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Where will 2021 take the market research industry?

For market researchers, 2020 was catastrophic yet transformative, demanding rapid change and adaptation in order to survive and thrive. As we move from crisis response to future planning, what does the market research landscape look like?

Get the complete picture: Download our Market Research Trends Report for 2021

2020 – the year that changed market research

2020’s crises profoundly changed the relationship between consumers and brands – altering expectations and redefining relationships. At the same time,  it presented an opportunity for businesses to rethink and re-invent their approach to market research.

Economic growth was put into reverse, supply chains were tested to and beyond breaking point, consumers turned to stockpiling and their relationships to brands shifted from a position of choice to one of necessity.

While some brands pivoted smartly, others, especially in the hospitality and leisure sectors, were overwhelmed by the crushing pressure of COVID-19. Knowledge-based industries were perhaps the least hardest-hit, with a shift towards remote working keeping the lights on. Overall though, there were few winners. Our research showed that almost 2 in 3 companies canceled or postponed some of their planned research.

Those that weathered the storm were frequently those who turned to technology for a competitive advantage. Economizing and cutting costs were the goal for market researchers, who leaned on automation, AI and machine learning to take the pressure off resource-heavy human-led operations.

Though nothing new, market research technology came into its own during 2020 as a means to alleviate cost burdens and do more with less. Growth in MR tech accelerated rapidly, especially when it came to tools for automation.

The three-phase approach

We’ve seen market research companies go through three typical stages in response to the COVID-19 crisis

1. Sudden shock

Confronted with a totally unprecedented set of circumstances, businesses responded to uncertainty by cutting back on their research spending in an effort to conserve resources for an unknown future.

2. Tentative, mixed recovery 

With the ‘new normal’ beginning to bed in, organizations returned to something more like the status quo, returning to their research programs, albeit on a smaller scale than before the pandemic. They looked to research to help them understand the new environment and to track and respond to changing customer needs.

3. Doing more with less 

Months rather than weeks on from the initial crisis point, researchers were met with the challenge to do more with less, and to produce results faster than ever. For many, the answer lay in new technology that enabled more efficient ways of working.

2021 – the emerging market research trends

So what does the future hold?

Our research points to a number of emerging trends in market research following the 2020 crisis point:

1. Technology is here to stay

Its value proven, market research technology is set to keep on growing in 2021 and beyond. With budgets still critically tight, market researchers will be looking to technology to help them keep pace with demand. After all, the budgets may be scaling back but the volume and variety of market research data will only keep growing.

Now and in the future, technology plays an important role in bringing data from disparate sources together, and helping market researchers to collate, analyze and communicate their findings. It’s also a part of the everyday fabric of collaborative research, with online panels supplying data and remote working critically dependent on functions like IM and video calls.

See 17 market research tools we recommend exploring in 2021

2. A need for speed

The market researchers we surveyed told us that speed was near the top of their priority lists. They require insights faster, because with the rule book torn up, business leaders need that data-backed knowledge to help them build new strategies and make decisions.

This requires the growing strategic importance of market research, which in a post-2020 world now sits at the heart of business.

3. A blended approach to research

While there’s a widespread appreciation for market research technology, it won’t be replacing human abilities any time soon. We’re going to be seeing a blended approach where technology, and in particular automation, takes on some of the heavy lifting and allows data to be processed and analyzed at scale.

Human intelligence and perception will work hand in hand with the latest tools. We’ll see human creativity in the form of lateral thinking – the ability to pivot and reframe ideas and to challenge assumptions – and storytelling to communicate ideas in a compelling way.

4. Uncertainty remains

Though 2020 is now behind us, much of its impact continues. As we go into 2021, researchers are working hard to form a better understanding of post-2020 markets and how consumers now think and feel. Our 2020 research showed Market Trends topping the list of areas most in focus among researchers. This is critical if brands are to understand and act on new expectations for how they serve and support their customers.

5. Agile market research

An agile – read iterative, responsive and never-finished – approach to market research will see methodologies changing. Rather than carrying out large, structured projects, we can expect to see researchers running smaller surveys in an iterative way, each one building off the findings of the one before. This model is a powerful tool for fast-changing circumstances and unfamiliar research territory, since it allows researchers the freedom to respond to events and adapt their research to whatever life throws at us.

Download our free guide to modern agile research

6. Integration and a single, central platform

Another clear theme in our research was the requirement for a market research capability that is centralized on a single platform. Rather than working in silos, research is becoming more deeply connected to other areas of the business, reflecting a more holistic approach. We’re also seeing strong demand for integrated market research, with tools and systems that plug directly into various sources of data rather than requiring information to be imported or exported.

Get the complete picture: Download our Market Research Trends Report for 2021

Elizabeth Dean // Senior XM Scientist

Elizabeth Dean is a senior experience management (XM) scientist with 20+ years of designing and leading research for commercial, academic, and government customers. Her expertise is in survey and market research design, UX research, brand health, technology adoption and cross-cultural research. She is passionate about designing questionnaires, contact strategies, and experience management tools that reduce respondent burden and simplify the data capture process. Liz has published research in the International Journal of Social Research Methodology, Military Psychology, and Social Science Computer Review, and co-edited the book Social Media, Sociality and Survey research, published in 2013 by Wiley Press.

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