Will Social Media Replace Surveys as a Research Tool?

Biggest Research Buyer P&G Says It Wants Less Methodology Dogma, More Projections

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The top research executive of likely the world's biggest research buyer expects surveys to dramatically decline in importance by 2020 and sees the rise of social media as a big reason why.

Joan Lewis, global consumer and market knowledge officer of Procter & Gamble Co., with its $350 million in annual market-research outlays, made the statements during and after a panel discussion on "How Market Research Must Change" at the Advertising Research Foundation's Re:Think 2011 conference in New York.

The industry should get away from "believing a method, particularly survey research, will be the solution to anything," she said. "We need to be methodology agnostic."

Social-media listening isn't only replacing some survey research but also making it harder to do by changing consumer behavior and expectations, Ms. Lewis said in an interview after the panel.

"The more people see two-way engagement and being able to interact with people all over the world, I think the less they want to be involved in structured research," she said. "If I have something to say to that company now, there are lots of ways to say it."

Researchers focus too much on process, details of validation and treating methods "like ideologies," she said.

"We are all brought into the research industry with the almost dogmatic belief that representation is everything," Ms. Lewis said, noting that she doesn't discount the importance of having samples representative of a population for some research.

"But we need to get away from the notion that being representative of something is the only way to learn," she said. "I still hear people say, 'That social-media thing, that's not really going to pan out.' We will learn enormously whether [social-media samples are] representative or not."

She said P&G will continue to do survey research for years, even though she expects it to become less important.

"When we're doing it, we need to do it well," she said. "It's really been easy for people to take the idea that the world is changing as an excuse to do really poor work. And there's no excuse."

Joe Tripodi, exec VP-chief marketing and commercial officer of Coca-Cola Co., repeated a view stated at the Association of National Advertisers conference last year that he'd like to do away with counting impressions in marketing in favor of counting "expressions" from consumers about brands.

But he said social-media and engagement analytics aren't "at the level of sophistication we need it to be" and supported industry efforts to develop standards around measurement and calibration in those areas.

Ms. Lewis also said researchers need to move beyond a "comfort level" in being advisers to "having something on the line" alongside other decision makers in organizations. And she said research needs to move beyond measuring things like market share to finding indicators that project when and how it should move and do more scenario planning.

All that's good, but the industry's compensation model doesn't really support such work, as procurement officers increasingly have focused on paying for "field work plus" a profit margin, said Eric Salama, chairman-CEO of WPP's Kantar.

"A lot of the value we can generate isn't from field work, but from looking across multiple projects," Mr. Salama said, arguing for a value-based compensation model.

Mr. Tripodi, who said Coca-Cola had adopted such a model for ad agencies two years ago, welcomed applying value-based compensation to research firms -- provided they provide value.

"I would gladly pay a lot more money to our agency partners in the research area if they delivered for us that game-changing insight," he said. "Absolutely, where do I sign up?"

Pressures for change aside, the research industry looks to be doing pretty well, at least judging by turnout and revenue for the ARF, which has a fairly spry appearance as it celebrates its 75th anniversary with this conference. ARF CEO Bob Barocci said the conference drew $1 million in revenue for the first time, with attendance of 1,200, up 30% from last year.

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