Reasons To Be Cheerful: 6 Ways Research Has Changed For The Better

Last week BrainJuicer Labs Content Director Tom Ewing presented the opening keynote at the AMSRS (Australian Market And Social Research Society) conference in Melbourne. This is a very edited summary of what he talked about!

Keynotes at market research events often have a rather depressing air – constantly stressing the research industry’s need to change, to become more like consultants, or technicians, or entrepreneurs, or else face extinction. Those doomy prescriptions have one thing in common: they assume that research can’t change, or is slow to do so. But it can. In the fifteen years I’ve been in the industry, research has changed enormously and that change is ongoing.

My AMSRS keynote was a celebration of that change, and of an industry with a marvellous capacity to change and adapt. It’s not about the future of research, but its present – the day-to-day reality of forward-thinking research companies. As Ian Dury put it in his song “Reasons To Be Cheerful”: “Yes yes my dear / perhaps next year / or maybe even now”. Why wait?


I talked about six main changes I saw happening in research.

MEASUREMENT – From soft metrics to hard behaviour: The research industry’s main business model used to be proprietary metrics – black box scores created by smooshing together attitudinal data and building a norm out of it. They were a necessity in a world where we didn’t have access to data on how people actually behave, but they’re now fading into the background. Researchers these days have access to far more behavioural data – the “world without questions” is becoming a reality,

BEHAVIOUR – From claims to context: When we have more access to behavioural data, research’s role becomes less about establishing claimed behaviour (past, present or future) and more about putting that behaviour into context so clients can make informed decisions about it. This is where behavioural economics fits in – it establishes the crucial psychological context of the decisions we make, without which they are hard to understand.

OUTCOMES – From hypotheses to experiments: Research used to be about generating hypotheses from data. It still is, but increasingly now we can go one step further and test those hypotheses ourselves. The endpoint of a research study isn’t always the survey – it can be (and often is) a field experiment in a store or using A/B testing to measure the impact of online changes. A “test and learn” mentality is spreading through the more forward-thinking bits of the research industry.

DELIVERABLES – From findings to prototypes: The end of a project should only be the start of a piece of research’s life. But after bringing them into the world, we researchers used to abandon our ‘babies’ and leave them exposed to the sometimes hostile environment of the client business. These days we are better than ever at presenting research in ways that give it a chance for survival. I could have talked about infographics and hands-on dashboards, but I focused on the less discussed world of prototypes – rather than simply recommend what to do, researchers are often building examples of it. Prototype app and webpage layouts, models of retail concepts, re-edited adverts, and concepts with the emotional punch of commercials to the end-user – all examples of research getting its hands dirty and adopting a “show, don’t tell” attitude.

PARTICIPANTS – From exploitation to collaboration: One of the most talked-about shifts in research practise has been the change in how we think about and treat ‘respondents’. The colossal survey isn’t quite extinct but with mobile and online research have come a host of new and more humane techniques for getting opinions! Mobile ethnography and MROCs in particular allow research to put itself on a more collaborative footing with its participants.

GOALS – From information to emotion: The more we understand about how the mind works, the more the concept of research shifts. Researchers used to be information brokers – telling clients what their customers thought, and helping clients communicate information to those customers. But it turns out information isn’t the most valuable currency – emotion is more important, and research is changing to reflect that. More than ever, the research industry is finding out at a primal level how people feel about brands, adverts and ideas – and then helping its clients make things that make people feel good.

The overall impact of these changes is enormously positive. Research now is more psychologically attuned, more technologically capable, more creative and simply more FUN than at any time since I joined the industry. And that’s a reason to be cheerful.


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