market research in toiletI read an astounding fact this week, “More Indians have used a mobile phone than a toilet”. It seemed absurd to me that a relatively new technology would outpace an old (and very useful) one. I came to realize that the absurdity was mainly due to the fact that I couldn’t imagine a world without either device and it struck me that this is an example of what ails the market research world.

The fact is that Indians have not chosen the cell phone over indoor plumbing. The former is widely available (because cell phone infrastructure is relatively easy to build) and the latter is not. So it wasn’t a choice of toilets over telcom, it was a choice of having a cell phone or not having one. Those who got the phones have begun to find uses for it that go far beyond the obvious. For example, fishermen call in while at sea to find out which port is offering the best price for their catch, thus maximizing their profits.

In Market Research we are often blinded by our experience. Instead of viewing new market research technology for its potential, we view it through the lens of what we know. When web data collection arrived, many didn’t see the opportunities it offered and instead defensively dismissed it as being inferior to existing methods and only offered the benefits of being “cheap and fast”. After more than a decade, it amazes me how many still hold this belief.


“Cheap and Fast” alone are huge benefits that should have been embraced by all. If time or budget wouldn’t allow for a phone or mail study then clearly even a flawed web study would be better than nothing. Beyond that, one would think that other advantages such as the ability to show video or pictures and the ability to do complex choice modeling (yes you can do conjoint other ways, but at great expense and time) missing the end of the sentence here. It further should have been obvious that we could abandon our over-use of rating scales (often the only practical alternative for a phone study) in favor of ranking, MaxDiff and so on.

Too often the industry saw it as a choice between the new (web) and the old (mail, phone, door to door). The reality is that it is often not a choice between two things any more than Indians choose cell phones over indoor plumbing. Yes, the web has replaced a lot of work that would have been done using other means of data collection. But it has also been additive. The faster speed, lower cost and ability to do things we couldn’t do before have created opportunities.

As we evaluate the new technologies of today (mobile, webcam-enabled eye tracking, neuroscience) we would do well to ignore what we know and consider how these new tools might help us help our clients. Spending time comparing one to the other is no more productive than trying to develop a plumbing app for your cell phone. In the end we might still decide that the old methods are superior (there are still plenty of reasons to do phone studies), but I suspect if we truly focus on these technologies as opportunities rather than threats, we’ll adopt them faster and drive better results.