Nana T. Baffour-Awuah, a strategist at New York-based research firm Consumer Dynamics offers thoughts on the intersection of AI and marketing research.
What’s empathy got to do with market research, you ask? Everything. Particularly now, with AI reinventing so many aspects of every industry today – especially marketing.
Some experts claim that up to 40 percent of all jobs will be replaced by AI in a little over a decade. And even closer to home, a recent Qualtrics report indicates that AI can and will likely be performing many jobs across traditional market research even sooner than that. In fact, the data suggests that within the next five to 10 years, AI will take over tasks such as respondent recruiting and data cleaning.
Maybe it won’t be long before AI is not only cleaning up data but actually moderating qualitative research, too? Indeed, this seems very plausible. There are already glimmers of how this could happen when you consider customer service today. For companies like Booking.com, chatbots effectively dialogue with customers, helping them resolve a range of issues and consequently offering a fast, responsive solution for consumers, while freeing up manpower for the company. But an even more telling example of what AI-moderated research could look like is perhaps in Sophia; designed as a companion robot, Sophia displays unnervingly humanlike behavior, has given several interviews and a speech at the UN and has even become the world’s first robot citizen.
So, it’s not a giant leap to consider that both could be conducting qualitative research in the not too distant future, because it would ostensibly be a faster, less expensive solution. But would it be better? Perhaps not.
While AI may be able to gather more data and do it faster, it could come at a crucial hidden cost: empathy.
Empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another – is something AI still hasn’t been able to truly crack. And it is essential to great qualitative research.
The difference between good and great qual is reading between the lines. It’s listening, not just to what consumers say but how they say it; then interpreting what is shared and building on that to get to truly groundbreaking insights that speak to deep-seated wants – what Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella calls “unarticulated needs.” That takes clever improvisation, agile creativity and a “good gut” seasoned by experience – all of which are connected to empathy. True empathy is the ability to not only understand consumers but to pause, walk and rest in their shoes for a moment.
And in many cases, the impact of human empathy on qual can start even before the meat of the research. As marketing strategist Evelyn Starr puts it, “Empathy may even serve the qualitative research process before the respondent begins answering, as it is used to make respondents feel comfortable.” A good warmup can make or break the quality of insights and a good warmup is one that is always tempered with empathy – whether it is a thoughtful icebreaker exercise that allows consumers to drop their guard or simply being able to massage the vibe of the room and start the conversation in a manner that connects with consumers and feels genuine and human. Starr says, “Respondent trust and comfort often correlates with the breadth and depth of what the respondent will share.”
Thus, qual without empathy can have big implications, not only for what could be missed beneath the surface but even for what is shared on the surface to begin with. Consequently, the hidden cost that may come with AI-moderated qual could actually turn out to be quite expensive in some instances.
But what does this mean in the context of AI’s advent?
It means human empathy should remain foundational to qual research, even as AI advances. Yes, AI may be dabbling in the realm of emotion (and with some success) but right now it cannot duplicate human empathy and we don’t know if it ever will.
What we can say for sure is that while AI cannot adequately substitute for empathy in qual it can certainly be a wonderful adjunct tool. Leveraging the advantages of AI could empower researchers to conduct more complex, creative research that pulls in all sorts of data points. Could you imagine for a minute what questions we could ask and answer by combining the vast, growing knowledge of Sophia, the accuracy of AI medical diagnostics and the empathy of a seasoned strategic researcher?
As researchers today, we’re at the center of a rapidly evolving golden opportunity. While AI may not offer a meaningful replacement for empathy now, combining AI with human empathy could get us to more complex, nuanced insights about the everchanging consumer –groundbreaking insights which can lay the foundation for bigger, better ideas.