I have noticed if you can get an academic comfortable with your methods it is rare that they will doubt your findings. Corporate researchers need to understand the importance of a sound methodology and care more about it.
  4. Be honest about the limitations of your methodology. We often like to say that everything you were ever taught about statistics assumed a random sample and we haven’t seen a study in at least 20 years that can credibly claim to have one.  That doesn’t mean a study without a random sample isn’t valuable, it just means that we have to think through the biases and errors it could contain and how that can be relevant to the results we present. I think every research report should have a page after the methodology summary that lists off the study’s limitations and potential implications to the conclusions we draw.
  5. Stop treating respondents so poorly. I believe this is a direct consequence of the movement from telephone to online data collection. Back in the heyday of telephone research, if you fielded a survey that was too long or was challenging for respondents to answer, it wasn’t long until you heard from your interviewers just how bad your questionnaire was. In an online world, this feedback never gets back to the questionnaire author – and we subsequently beat up our respondents pretty badly.  I have been involved in at least 2,000 studies and about 1 million respondents.  If each study averages 15 minutes that implies that people have spent about 28 and a half years filling out my surveys.  It is easy to lose respect for that – but let’s not forget the tremendous amount of time people spend on our surveys. In the end, this is a large threat to the research industry, as if people won’t respond, we have nothing to sell.
  6. Stop using technology for technology’s sake. Technology has greatly changed our business. But, it doesn’t supplant the basics of what we do or allow us to ignore the laws of statistics.  We still need to reach a representative sample of people, ask them intelligent questions, and interpret what it means for our clients.  Tech has made this much easier and much harder at the same time.  We often seem to do things because we can and not because we should.

The ultimate way to combat “poll denialism” in a “post-truth” world is to do better work, make better predictions, and deliver insightful interpretations. That is what we all strive to do, and it is more important than ever.