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We Are Not Alone, Market Researchers, and Never Have Been

Was at Il Tartufo* in Manayunk the other night, waiting near the bar after dinner when a waiter - who was not my waiter - surprised me. "How'd you like the Fettuccine Cinghiale?" she asked.

I had liked it just fine, but was curious to know how she knew what I'd eaten. I hadn't seen her near my table all evening.

"I just saw the bill for your table," she replied. "Guys always get the wild boar pasta."

Part waiter and part analyst - new competition for us market researchers?

My dear friends in research -we are not alone. And the truth is we've never been alone. Everybody possesses an innate ability to take in new facts, combine them with existing information, shake in a bit of intuition, and tell a story. For a long time Market Researchers could shield themselves from this reality, content in the notion that our monopoly on data collection made us specialized and safe. But that shield also made us into a "Department" from which information was generated and distributed to others. And more often than not it kept us from having to face tough conversations about what exactly should be done with that information.

Much of that has changed now, of course. Both "big data" (databases; social media) and "little data" (surveys and other forms of primary research) have become cheap and plentiful, making our safe and specialized fiefdom a thing of the past. Internal clients today - like my waiter the other night - have the same general analytic abilities as we do, except unlike my waiter (or at least I suspect unlike her) these are often bolstered by b-school experience and lots of time spent making sense of data. Like it or not (and we should like it) we're closer to the folks who have to make decisions based on the data.

In this environment many of the old research caveats either don't fly, or they don't matter. For years internal clients have taken the results of market research studies and then applied them - warts and all - to solve business questions in an often imperfect but ultimately effective way. There's no other way. If we're to thrive as a profession we've got to do that too.

Does that mean we need to abdicate our responsibilities as "research experts?" No - part of our role will always be to tell the emperor he has no clothes. But they will hear those critiques and still say "so what do we do?" That's when we need to embrace our inner analysts and help our clients make the most out of what is always imperfect data.

As a profession this has proven hard to do. Here are a few suggestions I have to help us earn our role as trusted advisors:

  • Hug a modeler. After many years in research I'm still surprised at how many of my colleagues are uncomfortable with quantitative models. They're built around available information, rely upon any number of assumptions, and return results that are often not all that much better than chance. They're also the lifeblood of most critical decision-making processes, and therefore something that all researcher/analysts should understand.
    I'm not suggesting we all need to become multi-variate statisticians. I am suggesting that the more you become comfortable with what models are and why they're useful, the better you'll feel taking your own chances, and making your own assumptions in the service of answering key business questions.
  • Read beyond our field. Quirk's and other MR publications are great, and I recommend them to all. But how many market researchers crack open the Harvard Business Review, read Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight blog, or availed themselves of other information sources that are focused on solving problems using the best data possible? Our clients have. We all should too.
  • Love this stuff. I've mentioned this before, but it's worth saying again. While everyone has innate analytic abilities, we in Market Research are supposed to like using these abilities more than other people. Do you? Do the people on your team?

It's an industry challenge, and yet one that can end very well for us if we all embrace our inner analysts, put aside our shields of data collection and methodological caveats, and in the process redefine what many of us think it means to be a "good" market researcher.

*Solid place that's been there forever. Cash only.

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