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Trade Talk: Advice to researchers: change with a changing world

Article ID:
October 2013, page 10
Joseph Rydholm, Quirk's Editor

Article Abstract

This article provides an overview of a panel the author moderated on how researchers can continue to thrive in a tech-flooded industry.

As part of 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 popular 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?” – generated many lengthy and passionate posts in which the LinkedIn audience did a thorough job defending the role of MR in the face of big data’s arrival.

Not wanting to duplicate their fine efforts, my goal with the MRMW panel was to elicit advice from the panelists on how researchers can combat damaging beliefs about the MR function and demonstrate its value to some potentially skeptical internal audiences. On the stage with me 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. (For a longer-form recap of the discussion, see my article “Researchers offer strategies for keeping MR function relevant in a big data world” in the Quirk’s e-newsletter.)

To a question about what steps researchers can take to keep their skill set up-to-date, Marwah urged them to take courses from sites such as or to get familiar with the ways that big data streams can be analyzed. “For researchers out there who are worried, you can’t change the world but you can change with it,” he said.

Drawing from lessons learned during his time as director of strategic insights at PepsiCo, Leach said it was important for the research function to incorporate cognitive psychology and be able to offer solutions to business issues based on the study of consumer behavior. “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 [at PepsiCo] wanting to come into insights because, finally, we weren’t just measurers of data; we were people who were changing behaviors and driving sales,” he said.

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.’”

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.”

Timpone offered the belief that, since big data will only get bigger, the best thing researchers can do is embrace its arrival and learn to harness it. “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.”

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