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Market Research Lessons from Edward Snowden

Love him or hate him, Edward Snowden is a catalyst for change.

How did he do it? And what can we market researchers learn from it?

The Big Reveal Gets Big Attention

Snowden didn’t suggest that there might be an issue. He didn’t send out a 50 slide PowerPoint. He didn’t bury his key point on a slide with 4 other “results.” He had a single message, and it was bold:  he stated that there was massive, secret surveillance of US citizens.

Would his message been as powerful if he revealed three other accusations at the same time? Probably not.

As researchers, we often have several key conclusions from a study. On one hand, that shows a good ROI; our client paid $X, and got several key take aways. But should there be a “primary” conclusion? Should we be doing a better job of creating a “star” result, something that is likely to be shocking enough to grab attention, without be diluted by other points?

Multiple Proof Points Create Legitimacy

Snowden didn’t just leak one document or one piece of data. He had many documents to support his conclusion (different news reports vary as to the exact number, but the range is 20,000 to over a million documents). I bet very few people actually looked at the documents; just seeing that there were lots of them was convincing.

Would his accusations have been as compelling if he only had one document? Probably not.

In research, we often draw conclusions from a single study. We do a survey, focus group, ethnographic study or some other method, and then deliver the conclusions from that single study. It can be hard for clients to trust data from a single study, no matter how compelling.  Can we be doing a better job of using multiple data sources?

Market Researchers versus Whistleblowers

Okay, delivering market research results is quite different than releasing classified national security material. But these two lessons do apply, especially if our goal is to have our research truly get attention. If you were a whistleblower, how would you build your case? Prepare for your big reveal? And could you be doing the same things when you are preparing to deliver your next research-based insights?


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What Market Researchers Can Learn From Great Teachers

teacherMarket Research Lessons from the Education Sector

Market researchers can learn a lot from teachers. The best data in the world won’t solve or enhance anything if it isn’t understood and used—so, like a teacher, your job is to bring your “students” (clients) to a full understanding of your research results.

You may already be doing many of the things great teachers do. Consider:

  • Do you always have clear objectives for your research?
  • Do you spend a lot of time designing content so that it will be understandable?
  • Do you put great effort into making sure that your clients will retain key pieces of information?
  • Do you strive to be engaging when presenting research?

You answer to all of the above was “absolutely,” right?  Great teachers would say the same if we substituted “lessons” and “students” for “research” and “clients.” Take item one, for example; great teachers have clear learning objectives for their lessons, just as you have clear objectives for what any given research project needs to accomplish.

So now, let’s do a little exercise.

Step 1: If you were a school teacher, how might you address these challenges?

  1. My students are having trouble staying focused in class.
  2. My students aren’t reading the textbook carefully.
  3. My students are having trouble applying the lesson content.

Write down a possible solution for each of the above before proceeding. Seriously. Trust me.  Give yourself at least five minutes for this task.

Step 2: Can you apply those solutions to your market research clients?

Now let’s apply this to market research. Take the solutions you identified above and see if they apply to each of the following:

  1. My clients are having trouble staying focused during presentations.
  2. My clients aren’t reading the research report carefully.
  3. My clients are having trouble applying the research results.

Did the solution you came up with for 1 apply to 4? 2 to 5? And 3 to 6?

For item 1, one solution might be, “make classes more engaging by having questions prepared to ask the students after each major point.” In a market research context, for item D, this could translate as, “make presentations less boring by asking the audience for their opinions after every 3-5 slides.”

For example, after a section presenting brand awareness results, stop and ask, “Did you find this surprising? Why or why not?” Once the audience gets “trained” to expect that you will be asking questions, they will pay more attention. They’ll be engaged. And they’ll enjoy hearing what their peers have to say.

Or maybe for item 2, one solution could be “after each textbook chapter, point the students to relevant video content that would repeat or illustrate key content.” Then for item 5, the research version could be “embed links to videos, focus group montages or executive interviews such that after every report subsection, some interactive content is easily accessible.”

Are We Delivering Research or Teaching Insights?

Yes, I know. You’re not in front of a classroom full of hormone-challenged young adults. You’re addressing professional adults who are paid to be thoughtful.

But we’re all human. We all need to be engaged before we’ll set down whatever personal baggage we’re carrying into the classroom—or the conference room—and really learn something. The most meticulously gathered data will flutter to the ground like dead leaves if it isn’t understood and retained.

So consider how great teachers do what they do, and be inspired. Even just taking a little time to think of yourself as a teacher—in addition to being a researcher—may  lead to subtle change that will help your students, I mean “clients,” have greater comprehension and retention.


[Interested in more market research lessons? Visit our online training store, where we offer self-paced ('pre-recorded') classes as well as live one-day and 4-week power programs. Private training options also available.]



When Do Market Research Clients and Suppliers Work Best Together?

A recent Greenbook blog article posted by @Angry_MR_Client, “How to Make an MR Client Angry in 7 Easy Steps”, shares her frustration with items such as “underdeliver” and “make slides no one wants to read.”  Alas, the items listed are exactly the kind of all-too-common challenges that frustrate many market research clients.

But they also frustrate the suppliers.

Bearing in mind that there are literally over a thousand market research suppliers worldwide, most seek to do good work.  When they under-deliver, it is not intentional.  And they’re not rejoicing in slide creation parties.

So where is the disconnect?

As @edward04 commented on the Greenbook post: It takes two to tango.

Part of the challenge we have in market research is that suppliers often walk a very fuzzy line between being an outsourcing partner (takes on a project, completes start-to-end, full authority and responsibility) and being a staff extension (reports to the client, gets approval at major milestones, numerous points of shared responsibility).  MR agencies often are hired, and want to act, as an outsourcing provider—but in reality, it is a mixed role (especially compared to other outsourcing models). Not clear why this is an issue? Consider this example from the world of employee management:

I ran a market research agency for 13 years, and managed lots of researchers in that time.  I learned early on that employees cannot be successful if they are given responsibility, but no authority. It just doesn’t work.  Employees who can’t make decisions or solve problems related to their areas of responsibility can never be effective. The level of responsibility assigned to an employee must be matched by an equal level of authority to act.

In the case of market research engagements, I see a lot of cases where the client and the supplier have confusing or unspecified divisions of responsibility and authority.  Frustration for both sides is the result.

Is the Market Research Client-Supplier Relationship Unusual?

Clearly, there are always tensions between buyers and sellers—of any kind.  Buyers want more value, sellers want more margin. Buyers want it faster/more convenient, sellers want scalable processes. The list could go on and on.  And such conflicts are not all bad: a little constructive tension serves the purpose of making sure clients and suppliers help each other evolve.

As for articles such as the recent Greenbook post? Sure, it is fine to vent—for both clients and market research suppliers. Nothing wrong with that!  But the real issue is this: how do we step away from recycled platitudes about client-supplier relationships and make real change?  When do market research agencies and clients work best together? Perhaps when both parties precisely specify and agree to the relationship model: outsourced or staff extension.


 [The book, How to Hire & Manage Market Research Agencies, is available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle editions]

Market research training classes: now with dates through March 2013.



Will This Sloppy, Boring, Error-ridden Market Research Report Do?

market research reportWhen consumers purchase a product, they expect to get what they paid for.  This is also true when companies purchase market research; unfortunately some no longer receive the high-quality tangible product they paid for, at least according to Gill Wales (as stated in her article published on titled Will This Do.)

As quoted in this article, Justin Gutmann, head of research and insight for Consumer Focus, has a laundry list of problems with many of the reports he commissioned from reputable market research firms.  While firms dazzled him with well-written proposals and promises, the promises turned empty and the end result was a poorly written market research report indicating the writer did not fully grasp, or even understand at all, the subject being researched.  As Gill Wales writes,No matter how skillful the fieldwork, if the report fails to provide a clear and reliable description of the outcome, then the client has acquired a useless product. The fieldwork may as well never have been done.”

These subpar reports can be attributed to a few issues, but as Wales notes, these issues are not difficult to fix.  Often, senior executives are involved in the planning and fieldwork portion of the market research, but delegate the actual report writing to junior analysts.  These junior analysts, while capable, are not properly trained and need more guidance from the senior executives, who are too often M.I.A. Furthermore, the author states that the economic environment today is contributing to market research firms being understaffed but afraid to turn away work, which forces them to sacrifice quality of work in order to keep up.  While this may seem smart today, in the long-run it will hurt them.  As Wales notes, the future for market research professionals lies in their ability to interpret, explain, and present the data that can now be gathered by ever-improving software.   She concludes that only properly trained professionals will be able to keep up with the changing market research environment. Not surprisingly, we at Research Rockstar agree!

Many of the comments on this article agree that the structure of market research firms, especially large ones, has lead to declining report quality.  As one commenter, Ray Poynter, notes, producing a good market research report is time consuming, and, as a result, a good report written by a senior executive costs well above what most companies will pay.  As Research Rockstar’s own Kathryn Korostoff notes, many market researchers she encounters are more than capable of producing good reports; they simply do not have the proper training to do so.  They have no processes, list of best practices, or frameworks to refer to.

Obviously we are biased, but this article raises issues we have been addressing in our market research training programs for over two years.  Good, cost-effective training can solve many of the issues seen in the market research industry today.  Unfortunately, many firms are not willing to pay the traditionally high costs of training.   We are trying to address this by offering more than twenty topics via virtual classroom training, which eliminates the cost and aggravation of travel, as well as having a lower price than in-person seminars.


[Want to learn more? Research Rockstar offers comprehensive market research training through a series of online classes.  These classes come at an affordable price, allowing market research firms to keep costs down while improving quality—thus avoiding the major problem of sacrificing quality for quantity that Gill Wales writes about.]

[The post was written by our fantastic new intern, Todd Haylon.  Well done, Todd!]