What does it mean when companies are democratizing research?

The topic of democratizing research can be welcome with open arms in some companies; others see a ton of push-back against implementation. But what does it mean, how can companies implement it, and why can it be a controversial topic?

“This is a hot topic in the industry,” said Jenn Mancusi, Voxpopme’s CRO and host of “Reel Talk: The Customer Insights Show.” “And people feel very strongly one way or another.”

It used to be that the research team only could do the research. Swing by their office with a request for a project, which could then be added to the queue of tasks to be worked on.

The process made sense when specific technical skills were needed to design surveys.

“For the early part of my career, we would never let anyone else do the research,” said Jorge Calvachi, a global thought leader, director of insights at La-Z-Boy, and member of the Voxpopme advisory board, on “Reel Talk: The Customer Insights Show.” “Of course, we are humans and are protecting our territory, and that’s what we were doing. But the world has changed. Dramatically. Because of technology. And the speed of needing that information has increased.”

Democratizing customer feedback internally is really important.

Global insights expert Jill Burnett said that correctly democratizing research is a top 3 problem that insights teams need to address.

“To communicate the right findings at the right time when they are making their decisions is truly a challenge,” she said on “Reel Talk.” “Where does all of that knowledge live? It continues to be a challenge for most of us in insights.”

Article sections

What does it mean to democratize research?
The history of democratizing research
How to democratize research
Where to start

What does it mean to be democratizing research?

Today, easy-to-use market research technologies can help us get insights through the push of a button, and the whole project can be done in hours – like this one on what consumers consider when booking a hotel.

The democratization of research can include the creation of consumer research and the ease of accessing results.

“When you are collaborating you can connect the same dots,” said Jenn Mancusi, CRO at Voxpopme.

“Knowledge is our currency,” said Jorge. “And if that’s the case, we need to spread that wealth of knowledge throughout the company. And when you do that, you give them the power to make faster and better decisions. We cannot be everywhere as market researchers all the time. So that for me is democratizing and socializing insights.”

That helps people make their own decisions, Jorge said.

The history of democratizing research

The democratization of research – quant and qual – isn’t exactly new, though implementation can take a while. Let’s look a how quant and qual have evolved.


Quantitative research found its way to the masses in the 90s and early 2000s. This transition wasn’t totally painless; as with any technology, there was a steep learning curve. Much work went into enabling executives to get the most out of these new tools. SurveyMonkey and others largely democratized surveys, but without guidance, surveys can yield bad data. After all:

  • It’s easy to create surveys with way too many questions.
  • Surveys can result in quality data, but only if you ask your questions to the right audience.
  • It’s easy for people to ask leading questions or ones that just aren’t that insightful.

After some trial and error, quant survey providers equipped researchers, CX pros, marketers, product managers, and others with the right tools and education. This combination of tools and information allowed professionals to get accurate, informative quantitative feedback quickly.

This quantitative shift paved the way for numerous survey sites, like Typeform, Survio, and countless others.

How qualitative research has evolved

Not long ago, the typical qualitative research study consisted of organizing and conducting focus groups and hosting in-person interviews—both methods were inaccessible to those without time and money. But just like quant, qualitative research has become more accessible to everyone.

Advances in technology

You would have had a rough time if you tried collecting video feedback in the 90s or even 2000s. You’d have needed heavy-duty cameras and people to operate them, manual analysis of any footage, painstaking editing of said footage, and an editing suite to ensure the footage looked great before sharing.

Fortunately, today’s technology and recording equipment are in a better spot than ever. Anyone can record a video from their smartphone now. This readily available and vastly improved technology turns the nearly 4 billion smartphone users worldwide into potential sources of qualitative feedback.

Read next: How to use asynchronous video to get customer feedback

The internet has also improved in leaps and bounds (ah, remember dial-up?). And while video files aren’t small, uploading, downloading, and sharing video in today’s world takes seconds. Similarly, video calls have benefitted from the boost in bandwidth. Both uploads and video calling would be impossible without today’s internet speed and accessibility, which paved the way for fast, scalable qualitative solutions.

How to democratize research

First, Jorge said we must understand how people in an organization make decisions.

“And we need to understand the challenges they face daily,” he added.

That includes:

“I like to ask, ‘what will unleash growth for the company?'” Jorge said of talking to stakeholders. “Once you ask those questions, it’s a different mindset of how people respond.”

Jorge says an organizational learning plan helps him along the way. The plan outlines the needs of the company. What questions do specific areas have?

“That document allows us to identify economies of scale,” Jorge said.

Read next: Market research technology: What’s the role of market research automation?

Once we know those things, we have to find a way to make it easy for everyone. That can include a:

“We have to understand our business partners and disseminate those learnings among our business partners,” Jorge said. “That’s part of the real insights ecosystem. We have to be able to communicate at different levels.”

Also, keep in mind who your advocates are. Who are the stakeholders that will positively push the importance of democratizing research forward in the organization? Working with these advocates can also make it easier to succeed.

"It takes a village and I know who can help me disseminate these insights."

Marnie Steffe, insights and innovation director at Elida Beauty, said that team members get access to all the tools – including Voxpopme – available to them to understand customers better.

“That’s not to say that a marketing manager or marketing director has all the time to do what I do – this is my full-time job,” she said. “But when it’s the right time for them to do something – that is turn-key, easy for them, and it’s not a heavy lift, we don’t want to shield the access.”

Getting started democratizing research

Like many things, it starts with the awareness that we should be democratizing research, then understanding what that means, and finally, a plan of action.

“Our job is to be a connector,” Jorge said. “Every organization has a super highway of how information travels. So first, we need to do our job and connect different data sources. And nowadays, we have so much data that it’s incredible. So it does become difficult.”

Many companies stop the conversation there. It’s too complicated. Or it doesn’t move up the list of priorities. So sometimes, a fuller understanding of business needs across the organization and how they are similar might not be there.

“I want people who can connect different secondary, digital, and primary research sources and put it all together,” Jorge said. “That is beautiful, but we shouldn’t stop there.”

Then connect these insights to functional business needs. Finally, make them an actionable insight.

“When you start approaching it from that perspective, you can start asking better questions,” Jorge said. “We need to connect people in the organization with the same needs. And while doing that, we are creating shortcuts within that highway where information travels.”

Jorge said that making access to research simpler and aligning it with business goals can make decision-making more accessible and consistent across a company.

Understanding the right strategies

Jorge said it’s also essential to offer a suite of options to people and guidance on what strategy might work best for a specific project. For example, could an asynchronous video study get us what we need? Is a quant survey the best way forward? Or should we be using augmented reality with a new product?

“Like when we do name testing – why do we need to be there?” Jorge said. “We can use that time to connect with people.”

That starts with knowing what’s available and ensuring the right people across an organization know about the options.

"We need to empower people and we need to trust people."

Indeed, not every person in a company needs access to every bit of customer insights, but think about who does from a tactical level, Jorge said. And consider what’s the actual risk versus benefit of certain people having access.

But with so many Do-it-Yourself market research tools out there, people in a company may go out and use them on their own without any input or collaboration from the insights team if they don’t get access. That’s an even worse situation.

“It’s like when your kids turn 16 and want to drive,” Jorge said. “It’s going to happen anyway. So you better be there and not avoid it. You don’t know how they will drive, so you want to be upfront and proactive.”

He said it’s about insights professionals setting up the foundation of knowledge and processes and giving people the tools to dig deeper. Build relationships and help them. And that can help us succeed in business together. Understand our customers because we have the best insights available. That can happen at scale when research is democratized.

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