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MR Disruption Continues: Barnes & Noble College Rolls Out Research Offering



In yet another example of the disruption of the traditional market research industry, Barnes & Noble College, a leading operator of campus bookstores with more than 720 stores at college and universities in the U.S., has announced expansion of its market research platform to offer greater access and insights from a network of more than 5 million U.S. college students.

While we have seen many large tech companies roll out research offerings (Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Amazon, Facebook, Verizon, TiVO and Salesforce all offer research platforms now), to my knowledge this is the first “Brick and Mortar” retailer to leverage their infrastructure, stores, and customers as a primary research offering. It makes sense for a lot of reasons:

  1. As companies look to monetize their assets in new ways, the business focus silos come down and insight generation, whether through data access, analytical tools, primary research, syndicated research or sample access is a natural extension of their offering.
  2. The “Platform Play” isn’t just for tech companies. Any company that has a substantive role in the daily lives of a population, offline or online, should be looking to extend their usefulness to as many key stakeholders as possible.
  3. In this specific case, expanded research access will help Barnes & Noble College partners – colleges and universities, consumer brands and publishers – better understand the thinking, behaviors and expectations of current and future college students and faculty. Lord knows understanding Millennials and Gen z is crucial on many levels.

Will we see other retailers follow suit here? I think we will. For instance it would not surprise me at all to see Starbucks launch some research focused offering leveraging both their loyalty data and facilities. IKEA launching a UX or Design focused service would be well within their wheelhouse and brand identity and Walmart could easily open their own version of a mall intercept facility in their stores. Of course the big question for the MR industry is where do traditional suppliers fit into this model: could these efforts be joint ventures or partnerships? There are a mix of models in use so far, although it seems that the prevailing one is more of a traditional research supplier play.

In the case of Barnes & Noble college, that is certainly the case. Although they use Vision Critical technology to help manage much of their research and delivery to clients, they are very firmly a self-sufficient full service shop. They are happy to work with clients and suppliers both, but in all cases they are managing all aspects of the research project using internal resources.

I had the chance to chat with Barnes & Noble College VP of operations and chief marketing officer, Lisa Malat and Marie Policastro, Director, brand partnerships and market research to find out more about what they are doing, how they got there, and what the future may hold. As in my post regarding the last new entrant into MR, Microsoft, this isn’t an interview per se but rather a synopsis of what we discussed.




First, it’s important to know that they arrived here organically. As the business was being spun off to be a separate entity from Barnes & Noble Booksellers, they did a ton of internal research to support the business plan. Through the course of that research, they developed a robust internal research infrastructure and discovered that the overall system they had established to support the mission of the business could also be seamlessly deployed as a new profit center.

Barnes & Noble College’s research currently encompasses a wide range of topic areas, including student learning behaviors; student and faculty engagement in the learning process; course material use and preferences; communications processes and behaviors; and purchasing preferences and behaviors. Data and analytics are powered by proprietary faculty and student online research panels, the largest college bookstore social media network of its kind, and on-campus access to more than 5 million students and faculty nationwide. In addition, they have a large Parent and Alumni panel, giving them access to more than just the core student population.

When I asked Lisa why the chose to launch this as a formal offering, her answer focused on how the research offering reinforced their mission rather than distracted from it:

“Research fuels everything we do and gives our partners a strategic advantage in understanding their most important audiences. For colleges and universities, the insights we gather help meet their highest-priority goals, particularly student retention and recruitment. For consumer brands, our understanding helps foster lifelong relationships with college students driven by their unique needs and wants. For publishers and educational technology providers, our data and analytics help guide development of next-generation course materials that drive student outcomes.”




And it doesn’t stop at primary research. They are already beginning to syndicate research of their own as well. To support universities’ focus on student and alumni outcomes, Barnes & Noble College tapped into its research capabilities for “The College Student Mindset for Career Preparation & Success.” The in-depth study examined students’ level of career preparation, their perception of what skills and experiences are desired by companies, and what they are looking for in work experiences, training and benefits. One of the beauties of their platform model is that they are able to act on their own research findings to strengthen both the connective tissue between their key stakeholders and their own offerings.  The insights gathered by their report inspired them to create an interactive program that works with campus partners to deliver in-person and online workshops to equip students with the tools, resources and skills they need to position themselves for early career success.

In addition to initiatives with college and university partners, Barnes & Noble College works with consumer brands and other business partners to sharpen their understanding of college students and provide an unrivaled opportunity to interact with students, in person and online. Marie offered some examples of how they are working with brands already:

“We are part of the social and structural fabric of our campuses, and it gives us a deep understanding of the nuances of each school’s culture. When that understanding is combined with the insights our market research platform provides, consumer brand marketers have what they need to build powerful, emotional connections with the millions of students we serve. We partner and work closely with brands to ensure they engage with students in timely, relevant and inspiring ways, fostering long-lasting relationships that extend beyond graduation and deliver ongoing results.”

Capabilities of the Barnes & Noble College research platform include quantitative research, qualitative research, ethnographic research, omnibus studies, shopper insight research and on-site testing. The company most recently completed research examining student preferences and behaviors in the automotive, café and convenience and personal beauty categories. Upcoming initiatives include a groundbreaking, intensive study on Generation Z and their academic preferences and expectations for college, followed by an in-depth look at non-traditional students, veterans and first-generation college students. With these insights and more, Barnes & Noble College will further its goal of helping partners form genuine, lasting relationships with students, in college and beyond.




It’s also important to note that students get concrete benefits from this as well. By participating in research they accrue points that can be used at any Barnes & Noble store (offline or online), and are automatically entered into substantive monthly sweepstakes. The model works well; they boast a 60% completion rate. It’s a wonderful example of creating a respondent engagement model that is relevant, value-exchange based, and that reinforces stickiness.

Conveniently enough, Barnes & Noble College manages the Georgia Tech bookstore, which is directly across the street from the venue for IIeX North America. We’re already discussing some interesting things we can do at IIeX in 2016 using their resources, so stay tuned for more on that as we get closer to the event.

Overall I think this is a wonderful and interesting new resource for researchers, and of course it’s emblematic of the continual disruption occurring in market research.  However, it’s also important to note that like many of the new entrants coming into research, it’s unlikely they will become (or could become!) members of most of our industry trade organizations due to the existing Codes of Ethics they have in force. Barnes & Noble College research is another in a long list of companies where the walls between marketing and insights are porous at best. They may think like researchers, but they act like marketers, and I believe that trait is vital for success in the modern era of insights. There is much here to be learned for all involved in the traditional market research industry.

So join me in welcoming our newest colleagues in the industry; it’s going to be extremely interesting watching how this play out!

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9 responses to “MR Disruption Continues: Barnes & Noble College Rolls Out Research Offering

  1. Hi Lenny, very interesting move from Barnes and Noble for sure. I look forward to see how that unfolds in the coming years. Do you know what technology or technologies are they using to enable their Research Platform?

  2. Very interesting article – also have to totally and completely agree with you that as researchers our success depends on our ability to think and act like marketers.

  3. Lenny,
    Interesting post. Interesting trend in the industry. Definitely worth watching. Sounds very similar to Google Consumer Surveys and their approach to leveraging their internal data.

    I wonder if this is a reaction to MR budgets being cut and MR executives finding creative ways to fund new research.

  4. Hi Lenny,

    I know they have been discussing a lot of options with regard to their ability to access some demos that are very limited in the gen pop sample world. One of the issues though is that this population is well aware of their ability to influence and they are very interconnected.

    But I digress….as to your main point, it seems time to accept that research is more of an open source field than a closed in metrically driven science. Research by nature is about removing bias and expecting the unexpected. Whether your science is done with a laboratory or collected in the field, the basic tenets of validation have always required that strict protocols be followed in the data collection as well as analysis. This of course, meant your were working with a measurable and somewhat static asset.

    These days the volume and diverse nature of information and the endless number of resource channels has taught us what we should have known all along, that perceptions change with new information. The average Internet user is exposed to over 250,000 words per day (for reference that is like reading 1/4 of War and Peace everyday), so the idea of imprints is pretty passe but even more importantly, the playing field is level when it comes to the access of information.

    in other words, sampling can only accommodate answers to the extent is represents a particular intersection of events and population. Further, consumers aren’t linear and their decisions often aren’t based on rational reasoning.

    For may years, statistics were the best measure we had for activity and because most of the measurements were post purchase they could be validated. People do know what they did for the most part, even if they don’t know why and we can account for those who are less than forthright.

    While consumer drivers may have gotten more complex, the reasons for decisions haven’t changed all that much, because most decisions are driven by a sense of emotional security. Nobody wants to be the odd man out. But in today’s world, we aren’t driven by wanting to be like the Jones. We aren’t stuck being compared to the same people forever and we really don’t care what kind of car the neighbors just bought. Consumers, especially younger consumers are competing less on accumulated wealth and more on accumulated experience. That is a fundamental change.

    The new paradigms of research aren’t going to thrive on mass measurements but instead on factors that influence the ZMOT. What that likely means is more product research and more focus on how products are being used and what needs they satisfy. It also means listening to employees more and seeing customers as people, not metrics. The shift is shuttle but bottom up programming is cool again. While B&N for instance has a great asset, they need to use it specifically, not generally if they want to maintain it.

    Research companies need to understand that their best plan of action lies in partnership rather than technique. Technology is cheap, everybody can use it and surveys beyond census have little value when information moves at the speed of light. What does matter is the fluidity of a decision and how that changes at the ZMOT. Most likely it is driven by the product. Providing a rationale that extends through a product lifecycle and ensuing satisfaction is key.

    There is a new definition to “voice of the customer” and it is quite powerful. Whether it is an advantage of disadvantage is up to you.

  5. ZMOT is the zero moment of truth, a term coined ( I think) by Google that refers to the point at which the decision to make a purchase is confirmed (or denied) by action

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