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Give Thanks for the Unknown

1620 mayflower rockThis month here in the States we will be celebrating our biggest secular holiday, Thanksgiving.   Traditionally, the holiday is thought to have started when early settlers to the "new" world, the Pilgrims, sat down to have a meal to celebrate the harvest with the Native American's who had befriended them. As we begin to close out 2011 in an industry facing an uncertain future, I was struck by the similarities between those early settlers and market researchers today.

On the surface the story of adventurers seeking a better life is a bit different than the story of boring market researchers seeking to survive, but I disagree.

As an industry we are being buffeted by market forces including commoditization, respondent engagement, new competitors (such as facebook), falling budgets and ever increasing amounts of free data available for analysis.    The Pilgrims were of course literally buffeted by rough seas in their travel through largely uncharted waters (their journey occurred in 1620, just over 100 years after Columbus returned to inform Europe of the "new" world. It is also important to note that just as we didn't choose to face the uncertainty we face today, the Pilgrims did not embark on this journey to have an adventure, they did so to avoid religious persecution back in England.

Over the past 10 years we've seen many challenges that have altered the face of our industry.   In the '90s the advent of doing surveys on the web upended the dominance of phone, with predictions that within 5 years no one would be doing phone surveys anymore. At first everyone saw this as a means to make research cheap...or cheapen research, depending on your perspective. In reality the web did make research cheaper, but it didn't kill phone interviewing (at least not yet). While an argument can be made that the quality of research has slipped (falling response rates and professional respondents are frequently cited) a counter argument can be made that in addition to making things cheaper, web interviewing has allowed us to do things that were difficult or impossible to do on the phone such as discrete choice, max-diff or configurators. The challenges that followed, be they CRM, off shoring, social media or whatever, all altered our course, but ultimately successful companies adapted and thrived.

The Pilgrims did not set out to form a colony in what is now Plymouth Massachusetts, they were aiming for an area just south of what is now New York City. By the time they arrived there was  some dissention which led to the creation of the Mayflower Compact, an agreement between the settlers on how the colony would be governed.   Once they landed they faced shortages of food, sometimes contentious interactions with the locals, disease, weather and various other problems. Half of them died within a year of their landing.

And yet, with a still uncertain future, they chose to sit down and celebrate a successful harvest.Think about it, they faced a far more uncertain future than we do (market research may be challenging but I'm hard pressed to turn it into a life and death struggle) and yet they saw much to be thankful for.

In the end, I don't know if they'd be proud of where America has gone, but there is no argument that many of the things that still mark America today, such as religious freedom and self rule, were influenced by their thinking.

So I'll take a page from them and be thankful.

  • Thankful for the challenges our clients have thrown our way and for partnering with us to find solutions.
  • Thankful for the challenges to come, the promise that the new techniques and new sources of data offer us and the opportunities to influence the future of the industry.

President, TRC


Rich brings a passion for quantitative data and the use of choice to understand consumer behavior to his blog entries. His unique perspective has allowed him to muse on subjects as far afield as Dinosaurs and advanced technology with insight into what each can teach us about doing better research.  

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