Should you use DIY market research tools?

A market research innovation has occurred over the past decade that is talked about in hushed tones among research suppliers:  the rise of DIY market research tools. Researchers and clients need to become more educated on what these DIY tools are and when it is appropriate to used them.

DIY tools come in a number of flavors. At their core, they allow anybody to log into a system, author a survey, select sample parameters, and hit “go.” Many also provide the ability to tabulate data and graph results. These tools reduce the complexity of fielding studies. For the most part, these tools are created by outside panel and research technology companies but some end clients have invested in their own tools.

Many research suppliers view DIY tools as an existential threat. After all, if clients can do all this themselves what do they need us for? Will our fielding and programming departments become obsolete? Will we have a large portion of what we do automated?

Maybe. But more likely our fielding and programming departments will become smaller and have to adapt to a changing technological world.

There is a clear analogy here to DIY household projects. The tools and materials needed for most home improvement projects are available at big box retailers. Some homeowners are well-equipped to take on projects themselves, others are not, and the key to a successful project is often understanding when it is important to call for professional help. The same is true for market research projects.

Where the analogy fails is when you take on a project you aren’t equipped to handle. If it is a home project you will probably discover that you got in a bit over your head along the way. In market research, however, you can complete an entire project that has serious errors in it but never really notice. The project will result in sub-optimal decision making and nobody may really notice.

In days gone by, the decision of whether to use a research supplier or not was straightforward. If the project was meaningful or complex, clients used suppliers. For many projects, the choice used to be between using a supplier or not doing the project at all. The rise of DIY tools has changed that.

Here are some instances where DIY research makes sense:

  • If the project is relatively simple. By simple, we mean from both a questionnaire design and a sampling perspective.
  • If the risk of making a suboptimal decision based on the information is low. Perhaps the best aspect of DIY tools is they permit clients to research issues that otherwise may have gone unresearched because of time and budget considerations.
  • When getting it done quickly is important. For many projects, there is something to be said for getting it 90% right and getting it done today rather than taking months to get it perfect.
  • If you have someone with supplier-side experience on staff. Suppliers are likely to be a bit more attuned to the nuances of study design and may notice mistakes others might miss.
  • If you have thought through the potential limitations of the DIY approach and have communicated this to your internal client.
  • When you are using the DIY project to pre-test or pilot a study. This is an excellent use of DIY tools: to be sure your questioning and scales are going to work before committing significant resources to a project. A DIY project can make the subsequent project more efficient.

Here are cases when we would caution against using DIY tools:

  • If a consequential decision will be made based on the results. Having the backing of a third-party supplier is important in this case and the investment is likely worth it.
  • When research results need to motivate people internally. Internal decision makers will typically listen more to research results if the study was conducted by a third-party.
  • When a broader perspective is needed. As a client, you know your firm and industry better than most suppliers will. But there are many times when having a broader perspective on a project provides substantial value to it.
  • If the sampling is complicated. If your target audience is obscure and hard to define in a few words, suppliers can be very helpful in getting your sampling right. In a previous post we mention that it is the sampling aspects of projects that most clients don’t think through enough. We have found that the most serious mistakes made in market research deal with sampling, and often these mistakes are hard to notice.
  • If you are conducting a business-to-business study. DIY sampling resources aren’t yet of the same quality for b-to-b research as they are for consumer studies.

DIY studies clearly have their place. They will augment current studies in some cases and replace them in others. I don’t see them as a threat to the highly-customized types of studies Crux Research tends to conduct. Market research spending will continue to grow slowly, but less will be spent on data collection and more on higher value-added aspects of projects.

In the 30 years I have worked in research, the cost of data collection has dropped considerably – I’d say it is about one-third what it used to be. But, during this time the price of research projects has increased. The implication is that clients have come to value the consultative aspects of studies more and have become more reliant on their suppliers to do things that previously clients did for themselves.

That presents a bit of a conundrum: clients are outsourcing more to suppliers at a time when tools are being developed that allow them to do many projects without a supplier. For many clients, money and time would be saved by hiring someone on staff that knows how to use these tools recognizes when a third-party supplier is necessary.

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