Can market researchers have an opinion?

Robert Bain of Research Magazine has a blog post today about the way that business people pick on market research as a way of underlining their modern business credentials.  He quotes a piece by Marc Babej, a marketer writing in Forbes magazine who fixes the passing blog reader with a flinty stare and declares:  ‘You burned big bucks to collect scads of data. Too bad much of it is meaningless.’

Babej’s article is less a research hatchet job and more about ‘smart’ research investment: after all, he has a proprietary technique up his sleeve.

It got me thinking about how terribly mouselike market researchers are about critiquing practices in business, marketing and advertising.  Quite understandable, I suppose, when your very existence is down to the buying decisions of those particular people, but I long for a time when research luminaries might wave their hands and say (for example) that modern marketing is dead in the water…

…*crickets chirp*

OK, me first.

Unpopular marketing opinions:

  1. Most segmentations are rubbish
  2. Customers would rather their product worked, rather than entering into a Brand Conversation
  3. Understanding people entirely via the Internet is unwise
  4. Data mining is for obsessive-compulsive companies which fear being tainted by physical contact
  5. Many organisations are structurally incapable of acting on the insights that their research provides

That wasn’t so bad, although I guess I’ll never work in this town again.

More seriously: should market researchers have an opinion?  I’d like to.  I think it’s necessary, I think it’s absolutely unavoidable; but it strikes me that it can be difficult and unwelcome.

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20 Responses

  1. “Strong opinions lightly held” isn’t it? You go in with firm recommendations, then refine/mould/backpedal until it fits in with the pre-conceived vision

    I jest, of course…

    We should totally have explicit opinions, but we do have to consider who we are giving them to. The “client” isn’t a homogeneous globule (mostly) – he/she has their internal clients/politics/budget holders to deal with, and so we should acknowledge and respect these when delivering the news

    • I was thinking of general opinions, I suppose, rather than necessarily the debrief. I think researchers in general are very quiet – partly because so many of the things that they might say are specific to a confidential piece of work.

      I’d love to see researchers being far more robust in the face of challenge from other areas, and some of that is probably down to knowledge and training. For example, qual people can be ridiculously defensive about qual because they somehow internalise typical criticisms.

  2. Hi Alison

    I think market researchers NEED to have an opinion, AND to express it. Even an unpopular one.

    My clients tend to appreciate it and often seek it. They’ve often only heard a sales pitch around a (typically new/shiny) methodology, and they seem to value getting a relatively “methodologically agnostic” point of view on it. Then again, I have some exceptionally wonderful clients! (and they don’t read blogs, so I’m not just saying that : P )

    P.S I’ve got a current ‘opinion’ on … stuff… that I think Jeffrey Henning captured quite beautifully in this tweet;

    Katie Harris (@ZebraBites) ain’t drinking the MROC Kool-Aid, http://bit.ly/BogJY

    TOTALLY unpopular opinion, but *shrugs* – no mice at Zebra!

    : P

    • Mmm, I might follow up by asking whether qualitative research is dead…

      That sounds great and as I said to Curiouslyp I think half the battle in being able to voice your own opinions is being confident in what you know about your own discipline.

      There is also an issue which I can’t quite put into words which is whether market research specialism always puts you on the back foot compared to other people in the organisation – being a ‘master of method’ doesn’t sound the greatest to a lot of people, and you can’t always even be the master of a certain type of research. I enjoyed doing research far more once I specialised more narrowly, and maybe that’s because it was a chance to become opinionated. ;P

  3. We shouldn’t have strong opinions when we are collecting the information, but we should have strong viewpoints when we are presenting the results and recommendations.

    My opinions on stuff….
    1. Agree about segmentations. They are more often than not unuseable
    2. Clients should be more involved in the research if they want to get maximum value from it
    3. The answer IS ’42 (%)’. So you can now all leave the room knowing exactly what to do next

    • So much yes on number 2. The difference between orgs who are actively interested in the research get so much more out of it. Where research is heavily managed/delegated to a specialist department, it can be very hit and miss. Many research managers are too busy to get involved in individual projects; and too often the meetings-dominated culture of organsiations means no one takes time to think/reflect or engage with research that’s going on.

  4. Thanks for starting this conversation.

    Often mktg folks are execution and speed focussed and MR/Insights does the real thinking and conscience keeping.

    Sure MResearchers need to well separated info and opinion. Opinion is particularly required post the findings to figure out actions ahead and criteria for evaluating them.

    Guess it’s also to do with personality types. Given the nature of our tribe, we are either busy with data and opinion-averse or are too vocally passionate to have a useful convo. A motley passive aggressive crowd.

    Re segmentation 🙂 am lucky that my mktg team swears by it. However, we cut the segments based on mktg objectives and not just throw data in the air and expect sensible heaps to emerge.

    • Yeah, I think personality is involved there too. We don’t like to condemn something without thinking about it. Unless it’s methodologically unsound. 😛

      Aww, I’m being really mean about segmentation, but that is because I have spent years of my life poring over cluster analysis output…

      ‘The good news is that we have an excellent 5 cluster solution. The bad news is that you have no data that will allow you to target these groups. No, we do not have photographs.’

  5. Of course researchers should have opinions, the problem is that many clients don’t really want to hear them.

    Researchers are at the bottom of the marketing services / consultancy pile. Sad, but true. So most researchers’ opinions don’t carry much weight. Again, sad but true. Why? Because the research industry, at least the big players, hasn’t really helped itself by too often
    a)cutting each others throats on price – thus teaching clients that research is a commodity
    b) caving in and meekly letting clients drive methodology and design – no wonder too many don’t appreciate research specialist skills
    c) Letting client preferences influence reporting
    d) Letting fieldwork standards slip in the interests of “efficiency”
    e) Taking senior researchers away from actual research – just when they’ve got good at it – and putting them into management roles they have no training for f) Leaving the actual research to juniors – clients know this, and don’t believe, probably rightly, that the junior knows more than they do
    g) reporting without knowing enough about what it means to the client’s business
    h) not pushing back when the client doesn’t brief them properly on either the business objectives or the implications of various conclusions
    i) create the charts first, work out what they mean later, if there’s time
    j) pretending online samples are “representative”
    k) still designin ridiculously long questionnaires when we all know that people’s attentions spans have decreased and the calls on their time has increased and…………….well I could go on all day.

    So of course researchers should have an opinion, but you’ve got to earn the right to have it heard, and the right to a meaningful forum to air it in. Researchers who build up a reputation for adding value to their clients can usually get their opinions heard. And respected. But they are a minority…at least here in Asia. So its not really a question of researchers being timid, but of lacking “gravitas”

    • Turning into a great discussion!

      …I agree with just about everything Guy said too…

    • Oh Guy, Guy, I just want to give you a hug! Yes, yes and yes.

      K) is a killer and I’m sure is producing stuff of very poor quality. I think (e) is particularly difficult – we take researchers away from frontline studies just at the point where they can really defend their work and deal effectively with the hurly-burly of a highly charged presentation. Marketing and advertising people are probably more comfortable with the drama, actually…

  6. I like g) and i) best!!! So true, and so common as well.
    How can we (as MR) perform with inspiring and illuminating results? Where has the relevant part of our output gone? Had there been some in further times?

    Always thought that these shortcomings are some kind of typical German issues… Obviously they are not…

    And of course researchers should have opinions. And they have to bring them in. At least to climb “the marketing services / consultancy pile”.
    Another interesting question is, why we are there? What are the major faults? What’s to do to improve?

    • I think it’s easy to get lost in the detail when you are very heavily involved in the production of data. The real skill, in quant at least, is in being able to read a pile of tables or charts and see the emergent story.

      Time pressure doesn’t help. Unfortunately, it’s very common to have all the data analysis stages delayed by project problems, but with the deadline remaining fixed. Reading the charts in the taxi isn’t always the best preparation…

  7. Nice post Alison.

    I was a client.

    I wanted opinions from my researchers (in-house and agency).

    I wanted something that provoked a discussion because no-one knows the whole ‘truth’ and external research + internal experience = good decision making.

    Above all I wanted something intelligent.

    When I got it I never let that agency/researcher go. Ever.

    • I think you’ve hit upon The Fear, actually…the unspoken fear that if you tell the client exactly what you think, they will run away and never speak to you again; and on the client side, the fear that the decision is wrong and Marketing will never speak to you again.

      Good, straightforward conversations aren’t always easy to have. (and working with people who can talk openly and intelligently is an absolute joy)

      • My goodness we’re back to Jack territory aren’t we…

        Kaffee: I want the truth!
        Col. Jessep: [shouts] You can’t handle the truth!

        Has it really come to this?

        I blame business schools myself and all those MBAs that teach business theory but ignore emotional maturity.

        I don’t think it’s a researcher issue – most of them being well balance adults – so, as @tomewing noted as his #10, no need to beat selves up about it.

  8. Thank you for all your contribution and effort towards this topic, you help us in acheving our academic goals may God bless u

  9. […] Alison Macleod asks, can market researchers have an opinion? […]

  10. A lot of of people talk about this matter but you wrote down really true words.

  11. […] Macleod hat auf ihrem tollen Blog im Oktober 2009 eine interessante Diskussion angestoßen, in der es im Großen und Ganzen um den schlechten Stellenwert geht, den Marktforschung […]

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