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So How Do Market Researchers Become Strategic Insight Consultants?

It seems to me that the message is that in order to become effective consultants we need to act like researchers, but think like marketers. That strikes me as a transition that our industry can make, especially if we begin to bring in talent from outside of the MR space.

One of the hottest topics in MR right now is Transforming the Research Industry. That is a big undertaking that encompasses everything from methodologies to business positioning, and one of the ideas bandied about most often is that we must increasingly assume the roles of “Strategic Insight Consultants”.

This issue was brought to the forefront for me recently as I worked on an effort to define a new industry taxonomic structure for one of my Taxonomy Studyown consulting practice clients. Working with The GreenBook, Kinesis Survey Technologies, The MRGA, and Bly& Bly Analysis we surveyed almost 400 MR professionals on how they define their business.

What was interesting was that 41% of respondents selected “Consulting” as their primary identification category, while only 24% identified their firms as “Consultancies” in the firmographic section (the largest segment was 39%: Full Service Research Supplier). The conclusion we reached here is that more and more MR firms are identifying themselves as consultants as their core offering  rather than focusing on traditional research practice descriptors (methodology or research application focused). Obviously, a shift in business positioning to consulting is occurring by a sizable component of the industry.

The transition from MR suppliers to consultant sounds simple on the surface, but there is a big difference between designing, fielding, analyzing, and reporting on a given business question and actually recommending specific strategies and tactics to make the insights actionable in order to provide maximum ROI from the research. Researchers tend to be an interesting mix of inquisitive and cautious; we’re good at finding stuff out, but tend to be reluctant in helping clients determine what it means at a strategic level for their business. There are good reasons for that reticence; not only are there potential liability issues involved, but often MR firms lack the needed contextual experience to make the connections necessary to be effective consultants.

Where is the viable path forward to support this transition? Michaela Mora of Relevant Insights posted a great blog entry titled Market Researchers Benefit From Learning Marketing. This dovetails nicely with my own post last week that touched on the same subject. Michaela makes some wonderful points, and her conclusion is this:

Market researchers often complain they are not taken seriously and that too many research reports are used more as dust collectors (the thick ones can support a sofa’s missing leg also) than providers of decision support. I have had the fortune to see the implementation of research insights in action with huge dividends, and all I can say is that after all the correct methodological and data quality considerations has been made, what makes a difference in delivering actionable research is looking at the results from a marketing perspective in light of current market conditions and a client’s financial and capacity resources.

Market researchers, who know the principles of marketing are always in better position to help their clients. They will not do the selling. That’s the clients’ job. But market researchers should provide insights on who to sell, what to sell, why and to some extend how to sell to promote clients’ business growth.

It seems to me that the message here is that in order to become effective consultants we need to act like researchers, but think like marketers. That strikes me as a transition that our industry can make, especially if we begin to bring in talent from outside of the MR space.

The imperative to make this transition, and the potential opportunity if we do it well, is significant. WARC has a report this morning regarding Accenture (which is a great example of an insight driven consultancy) releasing the results of a recent survey of 400 global executives that shows that “Brand owners should emphasize analytics, innovation and rigorously measuring communications effectiveness to find the “sweet spots” that will drive future growth.” That certainly sounds as if they are singing our tune to me! Here is a bit more detail:

Improved analytics was named as a vital component of future expansion by 65%, with successful R&D and achieving strong engagement on 64%, and streamlined marketing operations on 57%.

In an effort to meet such corporate objectives, 46% of firms were in the midst of transforming the structure and strategic outlook of their marketing functions.

Based on its analysis of the sector, Accenture identified four competencies that companies which managed to increase revenues last year focused on.

Firstly, 47% of these businesses had invested in proving ROI, compared with just 32% that posted a contraction in sales.

Similarly, 68% of organisations in the former group recorded an “above-average performance” in the field of analytics, sliding to 58% among those in the latter.

These figures stood at 64% and 52% in turn for delivering category-leading innovation, while 41% of growing companies had employed effective digital ads, falling to 25% for their faltering counterparts.

So here we are: clients are demanding that the industry raise the bar on our value proposition and many firms are beginning to change the positioning of their firms in response. Simultaneously, we have a potential talent gap and a required shift in thinking about the role and responsibility of the researcher in the marketing chain. My analysis of the situation is that in order to be successful, we have to do more than pay lip service to being consultants and instead invest in the necessary human capital  and other resources to transform our businesses and lead the industry forward. This may not be easy, especially under economic uncertainty, but the path is clear if we choose to take it.

By the way, I am in no way proposing that every MR company become consultants; there will be a natural reordering  of the space with technology providers, sample vendors, methodology experts, suppliers of specialized research products, and even a few “pure” full service firms that have very distinct vertical or business issue focuses still in the mix. I do think that the bulk of full service MR firms will be forced to move to a consultancy model in order to stay competitive. If that is the case, the early entrants into the market will have a distinct advantage. Consider the race underway!

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5 responses to “So How Do Market Researchers Become Strategic Insight Consultants?

  1. A great post. I particularly like the part where you mention (I paraphrase) that there has to be a certain continuation with improving research practices, and that few research companies will stick their necks out when making recommendations.
    My own experience is this: The person doing the research invariably ends up doing the analysis summary (perhaps under the supervision of a senior) and her best findings often lie between the lines of all that she speaks. Even on the rare occasion where the researcher groups people into “categories” that could be used by the client, this information is barely taken into consideration. E.g. As a client went into their regular research pattern of the year, the new marketing head called for an analysis of the entire category. I, as a copywriter, who was the last man left standing over 6 years on the brand across all teams, sat in on this presentation, and asked, at the end of the research presentation, “What about that analysis you did 5 years ago, where the category was divided into X, Y, Z and A? Doesn’t that finding still hold true? I would say it does!” There was pin-drop silence. No body from either the marketing team NOR the research team remembered this presentation! It was perhaps lost in some recycle bin or server on the side of each.
    My point is this – even research agencies do not take their own work seriously. Those trying to break out of the mould, are doing so at the risk of losing track of their own original skills (research methodologies). Perhaps they will have to look at acquiring new skills (ad agency planners?) who can sift through research to make it more effective. A new research-agency format will have to be created if one hopes to retain top-spot in this very important domain. Given that we are not even decided about what research should be asking, I’d say this debate has only just begun!

  2. Market Research Transformation or Broader Based Organizational Mindset Transformation?

    Note: By all means, this commentary is not all inclusive, I’m only touching on the high points as I see them but I wanted to add to the discussion. I understand others may differ and that’s part of the discussion. These are solely my personal views.

    Much of the discussion around the need for transformation of the Market Research (MR) Industry seems to assume MR is in complete control of its destiny and then goes on to lay virtually all of the perceived deficiencies solely at the feet of client side researchers and MR suppliers.

    On the client side, how can this be when the MR function is typically a staff function with highly varying degrees of autonomy and clout? Many times the client side MR function doesn’t even own its own budget but rather the MR budget resides in marketing, sales or R&E. On the supplier side, suppliers deliver against the requirements set by the client side staff.
    I truly believe that we need to take a broader view of this topic so that any potential solution addresses all of the issues. In this brief position outline, I’m going to make the case that any perceived or real deficiencies are systemic within the broader context of the organization and these broad based systematic issues need to be addressed in many organizations to facilitate the improved effectiveness of the MR function. My focus here will be mostly on the client side but there are similar implications for the supplier side as well.

    Perceived and or Real Deficiencies of MR

    The bullets below identify some of the more significant identified deficiencies as indicated in a number of MR Blogs and MR industry publications.

    -Researchers are order takers and need to operate more like consultants

    -Researchers don’t understand the business and marketing context so many times their recommendations are not insightful or impactful

    -Researchers need to synthesize the findings from multiple data sources and provide real insights to drive business results

    -MR takes too long and is unreliable and not actionable

    MR Deficiency or Resource and Systemic Organizational Deficiencies?

    In my estimation, all of the above identified deficiencies can be addressed in large part by making the needed organizational changes below and allocating sufficient company resources to support the effective functioning of the MR function.

    Where do we start?

    -Most business consultants have an MBA with a good understanding of marketing, finance, accounting and sales. MR consultants need to be MR experts but also need the foregoing skills and knowledge as well. Organizations need to provide the necessary resources to seek out these individuals and provide the pay necessary to recruit and retain quality talent. In addition, they need to provide the time and resources for continuing education, whether that is internal based education or external formal education.

    -MR consultants need to know their clients business so they need to be integrated into the business team they support and have at least the same or greater level of clout than other business team members. In order for the MR consultant to understand the business at the same level as the other business team members they need to be fully integrated into business team planning, business meetings, initiatives, etc. A MR consultant can’t have a fraction of the knowledge of the other business team members and expect to have much sway in decision making. If you don’t know the issues how can you provide adequate and more importantly respected input to business decision making. This is typically what happens when the MR professional resides in the MR function and only interfaces briefly with the business team on MR projects. They don’t know the issues so they’re not respected.

    -Let not fool ourselves, synthesizing multiple data sources/data streams to develop impactful insights takes significant time and resources. But in this day of faster cheaper, time and resources are at a premium. IMHO we’re at a crossroad and we’re going to need to get real about what is really important. If synthesized insights are important and I think they are, then the necessary time and resources are going to have to be made available to accomplish this. I suspect that in many organizations that is not the case today.

    -Again, the knock against MR is that it takes too long, is unreliable and or not actionable which in many cases boils down to resources. There are a number of tools that can address the time issue, for instance custom panels for hard to reach respondents and online communities, etc., all can speed time to completion but the necessary resources need to be made available. Reliability and action-ability many times comes down to sample size and the sophistication of the research and analytical methodology used, both of which are highly dependent on adequate time and resources.

    As you probably have noticed by now, I think the dominate issues are resource and organizational structure based. In addition, I haven’t even gotten into the discussion around the coming changes associated with the explosion of social media and the potential opportunities that it presents to MR professionals. But it’s safe to say that whether Social Media displaces much of what we do today or is simply an additional data and insight stream, it will require organizations to make the necessary investments to harness its full potential.

    Of course we can fool ourselves and simply say faster cheaper and continue getting the same results we’re getting today or we can make the suggested changes as well as others to dramatically improve results. What was that famous Einstein saying; “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Or better yet “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” So if it’s faster cheaper, it going to need to be a new version of that, not just faster cheaper 2.0.

    At the end of the day, I’d hate for anybody to fool themselves into thinking that any set of changes will bring about absolute perfection. All we have to do is look at the financial services industries which spends tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars on research and modeling and look at their track record. Goldman Sachs and other big investment banks hire PhD physicists from the best schools in the country and look at their recent reputation. My suggestion is to temper expectations with reality.

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