Market research is a) magic, b) madness or c) all of the above.

Having been in market research for over twenty years, I’ve seen a lot of what our profession has to offer. Earned some credit for it, too: received the MOA award for ‘Researcher of the year’ in 2013, nominated for the Innovation Award in 2011.

Together with the smart people at Winkle, the market research agency I co-founded in 2007 and part of Happen Group, we conducted some several hundred research projects for a dizzying variety of clients, in a dazzling diversity of markets.

Market research can be a wild ride — ours has been so far, at least.

Today, we’re launching a series of articles that will articulate some of the insights we’ve developed over the years. We’re calling it ‘Riding the Curve’ and we’re going to try and publish new additions at regular intervals — say, once every two months. By we, I mean myself and the people that have helped shape these ideas for the past decade or so: amiable experts at Winkle, at Happen, and a host of others I’ve come to know and appreciate. We’ll be inviting them in from time to time, to drop a line where it fits.

The ambition is to add a useful series of smaller and larger bits of insight to the already substantial pool of knowledge in market research. The main question we’ll ask:

How can the science of market research best aid the art of innovation?

I hope you’ll join us for the ride.

Riding the Curve

The ‘Curve’ to ‘ride’ here is of course the S-Curve as first described by Gabriel Tarde in 1903. Tarde discovered that the ‘life’ of most successful innovations followed the same S-shaped kind of pattern of launch, uptake, maturity and expiration. Since that discovery, the S-curve has been extremely useful to innovators everywhere. Big brands and start-ups alike have used the Curve to try and predict the path their cherished invention might take.

Tarde’s S-Curve, with captions.

Such predictive power is usually in high demand — hence the popularity of market research in general. Introducing new products often feels like shooting at a fish in a pitch-black pond — at night, while blindfolded…! The hopeful entrepreneur, or marketing director has only one launch, a single shot to fire — at a market that appears to behave completely unpredictably (see image to the right). It’s insightful theories such as Tarde’s S-curve, that at least give the hopeful innovator something to plot a successful product lifecycle through — even if the targeted market remains a mystery.

Source: Inside Out, (Disney Pixar)

Which is where this series comes in. We’re going to explore how a new application of the S-Curve may aid innovators, start-ups and most certainly market researchers alike in their pursuit of the holy grail: a successful product launch. It’s a take on the Curve that keeps raising eyebrows among my audiences of entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, innovators and marketers.

“It’s the market, stupid”

What we realised over the past years of research is that markets… do evolve in patterns that are just as S-curve shaped as the life cycles of the products that enter them.

Innovators seem to treat the market into which they’re about to launch as a given. The market is unpredictable, they say. Not in the least, we say. Markets may be analysed through the exact same lifecycle frame. And viewing the subject from that perspective, well, let’s just say it tells us some interesting things — so stay with us.

The why behind this writing

Source: Thundafund.com

Tipping the hat to Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle, I think I should spend some words here on why I’ve decided to start this series. The reason isn’t just that I’m now in position to reflect on a rich and fascinating string of enquiries; it isn’t because I’m just so happy to be in this fantastic line of business, either.

Why do I feel like I’m the only one who feels great about being a market researcher?

Market research gets a lot criticism and mistrust from the public at large. What’s worse:

I often get the feeling that fellow market researchers themselves aren’t even proud of the work they do.

Ours is a business where under-appreciation seems to be the norm, and… I think that’s wholly inappropriate.

Market research deserves a break.

When we do our work properly, market researchers are the Sherlock Holmes of business. We figure out the dots and we connect them. We separate astute deduction from casual speculation; we apply method to the apparent madness of markets. And in doing so, we often help business bring fantastic things to people everywhere. So I guess… I’m in it to help market researchers everywhere a little prouder of what they do and what they can achieve.

To do that, we’re going to illustrate, in an alternated series of case studies and theoretical exposition, how market research can contribute to a successfully planned and executed product launch and how it has done so time and time again.

Separate the wheat from the chaff

So, if market research can help secure a successful launch, why doesn’t it prevent all those misfires and wasted millions? Let me cut to the chase here and say that there’s no such thing, as the golden approach and I’m pretty sceptical this will be found during my life time. But there are ways to assess the potential of your research.

Source: Dilbert.com

We’re going to show how many of the millions routinely spent on ultimately not-so-useful research might have been identified at the start as a waste of time. And I’m not just talking about faulty scientific rigour. Neither am I talking about the vilified, trumped up ‘straw man’ research commissioned by brands that just want something that looks scientific to help them make a point.

I’m talking about honest-to-goodness, scientifically formulated research questions, meant to help genuine commercial ambitions — that fail to find a meaningful answer.

Market research is a tool, and like any tool it only works magic in the hands of a skilled craftsman. Ah, but how to identify the skilled market researcher? Something we aim to bring across in this series, as well…

To summarise:

1) we’re going to dive into an interesting bit of theory for the innovation-minded;

2) we’re going to help everyone feel a lot better about market research;

3) we’re going to identify what makes a solid market researcher;

4) and help those market researchers feel a bit better about themselves;

5) we’re going to make excursions into whatever takes our fancy along the way: ethics, anecdotes, world views, secrets of the trade…

In short — what’s not to like? Riding the Curve is going to be an interesting romp I’m sure, and I hope to see you for the next instalment.

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