7 min read

From Insights to Intelligence: The Evolution of Consumer Research

Don't forget to share this post!


Traditional market research has long served to help companies explore market trends and people’s lives. It’s the linchpin for brands to identify gaps in the market and decide how they can position themselves to attract their target audience. But today, market research has evolved into consumer intelligence, combining quantitative data with qualitative insights that can help a brand strengthen its position even more. 

Let’s review in detail the evolution of consumer research, from traditional market research into data-rich consumer insights, and how this evolution affects how companies connect with their audience.

A Short History of Market Research

To understand the role of market research and consumer insights today, we need to appreciate how the practice has developed through the decades. Here’s a look back at the evolution of market research and how it’s changed.

The 1920s: The First Market Research Study

In its early days, market research served to gain a better understanding of target audiences on a surface level and inform business decision-making. The first market research study was created in the 1920s by Daniel Starch with the goal of making advertisements more appealing to viewers. 

Without the advantage of the internet and social media, Starch relied on in-depth one-to-one interviews. He and his team went door-to-door asking questions related to advertisements. After the interview, the team compared the responses to decide which ads were most memorable to the participants. 

The 1930s: Building on Early Successes

Starch’s structure became the foundation for market research and led to the development of Gallup, one of the powerhouses in market research that continues to influence the industry today. George Gallup built on Starch’s successes with aided recall, taking it a step further by asking questions without first showing an ad. 

This approach served to understand the impact of an advertisement by seeing how well it was remembered. What’s more, using this method would later be applied to radio and television advertisements. 

The 1940s: The Introduction of Qualitative Data

By this point, the majority of market search was quantitative—the results of the research were numeric and analyzed as quantifiable insights. This would soon change, however. 

Qualitative research emerged in the 1940s, partly to help the economy recover from World War II by getting inside the consumer mind to understand how people make buying decisions. Focus groups and usage studies became popular during this time to help researchers understand a buyer’s attitudes, motivations, and sentiments toward a brand, product, or service.

Also during this time, Ernest Dichter developed a new form of consumer research called motivational research. Dichter applied Freudian concepts to better understand participants’ behaviors, marking the start of using image and persuasion in advertising. He aimed to uncover the “why” behind the “what” when it came to getting inside the consumer mind. To do this, Dichter focused on asking abstract questions to go beyond obvious behaviors. 

The 1960s-1970s: Market Research Reviews More Layers

Moving throughout the remainder of the 20th century, research focused on a combination of quantitative and qualitative data and insights. Quantitative data came back into the conversation in a big way, thanks to advancements in technology that made it easier to reach larger audiences.

Social sciences, such as psychology, economics, and anthropology, entered the market research process during this time, turning consumer insights into a multi-disciplinary approach. Humans are multidimensional, complicated beings, which is why taking into account things like moods, emotions, backgrounds, and current feelings were essential in understanding the total customer experience. 

1990s to Today: Technology Creates New Opportunities in Consumer Intelligence

A major turning point for modern market research came with the introduction of the world wide web, and later, social media. The internet has revolutionized how consumers receive and interact with information and brands. It also opened the door for researchers with advancements like web analysis software that could collect and compile insights. 

Advancements in the internet and software development opened the gates for technologies we use today, including machine learning, AI, natural language processing, and automation. These advancements allow brands to conduct market research and gain consumer insights more often, leading to more opportunities to engage with customers for deeper discussions. 

The Current State of Consumer Research

Somebody looking at consumer profiles through a looking glass.

Today, brands and researchers alike are armed with a variety of tools to aid in their market research, often at a much lower cost and a much faster timeline than traditional means. Technology has unlocked new ways to reach larger audiences at scale, as well as segment and analyze audiences based on any number of criteria. 

What’s more, many companies are no longer reliant on using a dedicated market research professional to conduct research projects on their behalf. Companies are taking more of a proactive role in doing their own research with the use of tools and technology, often using the expertise of a professional for guidance or consulting rather than project development and leadership. This shift in dynamics also contributes to a lower total cost of market research, allowing companies to conduct more and/or bigger projects more often.

The consumer research landscape continues to evolve. Researchers and brands are constantly changing their definition of important KPIs and questions to ask their customers. It’s become easier to automate quantitative research and analysis while also enabling new multi-layered qualitative analysis from a variety of sources. 

Moving from Market Research Data to Qualitative Intelligence

While general market-level data still serves an important purpose today, current technology allows researchers and brands to dive much deeper than surface-level insights. 

One of the most notable shifts in focus has been away from the tools and methodologies we use to collect data in favor of the impact of the data itself. The data collected via modern market research methodologies should serve to drive business decisions and deliver the desired outcomes.

Dichter’s goal of recognizing the “why” behind the “what” is much more feasible with modern consumer intelligence tools. Advancements like natural language processing, machine learning, and artificial intelligence built on the foundation of market research’s evolution make it easier to detect nuances in customer sentiments. It offers context into responses, allowing organizations to understand feelings and motivations behind the data.

We’ve moved beyond the need for brands to answer specific questions and research-directed outcomes, both of which can be supported by market research. What brands need and crave now are insights into the questions they haven’t yet asked and opportunities they didn’t know existed—the defining difference between market research and consumer intelligence.

The Benefits of a Market Research Consumer Intelligence Hybrid Approach

The evolution of consumer research presents a number of benefits to organizations and research professionals by helping them reach more people, and therefore gain more insights. 

One of the most notable advantages is the variety of ways in which organizations can connect with audiences to collect consumer insights. For example, brands can send out quick surveys via mobile text, email, or social media to request feedback at any time. Intelligence tools can optimize feedback survey send times and choice of channel per user to maximize participation rates. 

There’s also the aspect of mobile qualitative research that has grown alongside the interest in content creation. Brands can get inside a customer experience through the customer’s own camera lens via the photos and videos they create and share. 

The internet is filled with a repository of customer feedback, some of which is initiated by the brand and some of which is willingly shared by the consumer. Brands can leverage intelligence tools to capture the conversations that aren’t part of a managed strategy. Examples of these sources include:

  • Online review websites like Google My Business or Yelp!
  • Online forums and Q/A sites like Quora or Reddit
  • Social media platforms
  • Blogs
  • News media outlets


All of these sources can prove valuable to your market research consumer insights hybrid model because they help to answer the questions you might not be asking. Tools that monitor for brand mentions and feedback can help you uncover the “why” behind the words, giving you context into a participant’s response to help you decide the next best action.

What the Market Research Consumer Intelligence Evolution Means for Brands and Professionals

A lady working at a laptop with some printouts of consumer insights data.

Today’s intelligence tools are enabling a new era of market research, one that no longer caters to the costly, large-scale projects that were once out of reach for smaller organizations. Today, conducting market research and gaining consumer insights happens continuously in a process that is largely hands-off for brands and research professionals.

Linkfluence’s Radarly platform uses AI to build a deeper understanding of your audience in real time. It leverages immediately available data from multiple online sources as events occur to give you up-to-the-minute insight. Organizations can respond faster and more effectively as customer sentiments or dynamics change. 

The evolution of consumer research is ongoing, but the focus on intelligence is here to stay. To learn more about how you can conduct research more efficiently and cost-effectively, request a demo

Don't forget to share this post!