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It Was the Best of Times

Recent articles and conference talks have differing views on the role of market researchers when it comes to “action” coming from insights. This post argues for a balanced view of “action” without over-reaching.

Editor’s Intro: I’ve felt for some time that the Digital Revolution gives market research an opportunity to better connect insights with action. Steve Needel discusses some of the challenges of “action” with his inimitable style and verve. There is much to debate here.

“It was the best of the times, it was the worst of times”, wrote both Dickens about pre-Victorian England and Keillor of Lake Wobegon. King Crimson sang, “Confusion will be my epitaph, as we crossed the cracked and broken path.” The business of marketing research today is confusing and is often plagued with forcefully held opposing opinions on many topics. Here’s one that popped up recently:

My friend Edward Appleton, one of the more lucid thinkers and writers in our industry (imho), put out a piece in late May of this year on the Research Live website. In this piece, he brings up his colleague Claudia Antoni’s recent presentation at the Valencia Qual conference on what we need to do to fix insights. The answer was not, “eat more paella”, although that worked well the last time I was in Valencia (the birthplace of paella, or so they claim). Here’s what we need to do, she says: we need to not only recognize an insight is needed, we not only need to find the insight, we need to activate the insight. We should take on the responsibility to make sure the insight is acted upon, perhaps creating the execution plan, perhaps even acting upon the insights ourselves (presumably with the assistance of those who actually have the authority to do so).

At the same time, the 31 May RBDR report (free plug, Bob Lederer) recapped a study on what clients want from researchers. These clients were very clear about how they want to use marketing research and it may be a far cry from what we suppliers think our role should be. They see us as a critical decision-support function and as the validating agency for marketing’s ideas. When executives in this study were asked how they use marketing research, they had five general areas: providing benchmarks and comparisons for estimates, deeper market knowledge, competitive assessment, consumer knowledge, and insight dissemination across their organization. Nowhere does it mention that they want us to design the new package or create the next TV spot.

Don’t be lulled into thinking that Antoni’s approach is active while suggests greater passivity on research’s part. I think this is too simplistic a distinction for what each side is proposing. In the worldview that we are failing our clients (or ourselves), asking us to be active in the implementation phase would burden us with another set of skills a good researcher may not have (I’m thinking storytelling, but a reviewer also suggested corporate politics). Now, we would not only have to be good at our science and maybe at telling stories too, we would have to add marketing and sales and logistics to our skill set. For example, coming off a piece of research that says the client has a packaging problem or a distribution problem or a pricing problem, we would have to design a new package or have logistics expertise or financial expertise. We may have some of this; more than once I’ve made suggestions about how to fix something based on my experience. But, and this is a big “but”, the percent of time I know the solution and the number of times I’m asked to fix the problem are pretty small. While there may be some firms that want to do a soup-to-nuts approach, I question whether this is the template for the future of marketing research.

When we look at the report, it does not suggest passivity at all, nor does it require a reactive versus proactive approach to business. Granted the potential for self-serving research from this organization, there’s nothing in their report that suggests researchers should take a back seat and only respond to marketing’s requests. Good client organizations make sure research is in the marketing loop and good client researchers find opportunities to bring research to bear on what marketing is thinking. This is very much an active approach to marketing research. I may not know how to design a package, but I may know a lot about shoppers reaction to our packaging and have ideas for improving it.

In the same vein, good research suppliers know the questions to ask to get at the heart of what a client really needs. Rather than simply respond to the RFP or the brief, they go deeper and determine what is driving the question, what the client already knows, and what tools they can bring to bear on the issue. If the supplier is specialized they may even have a deeper well of suggestions for improving marketing’s ideas based on their experience.

Our industry continues to muddle along, with pundits trying to decide if we are dead, dying, need assistance, or thriving. I believe two things; being better at our jobs will keep our industry healthy and that over-reaching will only hasten our demise.

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2 responses to “It Was the Best of Times

  1. I’d take a slightly different view of activation and think of it like Dr. Rodney Brooks from MIT. In his robotics lab he has a group of bots that interact together in a room. When asked how he tells them what to the says, “I don’t tell them what to do. I switch them on and they do what’s in their nature.” To activate an idea one must provide a vision of how the future will be different if the idea inspires products, programs, communications, etc. This is the key. Presenting insights in such a way that they draw attention to themselves and inspires action. Switch on cross functional peers so they do what’s in their nature. Sometimes this requires hiring a designer to sketch a few product ideas or doing the math to show clients what the revenue stream could be (forecasting). Sometimes it just requires a little creative qualitative to bring quantitative data “to life” and make project teams say “oh wow… we could do xyz.” This is activation to me and it goes way beyond the insight. It takes courage to share an actual product or marketing idea because of the time it will be ignorant of other factors in making decisions or creating innovations. But the vision we set based on the insights points back to the data, research, etc. that built the idea. Then teams can take inspiration and do their bit to move insights into action. Happy to talk more.

  2. I sympathise with Steve’s view – it’s very appealing to have boundaries around our job – not least so we know when we can stop working and send the invoice.

    But it reminds me a little of the work I used to do in software. Traditional software development has one person writing down what’s needed, and another person going away for 6 months to code it up. It’s almost universally accepted now that that method didn’t work.

    Agile software (where the whole agile movement now spreading across business came from) sent the programmers out to sit with people across an organisation, write down stories about what they do, and then go off for 2 weeks to make a mini version of the solution. Bring it back to the person you sat with, test it out, see if you got it right, change it again. Importantly, this is not just a change in the programmer’s behaviour but also requires a change from the people they are working with.

    This is one of the changes that enables us to have, generally, much better software now than 20 years ago. Maybe researchers need to bite the bullet and be more interactive.

    Yes, we need to partner with product designers, packaging specialists or food scientists because we aren’t going to be able to do those things ourselves. But we might need to work with them on a much shorter, tighter loop – getting some consumers in every week to test out a new iteration, rather than doing a bunch of groups or conjoint at one specific point in the innovation cycle.

    Not ‘active’ in that we have to do everyone else’s job for them, but ‘active’ in that we have to see insights as a permanent, continuous step in the ‘action’ process.

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