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Market Research Decentralization: Power to the People

What is the biggest problem facing market researchers today?

  • Sample quality? Hmmm…. a huge problem, but no.
  • Inappropriate use of methodologies? Always a challenge, but no.
  • Poor survey design? Another good one, but I think it’s part of a bigger issue.
  • Over-hyping of social media-based methods? A definite issue, but not the biggest.

The biggest problem we have is that too much research gets ignored. Too many studies lose momentum. Too many important findings get disregarded.  Even if end-clients sit politely in a final presentation, not enough of them use the research to make real decisions and take real actions.  And that’s a problem because it leads to negative perceptions of research itself.  Too many people perceive research as academic or theoretical; they don’t see it as something that truly can impact business success. Indeed, many non-researchers see market research as having a poor ROI.

If we want people to really use research, it needs to be more credible to them. And that means 3 things:

  1. Let them see it, so they can believe it. When end clients are removed from the process, they are less likely to believe the findings. Especially any that contradict their personal opinions.  Jon Last, former MRA president and president of Sports and Leisure Research Group., talks about data proximity. He’s right.
  2. Let them have a say in it’s design and execution. Involve them in the process, start to finish. And I mean real involvement. Cross-functional teams sounds like a nice way of keeping people involved, and can work in some company cultures. But in reality? In most cases I have seen, the team members from outside the research function have neither real responsibility nor authority; they come to the meetings as clients or even just semi-interested observers. Research isn’t in their job description, its not what they get evaluated on, and they are easily intimidated by the “experts.”
  3. Train them. Market research isn’t a secret society. A lot of the stuff we do is teachable. A little education will overcome many of the poor assumptions that lead to perceived credibility issues.

So here’s the point: to really address these three items, we need to re-think what market research functions should be centralized versus decentralized.

My proposal is that for many (not all) organizations, decentralizing market research can address these 3 items very well. Let different functional areas have their own mini-market research teams. Better still, have some  people in existing functional areas take on some market research responsibility for their groups; they will have a unique blend of expertise areas, which will help ensure actionability.

Objection: Research takes too much Skill, You can’t just Train People

My, what egos we researchers have! Do we really think that all market research projects are so hard, that other business professionals couldn’t possibly learn how to manage them?

In my 25 years’ of market research experience, I have seen that at least 70% of market research projects are pretty simple. They don’t require multivariate analysis. They don’t require lengthy questionnaires. They don’t require complex skipping or branching programming. Many don’t even require weighting.

Of course, 100% of research projects do require certain quality standards. Length. Objectivity. Scale choices. Knowledge of basic statistics.  All of which are teachable to any reasonably motivated professional.

One Vision For The Future of Market Research Departments

A centralized research function will remain an important resource, and support the decentralized teams.  In this scenario, the centralized research function of the future will focus on four functions:

  1. Policy creation and enforcement. For example, how many times a year customers can be invited to research events, and what types of incentives are permissible. Heck, you can even have a policy that says, “Any questionnaires over 20 items long must be approved by (name of the organization’s market research director).” This is something, BTW, that many market research groups never have enough time to do!  If they can delegate some of the smaller projects, perhaps they will have more time for this type of important, strategic role.
  2. Resources. Centralized access to research tools, secondary reports, in-house research results, standardized questionnaire templates, sample sources, in-house panels and communities.
  3. Sophisticated studies and Trackers. Management of high-end, organization-wide studies (those requiring advanced analytics and longitudinal tracking)
  4. Training. For example, either producing directly, or through partners, ongoing training, which will include “Market Research 101” as well as functional area specific content (such as “Product concept testing” for product development groups, and “Message testing” for marketing teams).

In this scenario, the decentralized functions will be specialists that serve the unique research needs of specific areas. They will have day-to-day relationships with the people who will be using the research. They will speak their language, and make research accessible and credible to them.  They will have the skills to do basic research, and have access to experts as needed.

Bottom Line: Improving Market Research ROI

A decentralization approach has the potential to boost research credibility AND also address the issue of rogue, unsanctioned, DIY research.  We all know there are plenty of bad questionnaires going out these days (though many come from “professionals,” too).  Clearly, more non-researchers WANT to do research. They want fresh insights. They want involvement in the process. So let them! With some intelligent policies, access to resources, and training, we can have the best of both worlds: quality research and greater research ROI.

Now what? I say: test it. Pick a functional area to test this with, preferably one where you know there is some rogue research going on anyway. You can take advantage of the existing interest to build a satellite research team.  Provide some training and policies, and give them some time. See how they do.  Do their projects go well? Do they have impact? Is the ROI good? Are the internal clients satisfied?  You just may be surprised.

As always, all comments welcome!

Note: This blog post was inspired by the Tweetoff held at the AMA’s virtual market research conference on June 24th. Thanks to @JHenning and @VirtualMR for a GREAT event! You guys are fun to debate with!

[Hey, did you miss my new white paper on online panels? Check it out here: GET WHITEPAPER]


Kathryn Korostoff

Kathryn Korostoff is founder and lead instructor at Research Rockstar. Over the past 25 years, she has personally directed more than 600 primary market research projects and published over 100 bylined articles in magazines. She is also a professor at Boston University, where she teaches grad students how to analyze and report quantitative data.

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4 thoughts on “Market Research Decentralization: Power to the People”

  1. The debate continues! A wonderful post (from someone who disagrees with me) from Dan Womack: Dan is also on twitter as @DanWomack. While he didn’t convince me to change my position, he makes excellent points on the issue of bias. I still maintain that a strong centralized MR department plus decentralized “satellites” can work; maybe not for all companies, but certainly in many I have worked with.

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