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What skills and abilities are young researchers being taught?

Article ID:
June 2013, page 58
Joseph Rydholm, Quirk's Editor

Article Abstract

Interviews with program directors and employers offer a look at graduate- and higher-level marketing research education and what companies are looking for in their new MR hires.

Next in line, please

Adaptability. It’s a key component of survival, whether you’re talking about a species or a business discipline. As the end users of marketing research change their perceptions of it – Who owns the research process? What is its value relative to big data-generated forms of information? What is its strategic business role? – they’re also changing the definitions of what a marketing researcher is and what skills are required to do the job.

In conference presentations and in the media over the past few years, those who hire and train researchers have repeatedly talked of how they are casting a wider and wider net in their search for candidates with the right mix of skills. After all, if the ideal researcher is a Renaissance woman or man who can synthesize the data, crunch the numbers, see the big picture, make the findings business-relevant and deliver the final report with clarity, concision and maximum impact, the traditional qual vs. quant dichotomy (if there ever was such a thing) has lost its currency in favor of something at once more broad and more nuanced.

So what’s the view from the people whose jobs revolve around teaching the next wave of marketing researchers? Will there be enough newly-minted analysts bearing the requisite skills to carry the industry forward? Based on conversations with several of those involved, the answer seems to be yes.

Rising levels of interest

While the increase in the number of programs focusing on marketing research at the graduate or higher level has not been exponential in recent years, it has been steady and administrators report rising levels of interest in their programs. “Interest is strong – and growing,” says Charlotte Mason, professor and head, department of marketing, director, Coca-Cola Center for Marketing Studies, Terry College of Business, the University of Georgia, Athens. “When I came to UGA in 2008 as director of the master of marketing research program, applications were about 110 a year – now we are at 170 or more.”

Richard Spreng, associate professor of marketing, director, master of science in marketing research, department of marketing, Broad Graduate School of Management, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Mich., concurs. “It is definitely growing here at MSU and that is probably due to the presence of our master of science in marketing research program. As a result of that program, we have had a fall career-exploration event at which we bring in executives from marketing research suppliers and corporate researchers to talk to undergrads about research careers. We contact other colleges and universities in Michigan and invite their students too. Feedback from this event has been very positive and students begin thinking about a career in marketing research and a graduate degree in marketing research.”

Share a drive

While the offerings vary somewhat in coursework and area of specific focus (see accompanying directory of programs), they all seem to share a drive to produce the kind of well-rounded practitioners the industry needs. At the University of Texas Arlington’s master of science in marketing research program, for example, Director Bob Rogers says a focus is on project management throughout and across the coursework. “Our advisory board said, ‘We don’t want just a course in project management, we want the skills emphasized in every one of the classes.’ So our goal has been to have all of our courses involve both teamwork and project management,” he says.

At the A.C. Nielsen Center for Marketing Research at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, Director Kristin Branch says, “We teach MR methodologies that are used to find consumer insights but our program has a strong focus on what to do with those insights and synthesize and integrate them with the whole business and drive impact on the marketing and business strategy.”

“We aim to have a highly rigorous program with a heavy dose of skills – especially quantitative – combined with business acumen and consultative skills,” says Mason. “My advisory board emphasizes the need for technically skilled graduates who truly understand the business questions and applications and who can communicate with different stakeholders.”

“As a new program, we designed it to be up-to-date when we started three years ago,” says Spreng. “But we built in a great deal of flexibility so each year we have made changes in content in the program. For example, this year we utilized an online community that the students managed for the semester. Our coursework will see continued development of newer methods, like online communities, mobile and social research. In addition, we expect continued growth in teaching and practice in the consulting aspect of research and more development of the integration of methods.”

“Technology is changing – which means that we need to be current,” Mason says. “Topics such as online research communities, mobile research, big data, text mining, social media research and new quantitative methods need to be incorporated into the curriculum. Rather than offer courses in these topics, many are incorporated into existing courses. For example, a course in advertising and promotion management now includes new digital channels in addition to the traditional channels. Similarly, a course in data collection methods can include social media along with focus groups, surveys and experiments. And methods courses such as econometrics include examples using digital data.”

Ah yes, big data. That too is being addressed. “We definitely are adjusting our courses and our exposure to students to represent the unspecified data sets that are a reality right now,” Branch says. “With big data, I think the lines are going to blur between the marketing research department and the IT department. But the consultative skill of what to do with the insights and move the business forward will remain a distinct skill that will be relevant regardless of where the information comes from, whether it’s big data or a one-off observation.”

As for other newer approaches like neuromarketing or behavioral economics, Rogers sees a challenge – though a welcome one – in incorporating them into marketing research education. “In the past, we have been explaining what consumers do using very traditional marketing models but I kind of like to see the emergence of things like neuromarketing or behavioral economics. How we integrate them into graduate education will be a challenge, especially neuromarketing, because it’s a long way from what we have historically done in the business school setting.”

More to be done

While the industry actively and enthusiastically supports the work of the educators in training the next crop of researchers, there is still more to be done. “On a macro level, we believe that more emphasis on leadership skills and understanding business dynamics would be beneficial,” says Holly Jarrell, chief client services officer, GfK Consumer Experiences North America, New York. “Additionally, programs that, at minimum, touch upon skill sets like data visualization and data integration would improve traditional market research curricula.”

“Specific to market research, students don’t have nearly enough understanding of the complexities of sampling,” says Melanie Courtright, vice president of research services at Research Now, Plano, Texas. “They understand a bit about purely academic sampling concepts but with all of the changes in the methods available to reach people where they are, and with the changes to access by phone, Internet and mobile devices, sampling is an art and a science that isn’t focused on in any truly practical way.”

Lack of awareness

Though interest in enrolling in the programs is generally high, many of those interviewed for this story – educators and employers – cited a general lack of awareness of marketing research among students and young workers and the many and varied disciplines and skills it encompasses, beyond writing surveys and analyzing the resulting data.

“As an industry, I think we do a shockingly poor job of marketing our profession,” says Courtright. “Our professionals are well paid, well-traveled and well-rewarded. Work-life balance is generally high and we typically love what we do. This message needs to make it into the minds of high school students, along with a basic understanding of what we do. Granted, it would be a huge undertaking but we suffer for not having a method to acquire the brightest minds. As major players get into the space like Google, Facebook, Twitter and others, this may change but we definitely need an industry-wide focus on educating the population on what we do, why we do it and why we love it.”

“I think research suffers from an awareness problem among young professionals,” says Branch. “One of my passion areas is meeting with students and young workers to talk about career pathing and how to think about a field. Because someone who has an interest in marketing but is more curious about human behavior and why consumers do what they do, along with the analytical side of marketing, often doesn’t even know that marketing research is a field that they could go into.”

“The focus on big data and data integration has made careers in our industry a bit hotter,” Jarrell says. “But more outreach from the industry to the student population would still be beneficial. We see many students who stumble into rewarding MR careers after planning to pursue professions such as psychology or finance.”

“As an industry, we have made the profession not so appealing but if you make it more appealing, students have shown they will flock to it,” says Stan Sthanunathan, global vice president – marketing strategy and insights, Coca-Cola Company, Atlanta. “If you look at the banking industry or the consulting industry, for example, they attract really solid talent and I’m not sure if that same level of talent is attracted to the market research profession. If they find doing analytical work at Google attractive, why shouldn’t they find doing that work in CPG companies or at market research agencies attractive?”

Interest to be sparked

The good news is, while a career in research may not be for everyone, all it takes is for the right candidate to hear the right kind of messages for interest to be sparked. “We recently attended a student professional event at Baylor University,” says Courtright. “The event catered to students in the marketing degree plans and there were several hundred attendees. One of the presenters asked how many of these students were considering a career in marketing research and even among this targeted group of students, only one person raised a hand. After we spent an hour talking about market research, we had dozens of students approach us afterwards for more information. While they are all aware of surveys, they didn’t realize the scope of the industry and the opportunities available to them.”

At New York media company Optimedia, a media trainee program has been successful at introducing college graduates to aspects of marketing research, says Kym Frank, the firm’s vice president, strategic insights. “We hire recent college graduates and expose them to a variety of the teams operating at the agency, such as media planning, media buying, corporate development and of course, research. At the end of the program, successful candidates are offered a full-time position on one of the teams. Often, those coming into the program have little prior understanding, or even interest, in the market research profession. After they participate as a member of our team, some realize they do have a passion for research and those who do not develop a taste for it at least develop a respect for what we do,” she says.

Securing internships

To make sure the skills the students learn are put into practice and to prepare them for real-world marketing research, several of the programs focus on securing internships that often lead to full-time offers. “We keep saying to the students there are three factors that will help you be successful in this industry,” Rogers says. “One is an understanding and an absolute love of marketing, which is establishing and maintaining relationships with people. The second one is technical skills, which we can provide you. And the third is industry experience, which is why we keep emphasizing the value of having internships built into the program.”

As for whether students show a preference for choosing to go into the client side over the vendor side, at Wisconsin, Branch says, the client side seems to win out. “CPG continues to be the main training ground and it offers the most diversity of consumer research-type of efforts, over tech or pharma, for example. But the industry we see catching up is retail. Walmart and Target have really jumped in and started hiring our students and the consumer products firms are having their eyes opened a little bit. It’s an interesting trend and the CPG firms’ feelings seem to be ‘If those retailers are going to start hiring A.C. Nielsen Center grads, then our competitive difference as manufacturers who know consumers really well has the potential to be at risk.’”

At Georgia, Mason says, the placement breakdown is roughly half and half. “Some students have a preference; others think they have a preference and then surprise themselves when they choose an offer from the ‘other’ side. And others simply look for what seems to be the best fit.”

Help attract and shape

So what can current members of the industry do to help attract and shape the next generation of researchers and allow the profession to adapt to a rapidly changing business landscape?

Spread the word. “More and more people are aware that our field is growing and the demand for talent in this field is growing and so it’s just a matter of matching those interests,” Branch says. “So I spend a lot of time thinking about how to talk to psychology students and sociology students and anthropology students and those studying econ and statistics and taking those interests from when they are 20 and looking at which jobs might be a fit for them by bringing all of their interests together.”

“People, businesses and industries face problems and market researchers find the answers for them,” says Frank. “As a career choice, what could be more viable than that? The task for us is to ensure that research does not become a backroom function, that we are putting our best talent forward as spokespeople, not just for our companies but as representatives for the industry itself.”

Get involved. Branch reports that the researchers on the Nielsen Center’s board of advisors say the time they invest pays off in many different ways. “There is a lot of reverse mentoring, where researchers [on the board] stay current on what they need to know. Our board members repeat that back to us a lot: I’m here because I care about helping the industry move forward and helping Wisconsin do its part but I get a lot of personal benefit out of making sure I stay relevant,” she says.

“Incremental industry efforts should be strongly encouraged,” says Jarrell. “Industry groups such as ARF or CASRO have established outreach programs to educate undergraduate students about the advantages of research as a career, emphasizing MR’s ability to impact marketing activities and business results. GfK’s Next Generation competition, which is run in cooperation with the ARF, is one example of an initiative in this area.”

“I can sit on the sidelines and complain that what is being taught is not relevant,” says Sthanunathan, “but I need to ask myself, what have I done to influence that? I can give a lecture on the skill set that I require as an employer, as I did to the graduating class at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, but that’s very passive. That’s like pontificating and walking out. I probably need to roll up my sleeves and talk to them to figure out how the coursework needs to be changed if I really want to effect change. I’m looking more inward and assigning blame to us, rather than pointing the finger at the academics and saying they’re not doing enough. The academics are bright people. If we are not happy, it is our job to work with them to bring their brightness and our needs together to create something different.”

What are employers looking for?

So, once a new researcher hits the streets, what should he or she be good at? And, for those of you who are already employed but longing for greener pastures, what are some of the capabilities and qualities that prospective employers require of their new hires?

Kym Frank, vice president, strategic insights at New York media firm Optimedia: “My wish list for new employees includes a passion for knowledge, adaptability, fearless creativity, confidence in front of a group and the ability to tell a convincing story. Regardless of their research specialty, be it digital media, quantitative research, social listening or anything else, it is vital they understand the entire research landscape. It is not necessary to be a master of every technique; they just need to have a holistic awareness of the tools that are available to address every challenge. As the saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

“I find many recent graduates are fantastic at gathering data and building charts and graphs but they lack the ability to analyze the data in a meaningful way. Data collection and graphical depiction of that data are great skills and indeed our industry is in need of more individuals who have a passion for data but too many researchers leave the storytelling to someone else.

“Working on the client side and working on the vendor side both have their unique challenges. On the vendor side, it may be necessary to have an expertise in a variety of industry verticals and juggle innumerable client personalities. On the client side, resources may be limited both in terms of research investment and staffing. Either way, the need to approach each issue with an open mind, the ability to tell a compelling story through data and the desire to constantly evolve your skill set are vital,” she says.

Holly Jarrell, chief client services officer, GfK Consumer Experiences North America, New York: “The last five years have brought a profound increase in the importance of the digital aspect of data collection, the integration of data, marketing communication and messaging and data visualization. Fluency in these digital areas has become more important as a result. All of these changes have put a premium on professionals who can ably connect the dots on behalf clients.”

Melanie Courtright, vice president of research services at Research Now, Plano, Texas: “We look for someone who is skilled in both hard and soft skills pertaining to our industry. The hard skills are often easy to identify and include understanding of survey designs, sampling and data sets, along with organizational and project management excellence. The soft skills are harder to assess in an interview process but are what make a great hire. Being innately curious and outstanding at problem-solving, getting along exceptionally well with all types of people, staying calm in the midst of a problem and exuding confidence and leadership in all situations are critical; along with being self-motivated and highly reliable. They also need to bring something to the organization that will help us grow and evolve. Even in our most junior positions, we look for people who will help advance the company.

“Five years ago, a candidate could have a subject-matter expertise and their proficiency there was enough to bring them on board. Today, candidates have to be very well-rounded. You can’t be good just at data and analytics and lean on others in the organization to carry the weight of the other aspects of a project. Market research is much less siloed in terms of how we operate. Team members certainly have areas of expertise but they also have to be proficient in the basics of all of the functions. Being a data analyst has also changed dramatically in the last five years. What kind of data? What kind of analysis? What kind of data visualization tools? And which analysis tools? Survey data expert or big data expert? Social listening data, behavioral data or survey data?”

Kristin Branch, director, A.C. Nielsen Center for Marketing Research at the University of Wisconsin – Madison: “The biggest gap I continue to hear about from employers is the ability to synthetize insights and to make those insights have business impact. Suppliers and clients alike tell me that the skill set of the future is the consultative skills, the ability to think through complex problems, to synthesize a lot of insights together and then to take a stand and have a point of view and make a difference.”

Stan Sthanunathan, global vice president - marketing strategy and insights at the Coca-Cola Company, Atlanta: “This might sound counterintuitive, but as somebody who is a user of research, I am less worried about expertise in technical areas. Because if I hire people with strong technical skills – the kind of people that the research agencies hire – then we end up replicating [the agencies’] work internally and that is really unproductive. So what I look for is really solid storytelling skills, underpinned by best-in-class ability to connect the dots and deliver information with a lot of passion and enthusiasm.

“Also, you must understand the difference between a fact-based presentation and a fact-filled one. People think, if they can highlight the three or four key insights from the morass of information they have on a PowerPoint slide, they are delivering a really strong presentation because they have narrowed down the focus. But if those are the only three or four things you need on the chart, why are you showing the other 37 things? Leaving them out is where the discomfort comes in, because people are afraid that if they don’t include a lot of facts, the audience will think their presentation has no substance. And that’s where you get the confusion between fact-filled and fact-based presentations. This is a leap that people have to make and it requires a bit of bravery. Some get it, some don’t.”

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