Editor's note: If you’re an end-client researcher and interested in participating in a Q&A with Quirk’s, please e-mail me at emilyk@quirks.com.

Bessam Mustafa

Director, Fan Insights, Toronto Blue Jays Baseball Club 

You have degrees in computer engineering and international development studies. How did you get your start in marketing research?

I’ll confess that my research career started without much forethought. I just knew that I wanted a job that could let me engage all sides of my personality and education. I’m fortunate that it’s worked out well for me! Given my background, I was able to participate in the end-to-end research process from the get-go, from identifying client requirements and uncovering root causes to key challenges, to doing statistical data work in SPSS.

What surprised you the most when moving from supplier- to client-side research? 

I think that everyone who makes the switch to client-side research realizes that they’re suddenly an influencer as much as – or more than – they are a researcher. There’s something a little bit humbling in knowing that decisions are going to be made with or without you, and you just hope that you can explain how they’re made better with you in the mix. I’m fortunate to have arrived at an organization that was primed for a data-driven transformation when I got here, but I’ve spoken with many people taking client-side roles who are met with a wall of “we’ve always done it this way,” naysayers. 

As a supplier-side researcher, I worked across many industries, but the breadth of challenges I’m tackling is wider working in-house. Part of my role is bringing a holistic research approach to parts of the business that might not traditionally have access to vendor resources, such as customer service or operations, and of knowing what all parts of the business are doing at any given time. 

There’s also great joy in providing answers quickly that drive fast change from one day to the next, especially in a stadium environment. There are times when the research cycle for a question might be less than 24 hours: launch a survey in the evening, review the results the next morning and make a change in time for first pitch that afternoon. As a research supplier, sometimes you’re lucky to get a call a year later telling you about how your work has been implemented, or not.

Can you describe the biggest difference between fan/sports insights and more traditional corporate consumer research? 

I think there are two pieces to this: the audience, and the externalities.

I don’t think many people would say that the relationship they have with their bank, insurer, drugstore or other commercial entity is central to their identity. Of course, it’s the opposite with sports fandom – it can be very emotional, and people invest themselves heavily into it. Response rates are seldom an issue for me now, because people want to influence this thing that is so important to them. It’s a great problem to have – instead of trying to get people to focus on something that’s not top-of-mind, you spend your time trying to craft instruments that get you the answers you want while still giving respondents an opportunity to go somewhere else with their feedback.

That’s where externalities come in. Team performance can swing certain types of responses wildly in a way that is impossible to ignore, but also very hard to parse out from the underlying questions we are asking. There’s a saying that when the team performs well, the beer is colder and the lines are shorter. When you’re losing, the beer is warm and you’ve spent half the game waiting for a stale hot dog. Your perception of the in-stadium experience, the brand or anything else connected to the business is shaped so much by how you’re feeling about the game and the team at any specific moment. As a result, there are constant conversations about the ‘right time’ to begin a study or project. With the news cycle being as 24/7/365 as it is, you find yourself defending insights based on when they were gathered or run the risk of never launching anything new.

What steps is the Toronto Blue Jays Baseball Club taking to continue capturing quality insights in this ever-evolving global crisis? 

COVID-19 has obviously had a massive impact on the sports and entertainment industry, and in some ways, on the Blue Jays in particular, as we are unable to play our games at home. Personally, I had so many exciting research plans revolving around the in-stadium experience that will have to stay on hold for a while!

Since March our focus has shifted from optimizing the in-stadium experience to enhancing our virtual engagement opportunities. We want to keep people in dialogue with us until we can welcome them back to the stands. Over the past two years we have worked diligently to establish a feedback loop with fans who engage with us, knowing that we take their input seriously. For example, we have an insight community that we tap regularly and share plans and results with. We’re continuing to survey them and solicit feedback with respect to the pandemic itself, how people’s fandom is manifesting in these times and what we can do to keep people’s attention until we can sell tickets again.

To date, the response has been positive. In some cases, we’re seeing higher response rates and quality of data as we were some of the earlier movers when it came to asking customers honest questions about how they perceive the pandemic. Some of my peers across industries have been reluctant to go forward with this kind of research, thinking it might be insensitive or tone-deaf, but I think we’ve managed to do it in a way that’s actually been appreciated by our audience. We can’t disappear now and expect people to participate with us again in three, six or 12+ months when it’s convenient for us – I’d rather keep the trains rolling.