‘If you think it’s expensive to get a professional in to do a job, just wait until you hire an amateur’

This quotation, attributed to Red Adair (an internationally renowned fire fighter in the oil industry), was used by Pete Cape in his ‘Dr. Pete’ column in ESOMAR’s ‘Research World’ (March/April 2013) when answering a question about questionnaire translation.

I’m very grateful to Pete for drawing my intention to this quotation, which I’m appropriating to use in a different research related context. It provides an apposite title for my thoughts following a recent presentation by Brett Slatkin, Google Surveys, at the recent ASC conference.

But I question whether this is always true.

The move by Google to replace publishers paywalls with surveywalls, whereby consumers access publisher content for free, but have to complete a questionnaire at some point during their visit to the site, before they are able to continue their viewing, has been well publicised, raising concerns about the impact on the market research sector. Yet another example of disruptive technologies!

Regular readers of IJMR may recall that a few years ago we issued a Call for Papers ‘Valuing content in a digital world: the role of market research’, asking for submissions that identified how market research could help publishers develop profitable strategy to fight the increasing demand by consumers for cheap, or free, content.

At the time we didn’t foresee that surveys might be part of the solution, rather than simply a way to investigate options!

As you might know, the trade-off is that consumers get free access to newspaper websites, in exchange for completing a survey part way through the online session. Consumers are prevented from continuing the session until they’ve completed the survey. But that’s part of the deal – no such thing as a free lunch, but the big question, as with all such disruptive technologies, is whether it is our lunch that’s being eaten!

On the face of it, this looks like another piece of the DIY research jigsaw, perhaps like SurveyMonkey, but with the sample provided and the power and expertise of Google behind it. So, does Red Adair’s comment apply or not, if you are getting your consumer data via this source?

What intrigued me in Slatkin’s presentation was one of the case studies he presented. The scenario is an iPad kids games developer, and the tussles between the techies/engineers and the creative designers in what created a really great game.

And here’s where Google Surveys came to the rescue, and provided the solution. Why not ask the consumer to help resolve the issues, by asking a few pertinent questions on the available options, and importantly, getting some answers in almost real-time so that passions are still high and the game development process rolls on?

Topics researched included icons for the app store and character designs, and whether to introduce new characters into establish formats. The use of surveys in this way created an amicable solution that both communities bought into – as Slatkin said, ‘when the survey had spoken, it had spoken’.

Here was a company that had never used market research before, but was now recognising the power of the consumer as a partner in a triangular, collaborative relationship.
So, my response to Adair’s comment is that sometimes there’s a third way, where the non-researcher can be helped to harness the power of research and realise its potential for themselves.

We sometimes have to learn to let go. In this case, the result was more than just data, it provided an effective way for two traditionally highly competitive teams to work co-operatively, to the benefit of all stakeholders. Nothing wrong with that.

P.S. Slatkin gave us a live demonstration of the process, asking the just awakening east coast USA newspaper readers a question about Maggie Thatcher, the conference being two days after her funeral. We, the audience, designed the pre-codes, demonstrating that some Americans thought Maggie was Ronald Reagan’s girlfriend! Well, it was the start of their day...

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