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Marketing Researchers need to think like marketers

Last week, I started to talk about how marketing researchers could make themselves more valuable within their organizations or to their clients.  Today, I’ll expand on the first action item from last week’s post.

The problem comes down to this – many marketing researchers like to think of themselves as social scientists.

Don't think like a scientistIn and of itself, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s an issue because these people are doing commercial market research, not social science research. As commercial marketing researchers, their clients — the people paying the bills — are marketers.  Like any customer, they expect that their needs will be met.

Marketers, as a group, tend to be a creative, pragmatic bunch of people. Their job, simply put, is to sell more stuff. What they want from you, the researcher, is information that will help them accomplish that, not a lecture on the wonders of Bayesian statistics.

To be an effective part of the marketing team, you need to be willing and able to get outside of the rigid beliefs about “the way it’s done” and come up with solutions to get the information marketers need.

(For the record, there’s more than enough room to be creative within the bounds of sound statistical methodology.)

The best way to do that is to think more like a marketer.

When I say to think more like a marketer, I don’t mean that you need to go out and get a complete education in product and brand management, advertising, and other marketing disciplines, although a good working knowledge of the subjects is certainly beneficial.

What I mean is that you should place much more emphasis on starting at the end. Start with a thorough understanding of exactly what decisions your clients will make and what courses of action they will pursue based on the information you produce.

In other words, put yourself inside your client’s head.

I know this sounds obvious, but it’s distressing to see how many researchers don’t do it. Instead, they start with the methodology, or the survey instrument, or the sample design. Essentially they start at the beginning instead of the end.

So the next time you get involved in a market research project, try this:

Make that first meeting all about what the marketers want to do. Actively keep the conversation away from anything related to research methodology. Instead, ask your clients what questions they are trying to answer. And whatever you do, don’t accept their first answer. Apply the age-old qualitative technique of asking why. Once you’ve done that a few times, you get to what they really want to know.

Then use a similar approach to probe on what they intend to do with the answers they get. By forcing your clients to think through potential courses of action based on the research results, you can eliminate the extraneous, nice to know stuff and focus exclusively on producing actionable information.

Only after you’ve done these two things is it time to think about the research design, analysis steps, data collection methodology, or the questionnaire design – in that order. This is the part where you can let your inner scientist come out a little. That’s ok as long as the marketing needs are very clearly guiding your efforts.

In the next post, I’ll talk about the second thing marketing researchers can do to become more valued – get educated on the client’s business.

About the Author

Ed Erickson is the President of Erickson Research, a Chicago market research consulting firm. You can find Ed on LinkedIn and .


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  4. As former journalist, I use the system of the five Ws and the inverted triangle — who, when, where, what, and why. Those are the questions I ask the directors (technically, they are ‘the clients’) that commission my department for a project. Many times, they know *what* they want to know, but the other four Ws are questions they haven’t thought through. In drawing out the 5 Ws, I ensure that there is no misunderstanding when I have to present the findings, which is about answering the Ws.

    On the analytical end, I use the system of the inverted triangle where all the data gathered is up top and then I filter out what’s nice to know but not important down to what is impactful and actionable.

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