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The Future of Insights: Will Clients and Suppliers Meet in the Middle?

The Future of Insights: Will Clients and Suppliers Meet in the Middle?

David Krajicek

Let’s not fool ourselves: The future of the insights industry is today. The advent of the “always-on” lifestyle, fueled by technology, has allowed consumers to take part in any number of real-time activities from powerful personal devices: sharing an activity or an opinion with a friend (or a brand), shopping for new shoes, or watching a favorite YouTube channel. This reality will continue to not just transform our lifestyles and our economy; it will fundamentally change market research as well. 

As consumers engage more and more in the digital economy, these activities throw off digital “exhaust”—bits of information that leave a trace of our digital behaviors, from viewing habits to buying preferences to social media exchanges. The proliferation of this digital exhaust (some call it Big Data) is the currency of change that will continue to transform the practice of market research. The implication is simple: brands and marketers have a wealth of data at their disposal even before they put out their first RFPs or field a single survey. While “traditional” survey-based research will remain a tool in the marketing arsenal, it is just one input to the decisions clients need to make and, many times, they are being asked to make those decisions while research budgets are under pressure and insights teams are trimmed.


In the midst of this whirlwind of transformation, researchers have a clear choice. They can cling to old models and ride out the era of siloed information-gathering using time-honored survey methods and analyses. There is still some residual steam in this engine, so it will keep moving for a little while, albeit slower and slower. Or researchers can rebuild their vehicles while speeding down the highway, combining the knowledge they have gained over the years with some new skills to meet the challenge, and calling in a host of new talent to help them tap new sources of energy and smarter vehicle designs.

With an eye toward staying a few car lengths ahead of change, GfK and the Institute for International Research (IIR) reached out to hundreds of marketers, researchers, and other market research users to understand where we are and what the future may hold. Knowing how much change has already occurred, we chose not to look at some distant time; who can possibly say where we will be ten years from now, given the pace of evolution in digital technology and marketing itself? Instead, we asked about two years from now—close enough to be imaginable, using today’s bearings, but still a ways down the road. The 700-plus research pros who answered us—clients and suppliers alike, in roughly equal numbers—gave us a remarkable, inspiring and sometimes sobering look at consumer insights in a new time and place. Very few seem to think that the future will look just like the past, but what goals, methods and data sources will matter most still is open for debate. ​

Getting Data Without Surveys

We have all heard that Big Data—in general, passively collected data capturing consumers’ activities in the digital world—will have a huge impact on decision making. For some, it is already indispensable, but others seem to view it as a distant destination more than a clear and present resource. Today, only 12% of clients and 13% of suppliers see passively collected, consumer-specific information as an important source of insights, but those numbers more than double when looking two years out: 30% for clients and 27% for suppliers. We see an equally dramatic shift—in the opposite direction—when it comes to the value of custom surveys today and tomorrow. While almost half (46%) of both groups feel surveys are essential today, that figure drops to 29% for two years from now, bringing it roughly into parity with passive data.

When asked what data sources they will be using in two years, however, both clients and suppliers paint a very different picture. Roughly two-thirds (68% of clients, 69% of suppliers) say they are not using passive data and will not start using it by 2017. A relatively paltry one-quarter (25% clients, 26% suppliers) are not using it today but expect to be doing so two years out. The groups that expect to be using mobile apps for data collection two years from now are roughly double those for passive data. 

This simultaneous “approach and avoid” attitude around passive data is perhaps the single biggest challenge facing the industry. We recognize that it needs to happen, we want to get there, but few have the confidence or the vision about how to proceed. 

Clients and Suppliers: Same issues, Different Priorities

Clients and suppliers largely agreed on the key organizational issues facing the industry, both present and future: Budget limitations continue to be paramount, but there is also emerging concern about talent and training, combining multiple data sources and regulatory/privacy concerns. The results also showed important points of division between research firms and their customers. In general, clients were looking for dramatic innovation while suppliers were focused on incremental change—improving what we have instead of starting over. Clients are also more focused on the “So what?” aspect of research—learning for a purpose and with real practical use. 

For example, when asked what is the biggest “gap” in the market research industry today, clients were more likely to cite data integration to inform storytelling (31% versus 23%)—a more strategic topic—while suppliers showed greater concern about data quality (20% versus 15%), which leans toward the technical and tactical. Here, we see clients’ interest in “storytelling” as a proxy for actionability; if you can tell a story with the data, then you know how to apply it to real situations and glean some ROI. New insight, whatever the quality of data that it is based on, will be valued only if it can be activated to drive business growth.

Clients also place greater emphasis on speed to market—innovation that slows things down is of no interest to them. “Better” must include “faster” or be dismissed out of hand. Among market research professionals who say that generating actionable insights is a key challenge, almost half (45%) of clients said their business is impacted by “increased difficulty providing timely answers to business questions,” while just 28% of suppliers consider this a problem.

The truth is that clients and suppliers are flying down the same speedway together in the same slightly vintage sports car. They may disagree on which stops they are making, but they both are deeply invested in keeping this engine of insights and decision making going. We will be using this study as a continuing source of dialogue and discovery in the weeks and months to come, and we invite the industry to collaborate on its shared future—one rich in possibilities and rife with challenges.  

David Krajicek is a member of the GfK management board and chief commercial officer of GfK Consumer Experiences.