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Researchers offer strategies for keeping MR function relevant in a big data world

Article ID:
August 2013
Joseph Rydholm, Quirk's Editor

Article Abstract

Quirk's Editor Joseph Rydholm discusses the role of the human researcher in a tech-flooded world, especially how MR can coexist with big data. The article includes feedback from MR professionals on LinkedIn and a panel discussion that took place at the Market Research in the Mobile World conference.

Editor's note: This article appeared in the September 9, 2013, edition of Quirk's e-newsletter.

In conjunction with the Market Research in the Mobile World (MRMW) conference in Minneapolis in July, I moderated a brief panel discussion that used as its jumping-off point a conversation thread from the Quirk's Marketing Research & Insights Group on LinkedIn. The thread - titled "Is there still room for the human researcher or has technology taken over?" - obviously struck a chord, as evidenced by the thread's many lengthy and passionate posts.


For those of us in the marketing research industry, the question is obviously moot. Of course we think there is room for the researcher. But we're not the ones who need convincing. It's the other audiences, the people in the C-suites, in the procurement departments, in IT or wherever the various data-gathering groups are housed within an organization. Those are the people who need to understand and value what the human analyst brings to the process.


In pleading the case for the role of the researcher, some of the LinkedIn commenters outlined the skills that analysts bring to the process and the roles they play - from framing the questions at the outset, so clients know what it is they are looking for in the mountains of information, to being there to analyze the data and deliver the guidance on the next steps to be taken in response to the data. I would of course urge you to join the group and read the thread for yourself but here are a few of the other observations (edited for clarity) made by group members who responded to the post.


I view my value as strategic first, with research as my tool to understand context and determine the best goals and course of action. We still need humans at the front end to articulate the key problem to solve; in the middle to do "contextual analysis" including hypotheses, hunches and fuzzy data; and to select between multiple strategic options where there's no strong right answer. Additionally, technology still isn't the best at asking or deducing the why behind motivations, beliefs and behaviors. -- Amy Kraushaar


Of course there will always be room for human researchers. Big data, Web-scraping, etc., is a look in the rearview mirror. Researchers are at their best when they offer a view forward. And it takes skilled and strategic thinking humans to do that. -- Michael Hollon


We still need people - to frame the business question(s) for primary research; to design the research for optimum value; to perform discovery with social media listening (you only get back what you ask for; what if what you ask for is wrong or needs to be broadened?); and to make sense of the data on the back end. At the moment, I still view technology as a tool - the means by which we gather the data - but the rest of the process is still dependent on humans to get the most out of it. -- Kathy Doyle


The invention of the hammer (and other more advanced tools) did not eliminate the need for carpenters. Likewise, just because I own a lot of tools does not make me qualified to build a house. -- Jonathan Hutter


For the MRMW conversation, my panelists were Om Marwah, cognitive scientist at @Walmart Labs; Rich Timpone, senior vice president, Ipsos Science Centre; Dana Stanley, vice president of research, Fashion Playtes; and Will Leach, senior director of insights and strategy at uSamp.


My questions to them revolved around how we got into this position in the first place - where the value of the researcher is so open to debate and skepticism - and, perhaps more urgently, what researchers can do to combat damaging beliefs about the MR function and demonstrate its value.


Making playful allusions to Skynet - the nefarious, self-aware computer system from the Terminator movie series - Timpone offered the belief that, since big data will only get bigger, the best thing we can do is embrace its arrival and learn to harness it. "How we got here is a result of the trends we have all been talking about as an industry - online, mobile, the increasing datafication our lives. The collecting of data, the storing of it and the ability to actually start mining it creates opportunities to do things that we couldn't in the past. The fact that we are here is a good thing but the issue is, because of where we are now, the people from the technology side have abilities to mine and analyze the data and the critical part of the process - how to act as a result of what the data tells us - is what is often missed. That is where researchers can come in, by showing how to integrate and act on the data."


Drawing from lessons learned during his time as director of strategic insights at PepsiCo, Leach said it was important for research to incorporate cognitive psychology and be able to offer solutions to business issues based on the study of consumer behavior. "If you want to be more relevant in this field, you have to have more empathy for people and start designing solutions," he said. "That's why we pushed our insights groups [at PepsiCo] to bring in behavioral designers to not only study behavior but also say, 'OK, since we found that this heuristic is being used by consumers, we think that our displays should be this color, we should use these types of adjectives in the signage,' etc. When you're able to take that kind of work and deploy it into test markets and see the results, the insights function becomes very powerful and important because up until then, you're just measurers. When you can design for behaviors and demonstrate increased sales because of it, you'd be amazed at how fast your research budgets will increase. We had a massive group of people wanting to come into insights because, finally, we weren't just measurers of data; we were people who were changing behaviors and driving sales."


To a question about what steps researchers can take to keep their skill set up-to-date, the affable Marwah offered a hopeful and helpful response. "The necessary skills to analyze the data that's flowing into a company, especially when it's structured data, aren't that complex. So appending to your current skill set a new skill set, which is the ability to analyze the data in the forms that big data is housed in, will give you a tremendous degree of value and differentiate you from competitors in the environment. They're very easy to learn and you by no means need to be a math whiz. For researchers out there who are worried, you can't change the world but you can change with it. So picking up some of those skills is valuable, as is staying on top of how you communicate your value proposition in this changing environment to maintain a dialog that appeals to the people who are in power and making these decisions."


He urged the audience to dive into data analysis and get familiar with what's out there by reading a book on Apache Hive or the R programming language, for example, or by taking data analysis courses from sites such as or "The best thing to do is to play around with some big data sets and get your hands dirty rather than just reading about it," Marwah said.


While individual strengths are nice, many of the panel's comments touched on the need to build an insights team with a wide range of abilities. "Now more than ever I think we need general management and leadership skills because the landscape is changing," Stanley said. "No one person is going to have all the skills you need so you have to assemble and manage a team where you encourage people to speak up and challenge you and share ideas on how to address the strategic needs of management within your organization."


Along those lines, another skill worthy of development, Leach said, is the ability to persuade. He cited an anecdote about a famous brand whose head of insights was told by her CEO that she failed the company because she didn't drive home the severity of an impending competitive threat, even though her department had repeatedly told management about it. "She said, 'Wait, I've been telling you about this for three years.' And the CEO said, 'Yeah, but you didn't convince me.'"


An extreme example, to be sure, and one that says more about the failings of the CEO than the research department, but it gets at a larger point that is being made more and more frequently these days across our industry: The delivery of insights is not enough.

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