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What can journalists teach us about crafting more compelling research reports?

Article ID:
May 2014, page 58
Eric M. Whipkey

Article Abstract

Eric Whipkey makes the case for incorporating journalists and their skill sets into the MR realm and outlines what an insights department focused on telling stories might look like.

Look, here’s the story

Editor's note: Eric Whipkey is assistant manager member satisfaction and experience metrics at Navy Federal Credit Union, Vienna, Va.

Marketing research and journalism have many things in common. Among the most noticeable at the present time is the extreme change that both are currently undergoing. Unfortunately for many journalists this is not a growth story. For market research though, the change involves methods, expectations and also growth. The industry (both client- and supplier-side) is thriving. Consumer insight, predictive modeling and innovation are not just buzzwords, they are pressing business imperatives. This growing need for consumer insight in business could also lead to some greener pastures for journalists who are willing to redirect their intellectual curiosity toward different kinds of stories. The type of stories that business leaders are longing to hear are investigative tales of their customers and their needs and how they relate to the products and services that they are producing.

To move toward this future in which stories and the ability to effectively tell stories are part of the marketing research function’s deliverables, researchers will need to adapt and acknowledge several new realities. These include:

  • changing and evolving technology (e.g., mobile, social media, natural language processors, advanced algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality, Google Glass, apps, etc.);
  • the role of the customer in organizations and customer experience;
  • changing and evolving methods for conducting market research;
  • new players in the market research space (e.g., data integrators, programmers, IT, etc.); and
  • stories, journey-mapping and design (more engaging visualizations) taking center stage.

The advent of the above factors means that marketing research is becoming more and more accessible to DIY researchers and so the value of the traditional market researcher is in danger of being diluted.

Executives increasingly do not care for nor expect research to meet the standards set by science (e.g., statistical significance for every finding). As much as many of us hate to admit it, “directional” is becoming good enough for many business leaders (depending upon the decision, of course). The new expectation is that market research has a business mind-set intent on providing quick and actionable insights that add to the bottom line, rather than one focused on hypotheses testing, test-and-retest and taking three to six months to complete a project.

It is still OK to affiliate with the scientific but it is no longer acceptable to “hide behind” the need for more sample or greater fidelity. Nearly every industry now claims to have fast business cycles, thus intensifying the need for quicker turnaround and demonstrable ROI from research and insights endeavors.

This requires researchers with a head for business who can craft compelling nonfiction stories. It is something that looks very much like old-school investigative journalism or, more specifically, progressive journalism or computer-assisted journalism.

In a YouTube video, Robert Benincasa, a practitioner of computer-assisted journalism for National Public Radio, talks about his approach, describing it as “using data analysis to tell help tell a story.” In addition, he references finding “trends and associations in data that matter” and talks about “mashing up” various databases to look at market share comparisons and create data visualizations. Computer-assisted journalists, he says, also regularly use databases and tools like SPSS, SAS, etc.

Sound familiar? There is much to learn from these types of journalists. They have been doing what many in market research are now talking about as new or revolutionary for some time. So let’s make some space for them in our profession.

New line of work?

Am I saying that “we” typical market research professionals should find a new line of work and hand our jobs over to journalists? No. But it would not hurt if there were a role for journalists within market research or insights departments, perhaps with job titles such as storytelling director or chief research editor.

If we do in fact need their skill sets, we should be hiring them now. We all know that there are plenty of skilled journalists looking for work as traditional newspapers close, everything goes digital and news organizations consolidate. Even better, let’s build a new, nimble infrastructure that will allow them to apply their valuable skill sets in support of generating quick-to-the-boardroom research stories.

If you are going to tell stories, it is not all about content and data anymore. There is a real role for design as well. This includes:

  • the layout of analyses – beyond graphs and charts (infographics are more like it); 
  • creating one- or two-page summaries, heavy on design and infographics; and
  • presentations that are compelling and interesting to watch.

We all know that the days of the 100-page PowerPoint decks are gone. Gone are the methodical presentation structures: methods, then analysis, then findings, then conclusions and recommendations at the end. These days, execs want to cut to the chase: What did we learn from this study? What do you recommend? How will that impact the bottom line?

That other stuff? It goes to the appendix.

OK, so maybe the 100-page decks won’t be completely gone. The details will still be needed at the operational level. But let’s be real: the executives you are presenting to do not want to see all of those slides. That information has a place, just not during your presentation or dropped into your CEO’s lap.

If we were to start adding journalist storytellers into our ranks, what kind of organization would we be talking about? What would it look like? It would have a rather unorthodox structure, with the methodologist sitting in the middle and acting as key strategist and research decision maker. He/she would decide upon how the research is designed, pooling his/her business knowledge to design a methodology that is both inclusive of internal clients and allows for the analysts, reporters, designers and storytellers/editors to craft a compelling non-fiction story.

The roles of the others wrap around the methodologist so that they are fully integrated in the methodology. There are effectively two layers of management:

The research design and methodology layer: engineers how the research will be conducted, crafting the sample, deciding on the proper tools to use (surveys, technology, experimental design, etc.) and basically ensures that the research is done right.

The story/editorial layer: crafts how the research story is told, including its findings, conclusions and the delivery of the recommendations.

As in any organizational structure, there are workers or doers and there are deciders. In this model, the doers are the analysts, reporters and designers. The analysts directly support the research and the methodologist, whereas the reporters and designers directly support the editors or chief storyteller. At some point they are all working together to ensure that the final research product is actionable and comprehensive. This is when the entire team comes back to together to write the reports, tell the story and present results to stakeholders. Figure 1 shows how this structure might look.

The arrows in the organizational chart indicate how all of the players would work together in two-way feedback loops. The entire team works together to build what should be powerful storylines with very actionable client-led data. What the chart does not show is the co-creation with the client that should be built into the process. Since we should have a strong journalistic ethos built into our organization, from analyst, reporter and designer to methodologist and editors, the client and other sources will have been consulted all along the way from research fielding to storyboarding and finally in crafting the final story/report.

Beyond the storytelling required for the completion of actionable research projects, there are other major initiatives that this structure will support. The entire team must work together to:

  • build a research plan for the year;
  • respond to RFPs; and
  • develop portfolios of services/new research methodologies/tools.

When it does come time to get to the research, the research methodologist works with the analysts to design the research but the reporters, designers and storytellers are still involved, attending all project meetings. Even before the research begins, the reporters, designers and storytellers can work with the analysts to build a story structure based upon the research plan. These story structures or alternative storyboards would be based upon the methodologist’s and analysts hypotheses. Basically, what stories could be told based on a given research design?

Research methodologists and the analysts field the research and analyze the data. While this fieldwork is going on, the reporter and designers collect art, photographs, assemble sources, conduct external interviews and write content that supports preliminary findings and the logic beyond the hypotheses being explored. They may also design infographics and visualizations for use with various types of comparative research (conjoint, package testing, logo design testing, etc.). As the research takes shape, these data visualizations are fit into the report in the way that helps to support the final story.

May not be feasible

I realize that this is a new way to think about running a market research department or company and may not be feasible, especially in established departments/organizations. But with the tools available today, such as social media analysis; text analytics; numerous robust secondary research providers; agile market research techniques and even evolving AI tools like Watson Analytics, we are approaching a market research reality that could drastically decrease the fielding time for major market research projects. This is a good thing for the industry and our clients because the expectation is for faster and faster turnaround on projects. It is my hope that the organizational structure and skill sets proposed here will generate some thinking around new ways of applying our trade and/or allow for quick adaptation to the world of agile and journalistic market research that will soon be at hand.

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