From operators to digital exchanges – where research has to go next

Operator
I'm completely behind on the blogging front but here is an attempt to catch up with a little substance.

This is the other theme I raised on Richard Gilmore's panel at the MRS conference.

Once upon a time the way we made telephone calls was to place a call using an operator who literally plugged in the connection. While the call was live no one else could use that wire.  Although by this time 2 people could hold a conversation without saying OVER.  And this is where research has got stuck.  The circuit has to be isolated from the marketing conversation to prevent selling 'contaminating' it.  Strenuous attempts are made to preserve the anonymity of respondents and even (outrageously I think) the anonymity of the client should the client require it. So research becomes a peculiar exchange in quasi artificial conditions. The operator stayed involved and might even eavesdrop (in certain cultures) to make sure the conversation was legal/not political. I wrote a thought piece in the International Journal of Market Research (IJMR) at the end of 2008 on this very issue of anonymity and why we have to get rid of it. Stay tuned – this is the line of argument I followed.

What happened in telephony next was the introduction of the automatic exchange – anyone could call anyone else without requesting a connection. So a lot more calls got made.

Next came the digital exchange where the audio (and eventually data) was put in packets and modulated onto the same wire. In both directions – with encryption so we are totally unaware that hundreds of conversations and megabytes of data are travelling down the same wires. All at the same time. The conversation between client and customers is capable of multiplexing to the same speeds and levels of complexity.

Digital exchange
The current framing of research doesn't allow us to do this. And because marketing and gathering customer information are mutually exclusive activities we are stuck in the analogue age. With research companies as the operators manually plugging in connections. Research will shrivel up and die unless we find a way around this bottleneck. Of course we can get data off customers without going into a mumbled research preamble. People do it all the time in business to business.  What we have to do is to modify both discourses – the naked selling of products – which is less and less effective. And the stilted faux discourse of intelligence gathering which by and large insults and bores the customer's own intelligence.  Once freed from the constraint of choosing to do either selling or customer info gathering we can focus on making it engaging and doing content trading. Much reseach is subdata anyway. It is endlessly redundant the same basic data being gathered over and over again. Much of the questioning is designed to test the truthfulness of the respondent.  We need questioning techniques which make the whole exchange of question and answer much more interesting and rewarding.

But remember the bottleneck. At present we aren't permitted as researchers to go digital. The first person to crack gathering data from the customer without using market research methods and outwith the code will start a stampede of clients. Because it will transform the volume and cost of data gathered. We may even find that people enjoy participating – they may not even notice the information that is being gathered.  The protection around research was always in part an interface culture between an organisation and a series of individuals. And the code was designed to manage the inequalities between them. In a digital world the inequality has become meaningless. Always on research and selling is a possibility once we accept it as a challenge and set out to crack it. If research survives it will do so by changing out of all recognition. 

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