Key Trends That Will Define B2B Market Research in 2021 – And Beyond

The B2B market research industry is experiencing significant changes due to technology, data privacy challenges, competition, and a shift towards value-driven approaches. Face-to-face interviewing is being replaced by mobile surveys and observational research apps. Automation and machine learning are reshaping data collection and analysis. Data privacy regulations pose challenges. Increased competition comes from DIY projects and non-research firms entering the space. The market is splitting between large tech-driven agencies and smaller, value-add consultancy partners focused on human insights. The industry is evolving towards agility and strategic expertise.


Back at the dawn of time – or 2013, as it was also known – the CEO of Ipsos Loyalty Germany, Ralf Ganzenmüller, made a bold prediction in a state of the industry report.
“I anticipate that by 2020, half of what the industry does today will no longer exist, and the speed of this evolutionary process is increasing each year.”
He was wrong. Or at least a bit out with his timings. Much of what was going on in the market research industry back then is fundamentally still standard practice today.
Future ‘trends’ often tend to be really either longer-term shifts coming to fruition or current norms simply finding a new face.
2020 feels a bit different, though. The next decade was already shaping up to be a period of significant disruption. And that’s before coronavirus roared onto the scene.
Buffeted by technological and social winds and then lashed by the full-blown hurricane of a global pandemic, genuine root and branch changes seem likely.
From shifts in methodology and structure to technological developments, here are a few key trends that will almost certainly define the B2B market research industry over the next year or two.

Top B2B Marketing Trends-

  1. Less Face Time
  2. Rise Of The Machines
  3. Data Privacy Challenges
  4. More Competition
  5. A Size vs. Value Split

1. Less Face Time

Coronavirus changed everything. Whichever way you come at it, life is not going to go completely back to normal any time soon.
In market research one of the more profound coronavirus-driven changes is likely to be the long-term reduction in face-to-face interviewing.
Like working from home and transferring ever more of our shopping online in our personal lives, it will almost certainly stick in the long-run in the name of efficiency and, frankly, habit.
Here are two of the main ways in which the B2B market research industry will adapt to the enforced shift away from face-to-face contact.

a) More Mobile-Only Surveys:

A shade over 51% of the world’s web traffic was thought to be on a mobile device in 2020.
So it’s no surprise that market research surveys would follow suit, with more and more being built and remotely completed purely on mobile.
With higher rejection rates amongst panel respondents being offset by lower costs and an increased panelist pool size to pick from, it’s safe to say that this trend’s here to stay.

b) More App-Enabled Observational Research:

In the B2B market research world we’ve already witnessed a gradual shift towards ethnographic research.
This offshoot from anthropology is a qualitative method where researchers observe a participant in their normal, everyday environment.
Recent events have made in-person observation more of a challenge. But the rise of observational research apps that allow researchers to observe participants’ behavior in a natural setting will go some way towards counteracting it.

2. Rise Of The Machines

According to a McKinsey report, 60% of jobs “have more than 30% of activities that are technically automatable”.
If a task is routine or repetitive, then its executor is obviously more at risk from being replaced by a faster, more efficient machine. And that’s as true in market research as anywhere else.
‘Big qual’ – the process of analyzing large volumes of unstructured or open-ended data – has been standard practice for years now.
Similarly, machine learning-driven pattern recognition in data will be increasingly used to support certain analyses like segmentation. Chatbots are also being employed more and more in some quantitative interviews and surveys.
Will this turn out to be a threat or an opportunity for research professionals? As with so many disruptive forces, the answer is: a bit of both.

3. Data Privacy Challenges

For many US-based marketers and researchers GDPR came and went with a bit of a shrug. (Europe’s a long way away, right?)
CCPA is different. It’s one of our own. And, if it hasn’t already, it will be coming to affect a research project near you soon.
Signed into law back in 2018, to quote IA the California Consumer Privacy Act is a “complicated, confusing and comprehensive state privacy law that impacts most marketing research and data analytics companies…”
What does it mean for B2B research companies? The challenges undoubtedly run deeper in the B2C world, where a lot more consumer data is collected day-to-day as a matter of course, than in B2B.
But even the most exacting collectors of B2B consumer data will have to think hard about how safely they’re handling and storing it.
From safeguarding personal data against security breaches, and updates to software and systems to legal consultation and training, everyone is likely to feel some sort of cost in time and resource.

4. More Competition

One of the biggest shifts the B2B market research industry is likely to undergo as the twenties lengthen is also one of its biggest threats: increased competition.
This will come primarily in a couple of forms:

a) From DIY Projects

Firstly, we will see the continued increase in ‘DIY’ projects carried out by in-house teams.
From Confirm it (survey creation and distribution) to Qualtrics (analysis and reporting) and Tableau (visualization) – and any number of other tools – research tools will be increasingly available.
To compound the situation, B2B research agencies will almost certainly also see ongoing budget cuts. This is not just as a result of the economic downturn, but also as part of a general, persistent economy drive.
Researchers will have to adapt quickly. One way to do that is to accept this new reality, adopt a more agile, open, consultative approach and train the client.

b) From Other Intelligence Sources

There’s no shortage of data in 2020. From business intelligence to product intelligence, there are some great companies out there providing amazing insights.
Over the next couple of years we’re likely to see more and more non-research firms doing research.
Not only will consulting firms move into this space more, but ‘intelligence’ software will start eating into the jobs – and client budgets – that were previously earmarked for research.
Answering questions in real-time, these software providers will undoubtedly reduce some of the need for research agencies – whether they’re of the B2C or B2B variety.
As is the case with AI, though, in the foreseeable future they will also require the human nodes on the agency side to be able to work with data they produce and create one single narrative.
As Leigh Caldwell from Irrational Agency rather neatly puts it: “analytics provides reliable data but it only operates at the surface level: showing ‘what’ people do but not ‘why’.”

5. A Size vs. Value Split

As is the case right the way across the agency spectrum, the B2B research market is almost certainly on the verge of a permanent split.
Before too long, only two extremes are likely to remain: very large and very small agencies. Those left stranded in the middle will be squeezed into weary submission.
But is size really what’s going to drive that shift? Is the real split in the market not more likely to be between cost/commodity players and value-add players?
The former will be super tech-driven. They will automate everything (literally every-thing); they will keep labor costs down, and they will go about things as cheaply as humanly – or inhumanly – possible.
The latter will leave the commodity stuff to everyone else. Instead they will focus on value-add human insight and expertise that’s harder to automate – from designing questionnaires and visualization to implementation.

Final Thoughts

How we as B2B research professionals respond to the key trends of the next few years – and the challenges they throw up – will go a long way to determining our future professional success.
Let’s quickly recap a few of those key upcoming trends:
  • Less face-to-face work: Coronavirus has challenged this previously fundamental aspect of research, with mobile surveys and apps stepping into the breach.
  • Technology: The ways in which automation is impacting data collection and analysis techniques is gathering momentum all the time.
  • Data privacy: An increasingly complex legal and ethical maze that has to be successfully navigated by research professionals.
  • More competition: Whether from consulting firms, intelligence software providers or in-house teams, competition for research budgets is increasingly intense.
  • Fundamental market division: Driven fundamentally by developments in technology and competition, the research world is shaping up for a profound split along lines of size, approach and value.
If it’s the last of these that is likely to have the most profound implications, it’s also actually nothing new. GreenBook were telling any insight professional who was prepared to listen, way back before the last decade had even begun.
In their 2009 GRIT report, they cited the need for suppliers who “understand the intricacies of their particular business, and who deliver strategic insight rather than boring 100-page decks full of data”.
Driven by their larger, low-cost ‘tech ‘n’ tools’ counterparts, smaller, more strategic consultancy partners will bring more in the way of human insights and expertise.
In the process, they will become more agile, more flexible, and more capable of successfully carving out their own niche in the market.
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Gaurav Roy

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