Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Man Who Invented the Synthesizer has a Lesson for Market Researchers

On the last day of FOCI14, Ray Kurzweil gave an inspiring talk about rapid rates of innovation advancement, and how most people underestimate them. Kurzweil is uniquely qualified to talk about innovation; unlike most speakers, he has actually accomplished it. He’s the inventor behind optical character recognition (OCR), print-to-speech reading for the visually-impaired, and perhaps most famously for the first music synthesizer that recreates orchestral instrument sounds, including the piano. Use Dragon dictate software? Thank Ray.

So what does this have to do with market research? Why would the Future of Consumer Intelligence have Ray as one of their featured keynotes?

The connection is actually pretty simple; we market researchers struggle with innovation in our industry.  We often debate:
·    Which innovations are likely to be adopted by actual paying customers (whether corporate researchers or research firms)?
·     Which ones are just hype?

After all, nobody wants to “miss the boat”, but we also don’t want to get distracted by false hopes.
But while we struggle with it, Ray seems to have developed some ways of thinking about innovation that may help.

Exponential versus Linear Thinking
First, Ray promotes the power of exponential growth, which he himself stated can be hard to understand. And, he said, the concept of exponential growth can be met with skepticism. As evidence, Ray mentioned how in the early 1980s, he predicted a worldwide internet connecting 100s of millions of people by the late 90s. But back then, his colleagues thought he was crazy because at the time the ARPANET (the DOD’s network which is often credited as the “first” version the internet) was connecting only 2,000 scientists. But Ray points out that their assumptions about potential growth and scale was based on linear thinking. He was thinking exponentially. And now we know, he was right.

Of course, predicting future outcomes based on “exponential” growth assumptions isn’t perfect. Though Ray asserts that of his many predictions, 86% have been correct.
Or more simply: some innovations are poised to be revolutionary, and they will grow exponentially.

So are there innovations in market research that y be hard to grasp because they represent “exponential” versus linear growth? Hold that thought! Let’s get to part two of his thesis first.

All in the Timing
In part of his FOCI14 keynote, Ray pointed to the well-known hype curve, a model of thinking about the phases of adoption for innovative products. While the hype curve’s validity can be debated, and is (see article), the basic concept is certainly supported by lots of anecdotal cases.  An innovative new technology or invention gets launched, and phases of early-enthusiasm lead to over-inflated expectations (hype), get followed by phases of disillusionment, then ultimately, actual growth. Well, for successful products, growth. For the others, a slow death may be the outcome.

Or more simply, some ideas put forth as “innovative” simply are not destined for success; these things will likely die in the disillusionment phase, or remain very niche markets.

Exponential Thinking Tempered by Timing
As Ray was giving his talk, his two lessons seemed to intersect. On one hand, we have to be prepared for innovations that truly can develop at an exponential rate—causing significant disruption to existing ways of doing things.  On the other, we have to be cautious about overhyped innovations—not every innovation presented as an ultimate growth area will survive the disillusionment phase; some will simply die.

How does this apply to market research? I see three take aways:

1.   Watch out for “innovations” in the hype phase. Big data and social media research both seem to be on the cusp of the disillusionment phases; overhyped and maybe overpromised. Does that mean they will end up discarded? I don’t think so (I for one have had some great successes with SMR), but rumors of their market research world dominance will certainly be adjusted.

2.   Have a way of assessing if something is truly innovative. We have to be wary of what gets promoted as innovative. To me something is only a market research innovation if it fundamentally changes the cost, speed and/or qualify of our work as researchers.  Something that is cool, but doesn’t actually bring anything new to the table in terms of how we discover or measure customer attitudes and behaviors, is likely to be an interesting diversion—not something destined for exponential growth.

3.   Take lessons from past market research innovations that have grown exponentially. The only example I can think of that comes close is the growth of online surveys. No matter how you measure it, the growth has been more than linear: number of projects, number of completes, or revenue (from software sales, online panel sales, and related online survey tools). So ask yourself, of all the solutions being put forth as innovative in research today, do you see any as likely to grow as rapidly as did online surveys?

This post was written by Kathryn Korostoff. Kathryn is the President of Research Rockstar, the only independent company dedicated to market research training (online and in-person).  Many of Research Rockstar's classes are MRA-certified, and Research Rockstar offers class bundles leading to MRA Certification. She is also offering FOCI attendees a free class here: CLICK.   KKorostoff@ResearchRockstar.com, 508.691.6004 ext 705, @ResearchRocks.

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