Big data describes the wealth of digital information produced by our interactions across the internet - the trails and footprints we leave. According to IBM, the term arises from the generation of constant, unrelenting information, defined by three distinct factors: velocity, volume and variety. It is believed that about 90% of the world's data has been produced in the last two years and the rate at which this is happening is only increasing.
SAS attributes the ferocious rise of big data to the increasing importance of the Internet of Things (IoT). This consists of three main components: the data producing devices, communication networks and computer networks that use this data. In fact, the IoT has become so sophisticated that much of the data produced by the internet is never even seen by human eyes. It has become its own self-sustaining eco-system.
While marketers are excited by the prospect of being able to access an overwhelming amount of information about not only devices but consumers too, big data comes with a lot of challenges. One of the biggest is the sheer volume and variety of information produced. So, if the world is moving ever faster towards markets dominated by Big Data and the trends they predict, does market research have a place in it? And if so, what is it?
The Power of Market Research
Market research is and will continue to be a powerful tool long into the future. In fact. it is hard to imagine a world without it, and there is a very good reason for that. It is difficult to replace the sheer clarity of insight that well-defined market research can provide. While Big Data and the Internet of Things may be encroaching on the territory of market research, it is impossible to remove it completely.
That is because, in addition to the analytical insights that market research can offer, it also provides something much more difficult to analyse - human behaviour. As a people, we do not always act rationally and our behaviour cannot always be predicted. This has always been the bane of market researchers everywhere. No matter the amount of data, nothing can compare to the insight gained simply from talking to others. This is where the real power, and value, of market research lies in a big data world. It may complement, it may contradict, but it is difficult to dispute the insight gathered from a deep and empathetic understanding of customer opinion.
The Uniqueness of the Human Condition
Even some of the biggest supporters of Big Data acknowledge that to use Big Data, you need Big Analytics. But what does this mean? It means that the wealth of data provided is, in many ways, too much. To be able to understand and interpret it we need tools that are up to the challenge. What is even more difficult is taking those findings and applying them to people.
Big Data can identify trends on a massive scale. It can predict our behavior on an individual, community or even ubiquitous level. However, the question it cannot yet answer is why. Often we make decisions that do not make sense. In fact, we often do not even understand our own decisions. For example, in the famous Coca-Cola/Pepsi blind taste test (dubbed the Pepsi Challenge) nearly all participants preferred the taste of Pepsi, but would still choose Coca-Cola. Big Data is capable of predicting the first half of that result, but not yet the second. For now, the only way we can understand people is to empathise and use our own experiences of people.
The Accessibility of Data
One issue with Big Data is how inaccessible it is to so many businesses. The sheer processing power needed to crunch the numbers is astounding and out of the reach of many businesses. Even when the technology does become widely available, it is likely that the analytical tools used to process the data will be kept tightly under wraps. The challenges of big data provide those who are able to understand it a huge competitive advantage.
Therefore, to compete with numerical data on such a scale, businesses must ensure that their market research is detailed, accurate and relevant. While the largest companies may have access to the most sophisticated analytical technology, market research is a level playing field and one which aids those with the skill to conduct it correctly.
Advances in Market Research
While Big Data is evolving at an exponential rate, so too is the world of market research. We at FlexMR are at the forefront of this, pushing market research into the digital age. Online market research provides the same benefits as traditional formats, including depth. However, it is also much more interactive and introduces some new tools that can supplement and improve your insights.
Big Data is here to stay. There is no doubt about that. But this will never replace the power of market research to understand human behaviour. Highly analysed data, combined with rich qualitative insight is still the best way for marketers to understand the subtle nuances of human behaviour.