In February 2009, The Wall Street Journal reported that smart phones had exceeded laptops in sales since 2005, and the gap is widening. Assets, resources and people are becoming wirelessly connected at an accelerating rate.
These connected devices (and connected people) stream massive quantities of untapped data about location, position and movement. Companies that learn to leverage these data will revolutionize the market research industry.
"We’ve found that consumers, accustomed to voicing their opinions via social media, are becoming less receptive to participating in formal market research studies," said Janice Caston, vice president of marketing for the Toluna Group. The Toluna Group is the world’s largest online market research panel and online survey software provider. "Ironically, the pervasive 'connected-ness' of social media has actually reduced the consumer's tolerance to connecting in formal surveys."
With so many different signals competing for the consumer's attention, Caston believes that to remain relevant the industry must find ways to reinvent the survey process, better engage with consumers and alleviate some of the burden imposed by traditional market research methodologies. One way to better engage with customers is through community.
"Consumers join the Toluna website community because they like to provide feedback about leading brands and they like to be rewarded for participation," said Caston.
The Toluna community has grown rapidly and now provides online advanced survey programming expertise to over 1,500 of the world's leading market research agencies. The Toluna community consists of approximately 3.7 million consumers across 33 countries.
With access to so many unique consumer segments, the Toluna community gives market research professionals a unique and rapid way to quickly build and deliver surveys.
The historical alternative was to build complex survey instruments, which would take months of planning and even more months of collection, then even more months of analysis, just to gain the initial insights from consumer panelists. Toluna built the community when it realized traditional research took too long and that the resulting work product was out-of-date by the time it was complete.
"The information we get from consumers is all self-reported data. We started thinking, wouldn't it be great if we could simultaneously validate self-reported data with real (true at that moment) and REAL-TIME position and movement data as a way of reducing the consumer's burden," said Caston.
Toluna partnered with VisTracks, a cloud-based position and movement analytics provider, to combine point of sale data, loyalty card data, cell phone-based GPS position/movement data and behaviors with actual attitudes reported.
"Consumer sentiment is moving faster than traditional market research methodologies. Vendors such as Toluna are reinventing the whole notion of research, by focusing on the speed at which technology can generate the responses," said Andrew Stein, chief operating officer and executive vice president of marketing for VisTracks. "Our vision was a real-time research connection between companies and their customers - a stream of constant feedback directly into their innovation pipeline that didn't need to be 'mined' from Twitter feeds alone, but could be correlated statistically with these other social media channels."
As part of the Toluna/VisTracks pilot project, a select group of several hundred participants in the Toluna community voluntarily installed a VisTracks application on their Android cell phones.
"If you are part of our panel and you tell us you go to the movies four times per month, we rely on you to be truthful but we still have to spend time asking you how often you go to the movies. Using actual GPS and location data enables us to know that you have been to the theater four times and it also means we don't need to ask you how many times you have been to the movies. If we already know the answer, we don't need to burden the consumer with the question," said Caston. "In fact, we can get right to the point and ask more important questions such as 'What did you think of the last movie you saw?'"
"What we are talking about is location awareness at the 'point of survey' - this creates a richer opportunity for social media to be an asset for market research," said Stein.
Using position and movement data, VisTracks was able to correlate location and movement with consumer activity as consumers interacted with merchants and leading brands. After a participant visited a retail location, he/she immediately received a survey asking about the experience.
Nearly 50,000 panelists opted to participate in consumer surveys delivered via mobile device and Toluna/VisTracks engaged those consumers after they made in-store transactions.
"GPS-enabled smart phones already generate a tremendous amount of data," said Stein. "In addition, the technology that is already in these devices makes it possible to have a real-time conversation with consumers about their experience, at the time it happens. The technology is out there and it is producing a massive flood of data but there are few tools available that can make use of all that information. This is a huge opportunity for the market research industry to create new products and services that extract and monetize this information in real-time."
To make sense of all the data, VisTracks uses a cloud platform to query, collect, analyze and react to the data, correlate future patterns based on recent history (this is true real-time analytics), and predict potential outcomes of business plans and product acceptance. The instant insight means companies can "tune" their offering to meet consumer preference and taste much more effectively, and even customize it in real-time based on regional (geospatial and demographic) differences that only come up when there is a real-time response loop.
As a prologue, the results of the pilot project postulate the future of consumer research as a real-time event. The technology foundations exist and opt-in survey panelists around the globe are already using the cloud to track their "errand paths" or "trip paths" using position and movement analytics to deliver the right survey to the right consumer at the point and time of purchase.
"With 'go-to-market' windows shrinking, staying on top of fickle consumers requires relevant insight immediately, not six months from now," said Caston. "Building a real-time research data asset, presenting the statistics and analytics on the experience of those customers in a dynamically updated real-time survey results dashboard, and giving companies the opportunity to improve their product experience in real-time is possible."
Stein and the VisTracks team believe the market research industry has reached a tipping point. The explosion of unprocessed real-time location information resulting from social media, the Internet, the movement of people, the supply chain and other assets becomes increasingly more valuable when there are powerful analytics tools available to analyze static data immediately and then adapt the experience before it is complete.