It seems, at times, that the research industry is tripping over itself to clarify what it should be called and what is within the realms of research and what isn’t. As every new methodology or capability is introduced it causes the research industry to take another look at itself and try and decide exactly what it is.

Over the last 10 years or so we have experienced a Cambrian explosion of new methodologies and ways of understanding the consumer. ‘Methodology of the month’ at the moment is big data, but we have also seen the rise of social listening, mobile research, the gamification of surveys, and facial coding in recent years. As well as this, technological changes have allowed more qualitative approaches such as ethnographies and accompanied shops to be a lot less intrusive, with micro cameras as one example of helping to make qualitative research a lot more immersive.

In line with these emerging methodologies has been the addition of new skill sets to the research industry; such as data scientists, neuroscientists, and experts in computer programming. 

The point is that all of these new innovations and methodologies have expanded the field of research to the point of breaking. Traditionally, we all understood the separation between qualitative and quantitative research. But now we are increasingly seeing these terms become even more fragmented. The outputs, best practice and terminology of big data is a world away from, say, gamification of surveys, which none the less still sits neatly in the field of quantitative research.

And yet, we still refer to ourselves singularly as research.

This doesn’t do anyone any good. If we all call ourselves the same thing, then it encourages misunderstanding and opposition to each other’s offers. All of the new methodologies have something to offer – just as traditional CATI surveys and focus groups still have a role to play – but we need to be clear when we should use them. Social listening is different from big data. That doesn’t make one better than the other.

Just as when a doctor will use a stethoscope to listen to your chest. But an auriscope to look in your ears, and a reflex hammer to check your reflexes. It’s not to say that a stethoscope is inferior, it’s just not right for every situation.

However, if we refer to every approach simply as research then we are being unnecessarily reductive. We are papering over the realities of the differences in our approaches, and worst of all making the job of the client that much harder. Meaning they may find themselves using an inappropriate approach for their particular objective, which serves no one and only leads to frustration and disappointment for everyone. And ultimately a loss of face for the research industry at large.

Why can’t we take inspiration from the creative industries? There is no such thing as a single kind of ad. There is outdoor advertising; TV; social; online; radio; cinema, and so on. Each type of ad clearly differentiated from the other, with differences in best practice. Each medium has its own strengths and weaknesses, none are better or worse, but each are suited to a particular situation.

Each medium has its own strengths and weaknesses, none are better or worse, but each are suited to a particular situation.

Or how about marketing? The Agency of the Year awards have 6 different entries for marketing (content marketing; CRM & Loyalty marketing; Event Marketing; Mobile marketing; Search Marketing; and Social Marketing). Not only does this show that the marketing industry realizes there is more than one way of marketing a brand, it also shows that the awards’ hosts, Marketing Magazine, see the value in each and every one of these marketing approaches.

Research, in contrast, only has one award in Agency of the Year.

Surely this is fundamentally wrong? The strengths, and value to a client, of an international research house that specializes in brand tracking is completely different from that of a qualitative boutique; which are both different again from a big data firm and an insight consultancy more adept at social listening or mobile research. Yet we are all asked to compete in the same award under the same inappropriately reductive term, research.

Isn’t it about time we embraced the differences within the research world for the strengths they are; celebrate that we’re an industry that keeps on diversifying our offer, rather than constantly infighting that the latest approach is the best?

The start point for this is for awards ceremonies to realize there is more than one approach to research, and to acknowledge this. As we go forward the winners of these categories – be it big data, or insight consultancy, or brand tracking, or social listening, or however we may divide the awards – can be the champions for that approach, helping to solidify in the clients’ mind, and in the eyes of business at large, that they have a real choice of what research to undertake.

Research as a single industry is dead. Let’s not pretend otherwise, which helps no one. Instead let’s celebrate how wonderfully varied, and different and exciting research has become, and hopefully continues to be.