The search for free, easy and fast online market research tools is now about 15 years old. As with all new things, it started out cute and promising; then came awkward adolescence. Like the Internet itself, clunky first and second versions gave way to increasingly elegant and functional iterations. Now, there's wide agreement that self-service market research (DIY research) has entered adulthood – call it version 3.0 – and it's all grown up.
The forces that brought about early free online market research tools haven't changed all that much. It still comes down to three overriding factors:
Marketers with basic proof of concept needs still don't want to pay for expensive professional focus groups and panels. They want options to administer simpler surveys in-house with their own databases. For larger bulk projects with repeatable brand-tracking or satisfaction-tracking metrics, centralizing research also makes sense.
Finally, keeping certain research in-house – as opposed to letting third parties handle it – gives added protection to the data privacy flank that is a priority for everyone.
The biggest maturation has been in the platforms themselves. Only recently have they paired advanced survey capabilities with ease-of-use, adding access to research scientists and industry consultants. This is a true evolution in the web-based self-service market research offering.
The Cost/Budget Drivers
Cost remains a core issue in market research. Early on in the life of products, budget simply isn't there, so some go without data and make decisions on the fly. Product managers and marketers understandably hate this approach. But those that have priced out studies know self-service market research typically comes in at significantly lower price points than full-service solutions.
This is where an internal database and a well-designed free research tool can make a huge difference. At this level it's all about finding answers quickly to prove assumptions and make decisions. The latest generation of free self-service research tools does this exceedingly well.
Later on in the exploratory cycle, when reporting to the board or senior management becomes necessary, the ability to add the authority of an external research scientist (someone outside of the company) is of great value. It lends credibility by way of independent third-party evaluation. Version 3.0 self-service research tools do this by linking access to more advanced tools and professional researchers, on demand.
For years, this kind of integration has been the missing link in these platforms.
Centralizing & Consolidating
Moving simpler, often repetitive forms of research in-house has become commonplace among larger enterprises. Think of automated customer satisfaction emails – everything from airlines to hotel chains to ride-sharing services and more send thousands of these a day.
Companies have saved tons of time and money by doing these themselves. Basic bulk surveys with a few well-formatted questions are easily managed with today's self-service research tools.
Similarly, larger companies often have numerous groups doing research on a variety of topics, often using different tools and vendors. It's the height of inefficiency. A few years back, corporate managers began waking up to this fact, and started consolidating these disparate research projects. Many were brought back in-house, enabled by branded products like reSearch Engine™, which are just white-labeled versions of free and low-cost self-service research platforms.
A confluence of factors made this possible: expertise with free online research tools had made a foothold inside many organizations, and the tools themselves were getting smarter.
Removing Risk from Research
As the more perilous aspects of data have been revealed – usually in the form of hacking and data theft – risk mitigation has come into play more. Banks and insurance companies have embraced the ability to run their own surveys using a self-service platform. That often extends to their vendors, whose choice of tools for research projects may be directed by their client.
This is especially (though not exclusively) true in the financial services sector. Increased regulatory oversight since the meltdown of 2007 has raised the bar on customer information security, online interactions, and even customer complaints. Self-service surveys help with this.
The Final Analysis
What started out around 1999 as an Internet fad had grown by 2010 into a viable model, albeit with some weak points. Today, free and low-cost self-service research tools are extending advanced functionality deep into organizations, solving problems and enabling progress.
Adopters of these version 3.0 research tools are giving a collective sigh of relief. Easy-to-use and entirely free – but with on demand access to data scientists, panels, gamification and more – the new generation of self-service market research tools have finally come of age.