The future of communications research

Change may be the only constant, but that constant is accelerating. And it is having game-changing impacts on corporate communication and communications research.

Change may be the only constant, but that constant is accelerating. And it is having game-changing impacts on corporate communication and communications research.

Communications and communications research - think opinion research, corporate reputation research, brand research, and message testing and development - are undergoing intense, parallel periods of dramatic change. Taken together, the communications research practitioner must adapt quickly to the profound changes in both fields.

There are five megatrends in communications research that all researchers must navigate. These are horizontal, peer-to-peer communication, democratization, speed, information abundance, and the historic movement from text to image.    

Peer to peer
The concurrent rise of social media and smart phones has empowered swarming individuals at the expense of traditional authorities. Events like the Arab Spring, the rise of Anonymous, and the founding of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) have highlighted the importance of peer-to-peer communication and the shift in power from vertical, authority-based communication to horizontal, influence-based communication. Communications researchers must master social media listening and a shift from active, question-based research to passive, listening-based research. Longer term, this shift to horizontal communications could signal the rise of memetics, the study of how ideas or memes spread as viruses, as a core research skill set. Which messages will spread virally among a given community? How can an idea or message be stickier, more selfish, and easily spread? 

Democratization: the rise of the “prosumer”
When consumers shift from passive, needs-based consumption to active, values-driven purchasing, corporate communications and communications research must adjust. This is happening now. Futurist Andy Hines uses the term “enoughness” to describe a new, post-crash consumer ethos with an edge. They've had enough of the consumer rat-race and “corpspeak” and now they want simplicity, authenticity, and a seat at the table. This means that more transparent and democratic communication will become the norm, shifting communications from direct persuasion to influential engagement. This democratic impulse means that communications researchers will need to harness consumer advisory panels, better identify shifting cultural mores, for example privacy, the definition of personal success, etc., and better understand the influence of third parties on message impact. 

Democratization will also usher in a world where every person, thing, and institution has a transparent, open-sourced, and peer-generated rating. A number of writers are exploring this emerging reality, from Cory Doctorow to Gary Shteyngart. One clear implication is that dynamic influencer mapping will become increasingly important, as influence evolves quickly in a social world. 

The speed of life, communication, and media reporting has increased. In communications, this requires 24-hour news monitoring and dedicated, rapid-response teams. For communications research, this quickening pace will demand faster data collection and analysis, and globally distributed research teams that work the 24-hour clock. It will mean some precision will be traded for greater speed. Fast and generally right will trump slow and precisely right. 

Information abundance: mining and overload
The amount of data that is generated globally each year has exploded. This has been well documented and offers well known promise and peril.

When thinking about the information explosion, it is important to note the two sides: what we do with this glut of information, and what the information glut does to us. 

First, there is what we can do with this river of data. We can use “big data” to listen more closely to stakeholders and target communications more closely to them, with nanotargeting, not microtargeting. 

Then there is what information overload does to us. Information overload makes communications ever more difficult as each organization competes in the “attention economy.” How we cut through so-called “continuous partial attention” in order to connect with stakeholders is a very big question for communications and research experts tasked with testing and refining high-impact stakeholder messaging. Most of our research tools were developed in an era before information overload and do not consider attention as a currency or a fixed commodity. This phenomenon is as true inside organizations as it is outside of them. Our insights must be packaged in a more compelling way, using infographics and strong design to attract and hold the communication team's attention. Knowledge management will become increasingly critical.    

A post-text world
The printing press made text the dominant communications method. Smartphones will reverse this trend, pushing communications back to speech (video) and images (photos). Communicators and the researchers that support them will need to adjust to this radical change by better understanding the persuasive power of user- and institution-generated images. What is a persuasive image? How do we test the persuasive impact of an infographic?

Step change
In isolation, these megatrends represent enormous change. Together, they are a step change, an age of disruption. New rules for communications and communications research are being written as some of the old rules are being deleted. The most adaptive practitioners will own the future by innovating on these five megatrends.

Robert Moran is a partner at Brunswick Group, where he leads the insights function for the Americas. He is a market researcher, expert on public opinion, and futurist.

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