As defined by Webster’s Dictionary, evolution is a process of continuous change. Webster’s Dictionary defines revolution as sudden, radical or complete change. In other words, evolution occurs gradually over a period of time, while revolution is immediate. Within the scope of modern-day marketing research, we often read that given today’s digital age, we are experiencing a revolution. Considering the current technological times, which would apply more accurately – evolution or revolution?

The question of evolution versus revolution applies not only to marketing research, but also to everyday behavior. In order to stay concise, let’s take three examples: listening to music, navigation and engaging in conversation. With respect to music, we have been listening to our favorite tunes for centuries, but it is the way we listen that has undergone change. In the past, we had routinely listened to music on vinyl records, cassette tapes and CDs. Today we listen to songs via Web-based services (i.e., Pandora) and mp3 /aac/wave formats. We listen not only on stereo systems, but also through iPods, iPhones, Androids, mp3 players, PCs, laptops, Macs and a wide array of tablets. Hence, the overall behavior of listening to music remains the same; it is how we listen that has evolved. The same can be said for navigation. At one time we used a compass or paper map to find our way around. Today we have evolved to a more technological solution with GPS. Turning to conversation and interaction, a similar dynamic applies. The way we engage one another has advanced technologically from landline telephones to e-mail to social networks on a wide array of mobile-enabled devices. We still interact with one another, just in different ways.

Evolution is not limited only to the ways we listen to music, navigate or interact. For decades, marketing research methodology has been evolving in areas such as design, implementation and analysis. For example, in design and implementation, marketing research has evolved in the way we elicit input from the market. At one time, information was gathered by going door-to-door. Eventually, marketing researchers found that techniques such as mall intercept and telephone would yield cost and time efficiency without compromising the quality of information received. Eventually, the Internet emerged as a key vehicle in gathering input. Similarly, hybrid techniques have become widely deployed where information is not collected through a sole-source technique, but in multiple ways in order to maximize the reach into certain targeted respondents. Moreover, multimode methodologies have helped us in becoming more accurate by leveraging specific techniques and enabling us to speak to precise objectives.

“As an industry, marketing research has experienced a history of increasing relevance by continuing to push the envelope in order to bring meaningful insight to stakeholders more efficiently.”

Becoming more accurate in our findings has also driven an evolution in analytics. Through advanced modeling and data visualization we have been better able to simulate market conditions. Such techniques drive more dynamic insight that we would not have been able to do solely relying on descriptive analysis. Thus, marketing research is a discipline where the one constant has been evolution. In the discipline of marketing research, we do not evolve for the sake of it but to yield more meaningful and actionable insight.

Yet as we read blogs, publications and various marketing material, marketing research revolution tends to be more widely talked about than evolution. Perhaps the best way to determine whether evolution or revolution applies is to go back and refresh ourselves on a turning point in American history when the country experienced the Industrial Revolution. The transformation was sudden; manual production was migrated to power-driven machinery in order to boost productivity and yield superior goods. Is the same occurrence happening in marketing research today? Is marketing research evolving more continuously over time or is it changing radically and instantly to the point of boosting productivity AND yielding superior services?

This question can be complex because there are so many facets of marketing research going through change. For example, arguments are made on both sides on the merits as well as the negativity associated with marketing research off-shoring. The purpose of this blog post is not to take a side on that particular issue, but to present considerations on what marketing research faces in today’s environment and to determine if those aspects of change translate more into evolution or revolution.  Assuming we use the definition of revolution applied during the Industrial Revolution, does off-shoring boost productivity and yield superior services and insight? Is it a product of gradual change?

Marketing research evolution is not limited only to off-shoring. Let’s take day-in-the life research. Whereas hard copy diaries were once the primary vehicle to secure this line of information, today we can have respondents directly enter input into automated journals or engage with ethnographers so that we capture behavior. Therefore, we have continued to gather day-in-the-life behavioral information but have evolved in how we go about attaining it. Is this evolution or a radical change?

As dramatic as certain changes may seem, are they on par with an Industrial Revolution? Turning back to our earlier definition, is the marketing research industry undergoing rapid, radical change? All this leads to why even answer the question of marketing research evolution versus revolution?

The foundation of marketing research, whether we look to the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and into the 2000s, revolves around accuracy and truth. Absent accuracy and truth, we lack credibility. As an industry, marketing research has experienced a history of increasing relevance by continuing to push the envelope in order to bring meaningful insight to stakeholders more efficiently. By making claims that we have radically changed the manner in which we conduct research, we could be undermining our credibility. Let’s be aware of our history and then move forward with marketing messages that accurately depict where we are today. Truth is central to marketing research. If we start out with a false premise then we have no chance on restoring the credibility we have built over a long period of time.

Are we in a period of marketing research revolution? A simple look to our past may hold the answer.