The public relations industry has long been accused of using market research the way drunks use lamp-posts – for support rather than illumination.

The data from a well-executed market research survey, especially when the questions have been ‘spiced-up’, make useful fodder for overworked editors with pages or airtime to fill.

Provided you’ve copyrighted the research data, your company or client gets at least a name check in the story, together with the quasi-academic credibility that research bestows.

The process is tried and tested.  You start with the headlines you want to see and then formulate questions that will stand those stories up. Usually the market research firm, which also sources a ‘statistically valid’ number of anonymous respondents, asks for changes to eliminate question ‘bias’, but otherwise you get what you pay for.

Analysing the research data in different ways also enables the press office to target different types of media.  For example “More than half the people in Scotland believe X,” pleases the regional titles, while “64% of women between 18 and 24 years prefer Y” ensures a fair hearing from the (younger) women’s press.

But this, arguably cynical, media-centric approach of the past needs updating for the digital present and future.

For a start, the pervasiveness of social media means is it is no longer necessary, nor advisable for survey subjects be an anonymous representation of your customer base.  They can be your customers and people with an interest in your business.

Secondly, the research can form ongoing process of social engagement, a two-way dialogue with customers where you listen to your customers views and act upon them.  Rather than simply building headlines, market research in the digital can build enduring customer relationships; rather than improving press coverage, it can improve product development and marketing.  Both should directly improve your business’ bottom line.

Ultimately, market research in the digital age can be much more about illumination, much less about support.