Some four centuries on from his birth, it’s astounding how John Donne’s meditations stand the test of time. His premise that human beings do not thrive when isolated from others is just as relevant in a corporate as in a more spiritual context.

Isn’t it curious then, that organisations split their audiences into two: those inside and outside a company? Both have a stake in a brand, yet are accorded different treatments.

All organisations create a seemingly unbridgeable barrier between themselves and the real world. But the biggest barricade, by far, we as researchers have to contend with (and profit from) is the wall around every company.

Professionals lurk on the inside and keep themselves aloof from the great unwashed. Market researchers, meanwhile, make forays on the client’s behalf (carrying the white flag of truce) and return with tales of what’s really going on out there.

Organisations have flattened within a matter of a decade and a half. Time was when companies had management structures that towered into the clouds. That was until the mobile phone and email decimated the ranks of middle management and the new bosses discovered they could run their organisations without having to be in the office all the time. Today, we would be wise to ask ourselves, how permanent are the borders between those who produce goods and services and those who purchase them?

Ideological war

In the ideological war between those who think businesses should be run for the benefit of shareholders and those who think they should be run for the benefit of stakeholders I would argue that the stakeholders have it. Employees and HR departments, meanwhile, have become much more important since there isn’t enough of either to go round. As for customers — well they’re in short supply, too — and consequently their time and attention is in even greater demand.

The old way of treating consumer markets like battery farms is on the way out. Loyalty programmes have had to change since we discovered customers can be loyal to several brands at once, and can simultaneously be frequent purchasers and very vocal in their criticism of the brands they are supposed to be loyal to.

Arguably CRM ought to be reconstructed along the lines of customers’ perceptions of how loyal the brand is to them and to their interests! Few programmes would survive on these criteria. But this is exactly my point. Loyalty to customers; effective implementation of service standards; genuine authenticity (for example Australian beer which is really brewed in Australia!) all require — as individual elements of the marketing mix — that companies take down the barriers between themselves and their various stakeholder groups and allow information and investment to flow freely in both directions.

Solitary portal

Yet if I’m right, as the barricades crumble — they will fall on market researchers who insist that they are the only people who can convey the demands of the hoi polloi to the new lean breed of company managers. Or that before an organisation can communicate relevantly to its customers every communication should pass through the airlock of ‘research’.

But are market researchers — either with or without one of the many certificates, diplomas or what have you that the profession has to offer — the sole route to knowledge? I’m not decrying the value of research and constant training — I’ve never stopped learning since I started. But I do worry about the way in which market researchers have lodged themselves as the de facto intermediaries between customers and audiences and the companies they buy from and pay attention to.

You don’t need a certificate to run a discussion group or set up a survey — I know plenty of people who do this who have never heard of the various and venerable trade bodies. So what difference does it make being a ‘qualified’ researcher? We can’t rely on the trappings of professionalism to protect our status, our right to ply our trade or (to be blunt) the quality of our work.

I would argue that it is usually safer not to cower behind barricades of any kind and in times of change those who do a bit of tearing down themselves will do better than the defenders of a dying order.

Look to your channels

Here’s my tip for 2006 — keep thinking about that barricade around your client companies and consider ways to punch holes through it. Make interviews with staff a mandatory part of your methodologies — they do think differently from the marketing department. Start to really make use of more channels for respondent feedback than the living room, viewing facility or telephone.

Be honest, have you used any of the following yet: voice mail, SMS, email, blogs, podcasts or webcams? Or have you just talked about it? If you’ve never heard of some of these then put this down and go and find out fast. Some of newest research agencies are piling on business because they specialise in one or more of these new channels.

Use customers as moderators to gather and filter feedback for you. Co-moderate with clients — why have only one moderator in a group? There may only be enough budget to PAY for one moderator but if they care enough to come to the research they may as well do something useful.

Suggest clients develop their own stimulus material — it has never been easier for people to make their own moodboards, use a dictaphone to make a mini radio programme for use in the group or for the really adventurous to make a mini film. For that matter if respondents are under the age of 20 you could always ask them to do any or all of this as a pre-task.

If you’re working for a diploma then find out if any of this is on the programme. If not, ask why not, ask when it will be. And if they don’t know, then go and find a better programme. If you’re too old and too venerable to be on a diploma programme, well, time for old dogs to learn new tricks.

This isn’t about cool hunting, or being an internet specialist — this is about giving marketers back their edge. They’re losing the faith. They still buy groups by the yard but they worry about the output. Whatever else you do — don’t be caught keeping up appearances and saying that nothing has changed. And all the best for 2006.