Four experts on the future of market research – 7 trends

The world is changing at a rapid pace and the way market research is conducted, is completely different from how it was just five or ten years ago. What are the trends for the next couple of years and where is the profession heading? We asked four experienced experts. “A respondent should no longer be considered a commodity.”


Let’s start with an optimist. For Jolien Schelstraete, marketing manager at Alpro (a division of Danone), the glass is half full when it comes to the future of market research. “It will become more and more accessible, faster and personal in the next couple of years,” she says. “Technology, in particular, has accelerated this. Today, one-on-one interventions are becoming possible, and we are learning things that we would never have discovered in the focus groups and quantitative studies of yore. We can also distinguish things much better now at different levels within groups, for example, by age or persona. Data and technology have made market research results almost granular.”

Trend 1 – New possibilities thanks to technology

And technology has made a lot of other things possible too, Schelstraete argues. “We are evolving into a society where more and more products are tailored and on demand. There are no standards anymore. At the coffee machine, my coffee has a slightly different composition than the coffee of the next person. I use so many grams of those beans, oat drink instead of milk and no sugar, and the pressure with which my espresso is made is perfectly adjusted to my wishes. That is why coffee machines, for example, will also become sources of market research. The big challenge for companies here is to deal with the ever faster changing environment. If nothing is fixed yet, you must be constantly agile. And that’s not always easy.”

Trend 2 – Sincerity and purpose

Wouter Samyn of Indiville sees this transition quite differently. “If I look very critically, I think very little has actually changed,” he says. “In its pure form, market research is about surveying people to gain insight into opinions and how we behave towards brands and organizations, which allows brands and organizations to determine their strategies. And yes, there are new methods and methodologies and yes, things like AI are coming on strong, which we are not blind to and which we are using in fact. But that’s not actually where the big changes of today are.”

Those changes are, however, quite visible in three major trends for the coming years, Samyn believes. “The first trend I see is a kind of new ‘sincerity’ among clients. Purpose is really becoming a basic principle. More than ever, companies realize that they are embedded in our society. And you can see that in the kinds of questions they ask. That shows that brands see that there is, for example, a sustainability problem. Or that we are facing a climate challenge. For say, Spa, it used to be important to answer the question: how can we get people to drink more Spa? Today, Spa also wants to know: how can we get people to drink more water? That’s an important, social nuance. Decathlon doesn’t just want to know how to get more people into its stores, it wants to know how to get people to do more sports. Everyone is talking these days about how job applicants are looking for purpose in their jobs. Well, in our opinion, that trend has certainly reached the profession of marketing manager and brand manager as well.”

Trend 3 – Relevance & transparency

A second trend also hooks into this, Samyn says. “Relevance and transparency are becoming more important. The time when respondents were regarded as a kind of commodity is coming to an end. “A respondent costs two euros per head and about ten euros for a higher profile.” That should no longer be the way to reason. A respondent has become something valuable. These are people who want to teach you something about your organization. They want to know what you are going to do with their answers, what concrete actions you are going to take in response. They should be treated with respect, by asking them as few stupid questions as possible (laughs). In the 90s, for example, you had no competition from Facebook and Instagram for people’s time. Now we have to politely ask for their attention, and that’s when relevance becomes much more important.”

That also compels researchers to address topics that are more socially relevant, Samyn says. “When you address a social theme, the non-response in your responses drops tremendously. People are also much more willing to answer open-ended questions or participate in focus groups. During COVID we did a survey of 8- to 18-year-olds, a notoriously difficult target group, for the Children’s Rights Commission, about how they felt. There were 44,000 responses to that. The success was made possible by a collaboration between different youth experts from different organizations and a communication campaign to encourage participation in the survey. So, it is possible to have marketers pull these kinds of actions, as long as they manage to bring out the relevance.”

Trend 4 – Collaboration

A third trend Samyn sees has also been driven by COVID, he says. “As a research firm, we quite often get the same research questions from different organizations. Whereas in the past we often drew a blank when we suggested doing certain research together with other organizations, today you see more rapprochement and networking between such organizations and companies. By bringing them together under one research objective, your research often becomes better and more efficient. During the pandemic, the NMBS, STIB, De Lijn and TEC worked together to map the impact of the crisis on public transport. Before, they hardly knew each other. And that goes beyond government agencies. Decathlon and Delhaize are also working together on healthy food. In the past people would have said, de facto: that’s not going to work. Today I mainly hear: let’s try it.

Trend 5 – One size no longer fits all

For Nathalie Van Doorslaer of b²sense, market research remains an indispensable tool for companies to choose the right path. “The need for information remains gigantic”, she says. “The world is changing at a rapid pace, business leaders want to know where they stand and what direction it is heading. Interacting with your customers and prospects and talking to them helps with this. Traditional methods like the phone or face-to-face conversation remain hugely important, especially in B2B. Still more so than AI or big data. I also see that market research is becoming more and more customized, because that is necessary to understand your customers well. One size fits all no longer exists.”

That these “traditional” methods continue to retain their value has a simple reason, says Van Doorslaer: they provide better, more in-depth answers. “Online, a grade is given. But what’s behind that grade? Often you don’t know that. In our call center, people are trained to ask through. Over the past two years, we have gotten to know online qualitative research better. In the future, we will focus on a mix of online and offline. Offline will continue to have value when it comes to more complex subjects or specific target groups. I also see that market research links up more and more with business processes and thus has more impact on the decisions that are taken.”

Trend 6 – the search for security

Gerd Callewaert of Ipsos notes that market research experienced a robust resurgence after the corona pandemic and that it is still smoldering. “That’s a phenomenon we see with every crisis,” he says. “We need to bring certainty in times of uncertainty and provide some form of security. A couple of new trends have emerged from corona, that have since become the “new normal.” The digital gathering of data, for example. Especially in qualitative research, the use of digital communities, team interviews and digital work sessions has increased enormously. At the same time, we also see a revival of telephone research. Simply because face-to-face interviews were not allowed during corona. The economic feasibility of face-to-face interviews is also under pressure: after corona there are still too few interviewers active, and the interviewees are often older people. The government, the media, and universities in particular, three customer groups that use face-to-face a lot, will have to adopt. The media are already doing that. The other two still have a long way to go.”

The story of purely passive measurement is also pushing against its limits, Callewaert thinks. “That was the ‘holy grail’ until a few years ago. Why would you still ask people where they’ve been, when you can track them on their smartphone? Why would you ask them which radio station they were listening to, when you can listen in on their phone? The ever-increasing pressure for and regulation of privacy has thrown a spanner in the works here. Such methods might still be used for very specific applications, but a general breakthrough will occur much more slowly than we used to think.”

Trend 7 – DIY leads to wrong conclusions

Another trend Callewaert sees is that companies that have thrown themselves into the DIY trend over the past two years, will wake up with a hangover. “Just shoving software into employees’ hands and then assuming the best…it simply doesn’t work. We see serious problems emerging with sampling (who is being surveyed), with the questioning and with the interpretation of the results. Sometimes these problems are so serious, that completely wrong conclusions are drawn. The first signs of this hangover are already visible.”

That is not to say that DIY will stop, says Callewaert. “It is going to evolve towards ‘supported’ DIY though. One will have to call on experts to help, so it will be software plus services. That’s where I think there’s also a role and an opportunity for traditional market research firms. The young, digital hipsters often don’t want to take on the role of service provider. They prefer to remain perceived as hip technology startups.”

As for the entire landscape, Callewaert also sees a new wave of fragmentation coming in the coming months and years. “The consolidation at the beginning of this century, when the big networks emerged, is a thing of the past. On the contrary, in recent years we have seen the reverse movement, with, for example, Gfk divesting part of its market research activities. At the same time, there is actually no real decline in demand, so new, smaller players are likely to emerge in the coming years.”

That does sometimes present customers with a problem, according to the Ipsos chief. “They are often not used to dealing with several different agencies, and that presents them with challenges: how can all those vendors speak with one voice? How do you differentiate between generalists and niche players? How do you get consistent quality out of your research? I fear that this trend will also be bad for the investment climate in the industry. Who has made the major investments in recent years? The big agencies, because they had the means. You can’t possibly expect that from small agencies with two or three people.”

Consultants looking for impact

To conclude, Callewaert puts his finger on an old sore in the world of market research. “As a market researcher, having an impact on business decisions and being taken seriously remains an enormous challenge. There are a lot of forces at play in those decisions, from economic priorities to challenging business cases to visionary CEOs, and often the market researcher doesn’t have the full picture at his disposal to really weigh in on the direction that is taken. That’s why we will have to spend a lot of time and energy in the coming years on making our impact demonstrable. For some reason, the consultants manage this much better. During corona, they did an enormous amount of research into the “new consumer” and had an impact. Often with exactly the same data as we had at our disposal. That means we should be able to have that impact too.”