It’s that time of year again, where goblins and ghouls emerge to spook and scare us all. And with the unpredictability and uncanny nature of 2021, I thought the Halloween season was the ideal time to look at and learn from many of the fears and frights plaguing market research.

So, to identify the dimensions of insights that are scaring and spooking insight professionals around the globe, I spoke to some of the world's premier market research experts. These individuals span agencies, enterprises, and associations, and are all also Insight250 honorees so they know a thing or two about innovating and leading and can hopefully point us all to perils to watch out for and avoid (Note: you can see the full list of honorees and nominate for 2022 at insight250.com)

So, here’s a review from around the world of some of the ‘insight frights’ haunting the market research industry.

Kristin Luck, President, ESOMAR, United States
“As someone who consults extensively on sales and marketing strategy, I’ve been horrified to discover over the past six years that most market research firms are not only poor marketers but conduct nearly no research on their own brand or brand performance AND generally don’t use data to optimize their own business performance. Even worse…ask a researcher to spend money on research…they’ll look at you like you’ve lost your mind. Truly terrifying.”

Seyi Adeoye, Chief Executive Officer, Pierrine Consulting, Nigeria
It is always scary when clients want to cover wide-ranging research objectives in one single study. Whilst it is understandable that at times this is driven by limited available budget, it is always a tough call ‘nicely’ educating the client while nudging them towards considering separate studies in order to get things right.”

Alex Hunt, Chief Executive Officer, Behaviorally, United States
Having spent 20 years in the commercial sector of the market research industry, it’s terrifying to hear the same pleas and read the same articles today as 20 years ago, outlining why market research and insights deserve a seat at the boardroom table. It’s true that companies focused on customers outperform those who are not, and it’s equally true that the role performed by insights in helping businesses and brands understand why customers and potential customers behave the way they do delivers against an imperative brief. But we’re still far from fulfilling our potential and deserving a seat at the boardroom table.

“While there’s been a tremendous amount of innovation in market research over 20 years, change has on aggregate been massively slower in the market research industry than most others. We’re collectively, as market researchers, still too inclined to serve up increasing volumes of data, and, at times, unique customer truths, as ends in themselves, and often too late to make a difference at that, versus inputs on a task to deliver growth outcomes for businesses and brands. If in 20 years we as insight professionals are still on soap boxes and penning articles on why we deserve a seat at the boardroom table, then we’ll have seriously underdelivered against our potential as an industry, and worse fully surrendered our role in harnessing customer understanding for commercial growth to other adjacent sectors, many of which have already begun to encroach on our turf, technology and consulting included.”

Justine Clements, Consumer Insights Manager, Samsung Electronics, Australia
“Something I have always hated is when market researchers are cast in the role of teachers and given the task of marking other people’s homework. Rather than being seen as insightful, creative consultants that add value, market research has, in the past, been used to stifle discussion and creativity. More recently we see companies trying to balance over-reliance on data science with the search for creative solutions, but it mostly comes down to the misuse of market research by people, not the market research itself.”

Mariela Mociulsky, CEO, Trendsity, Argentina
“Although Halloween is not traditionally celebrated in Argentina, a few years ago, Halloween began being celebrated in some areas as a party for children but dissociated from its cultural meaning. Socially, today there is fear of loss because of the installed uncertainty: fear of losing affections, jobs, projects and meaning. Also, the possibility of sharing, meeting yourself or someone else, the experiential experience and the exploration is appreciated. However, my biggest professional fear is that the digital revolution will compete with our discipline. As researchers, we use different tools and there is an increasing amount of data sources. Our value, at some point, could have been in data generation, but today it's all about the interpretation and articulation capacity. That fear that may exist, is important to positivize it, because what we really have is a greater number of instruments to be better researchers.”

Mark Langsfeld, CEO, mTab, and Chairman Insight250, United States
“I am horrified by the huge amounts of great work that is conducted but never used to its full potential. Work can be packed full of insights that only become relevant weeks or months after the original data presentation. Similarly, the data often contains nuggets of gold that are relevant to teams elsewhere in the enterprise but never reach them. It is important to ensure that the great work we conduct is appropriately visualized, democratized and appropriately stored to ensure it is not like a ghost - rarely visible and then only to a few individuals and quickly vanishing.”

Shirley Ng, Research Principal, Asia Pacific, Europe Russia, General Motors, China
“When I was asked to share what would be the most terrifying moment in research, it drew me to one item that I would say is irreversible, the most unchangeable element when the results are released is that “Oh, we did not get the right target audience for this business question!” I read years ago that this happened to an agency who conducted a street intercept survey on voting predictions for a political party in a specific country. The results did not remotely match the actual voting outcome. The aftermath investigation found that their sample targets were “wide of the mark.” Whether the sample script was followed closely in the field, or rules were relaxed when recruitment became difficult, not getting the right target audience for your questions would throw you back to the starting point.

“No matter how you slice and dice the data, there seems nothing you can do to correct this error by the time the survey is concluded. It left you with the only thing you can do; to fund the project again (if timing allows), and if that happens around Halloween, towards the end of the year, you find out there’s no funds left for another round. That to me, would be a real horror! All fun aside, defining the sample description is the KEY to insightful learning, it’s not just another basic task on hand.”

Pete Markey, Chief Marketing Officer, Boots, United Kingdom
“I’m a huge fan of research and its power to drive business growth. The “horror” to watch out for though is “groupthink” and the power of one or two individuals in a research group to lead and steer the others. I’ve seen it too many times where a dominant character can then steer the rest of the group down a blind alley and end up getting brands to conclude an idea doesn’t work when in fact it does, it was just the impact of a minority. This very nearly cost me a brilliant creative idea in my insurance days!”

Julia Polyakova, Head of Market Research, Toyota Motor Corporation, Russia
“A few things scare me. First, when you have two parallel quantitative studies (for example one focused on brand and another on a product), nevertheless both have few common blocks of questions. From a research point of view, you clearly understand at the beginning that you will never get the same figures from different studies like different quotas, periods, samples, and a lot of different screening criteria at the beginning. It’s totally OK that the results are different. Sometimes the business feels something terrible is happening with a lot of the questions, like, ‘Why is the result 45% for the first survey and 40% for the second?’ Panic can ensue with questions around lost market position and how to immediately react because the differences are misunderstood.

“Another frightening experience is when everyone always wants to know what the market will look like in future (e.g., five or ten years). You put in your regression model with several parameters which aggregate trends from the past and move it for future with current market situations. Certainly, you make some derivatives like optimistic, normal, and pessimistic vision, but in reality, you never can predict each situation which could influence market trends, only key factors. As a result, when someone pulls out an old forecast which was done five years ago, for example, and compares it with current conditions it’s often ignored that the market conditions were significantly different in the past.”

Joaquim Bretcha, President Ex-Officio, ESOMAR, Spain
“The worst thing that can happen is to misalign expectations with your client and find it out at the end of the process.”

James Endersby, Chief Executive Officer, Opinium, United Kingdom
“I am terrified that in 2021 we still have individuals who don’t recognize the importance of embracing diversity and inclusion because it is good for business rather than “the right thing to do”. Ensuring our profession embraces diversity in all its forms (be that age, gender, ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation et al) is a prerequisite to getting deep and meaningful insights that are relevant today. We must also be mindful that inclusion changes as society evolves. For example, increasingly we need to also be mindful of participants' access and understanding of technology to maintain representativeness.

“Similarly, I worry about the lack of focus on individuals’ mental wellbeing. All too often this can be a “tick-box” exercise. Initiatives must be relevant and practical if they are to genuinely help; again, this is good business not just morally right. Neither of these things are static, companies need to evolve their solutions to ensure they remain relevant to changing conditions.”

Fiona Blades, President & Chief Experience Officer, MESH Experience, United States
“This is a personal horror story! I was moderating some focus groups and had briefed the recruiters that we were looking to speak to women with children that shopped at a well-known store. I turned up to the viewing facility and was surprised when I saw the participants – they were slightly older than I was imagining. It was true that they all had children, but I think some even had great grandchildren. This was a good lesson early in my career on the importance of detailed briefings.”

Danny Russell, Strategic Advisor, Danny Russell Consulting, United Kingdom
“The lack of commerciality and, often, over-precious focus on the minutiae of method can still be found in our industry. It’s a debate that has been raging for years - often disguised under the old “why is research not represented in the boardroom?” discussion. There is a reason that the CEO and CFO are most often seen together whether we like it or not. Commercial implications are, in the majority of cases, the primary concern of the board and senior decision makers. To put it crassly, “money talks.” It might not be right, but it’s a fact, and something that the research sector can sometimes struggle with.

Thank you to all my interviewees who have given their insights into Halloween horrors to try to avoid.
I certainly feel there are some great tips for us all. Don’t be scared or scarred by these insight frights and hope is at hand as for Thanksgiving I’m returning to these global leaders to ask them what we have to celebrate in our profession - watch this space.