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Ben Blaweiss

The Evolution of Marketing Research

by Ben Blaweiss Monday, October 29, 2012

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of attending the ESOMAR International Congress in Atlanta as a networking facilitator. ESOMAR is an international marketing research conference dedicated to encouraging, advancing, and elevating market research worldwide. To qualify for the position of networking facilitator, I interviewed with the ESOMAR program director. The interview focused on three questions that I believed were thought-provoking, so I wanted to share them (along with my answers):

1. How do you see the market research industry evolving and how can you contribute to it?

I see the market research industry evolving in three directions. The first is towards global research at a granular level. Right now, global research seems to aggregate to the national level. But most nations are complex mixtures of regions and cultures that are not accurately represented in the aggregate. I believe that market researchers seeking insights in developing nations will have to think locally. A market in Hong Kong is very different from a market in Guangzhou or Beijing. Knowing those differences, forming partnerships with local research suppliers who understand those differences, and immersing ourselves in those differences will lead to better understanding of global consumption. 

To that point, I am eager to contribute to global research by immersing myself in foreign cultures and understanding how consumers, shoppers, and channels work in different regions. On a recent trip to China, for instance, I saw how in-store promoters completely changed the shopping dynamic for Chinese shoppers. Almost every aisle had promoters attempting to sell their employers' products, and companies without promoters were pushed off shelves and overlooked by shoppers. This is not something I could have truly understood had I not witnessed it myself. In the future, I wish to continue to immerse myself in different cultures to understand how consumers differ around the world.

Second, I believe that the market research field will see a synthesis of quantitative and qualitative research. We are seeing the beginning of this now: Neuroscience is allowing us to quantify consumer beliefs at a deep emotional level; virtual shopping allows consumers to experience a store environment and allows researchers to quantify the shopping experience; social media is changing how panels and ethnographies are being conducted. I believe this trend will continue, and soon we will see a unification of 'quant' and 'qual.'

I hope to contribute to this trend by thinking beyond the standard quant/qual barrier and exploring ways to unify the story told by research methods. Finding concrete ways to tell one story will simplify and clarify business decisions and consumer insights.

Third, I predict that market research will emphasize the increasingly important role of the shopper, especially in light of new channels. Understanding how the shopper makes decisions, and how those decisions are different than those self-reported by consumers, will be critical in improving store and shelf design, as well as display and feature usage. Meanwhile, understanding what new channels are emerging and how shoppers are using them will be vital for companies, even in the consumer packaged goods industry. For instance, I worked in confections, which is mostly bought on impulse. How does impulse behavior present itself when shopping via e-commerce? Such questions will require answers as more consumers are moving into non-traditional channels.

For my part, I hope to be on the forefront of understanding how shoppers approach new channels, and how to sell tangible products in intangible markets. This will be challenging, but I am looking forward to the way this will revolutionize shopper insights.

2. What are, in your opinion, the necessary skills for market researchers in the present environment?

The first skill is the ability to put the business's needs first. My goal is to be seen, both among my research peers and among my fellow employees, as a business manager with a market research toolbox. Research questions should be tied directly to relevant business decisions. Meanwhile, I think it is less important to be 100% right than it is to be directionally right at the time that crucial decisions must be made. To expand on that, I believe that putting the business's needs first also means anticipating future business needs and preparing to answer questions before they are asked. In this way, market researchers can remain relevant and influential in their institutions. 

The second skill is the ability to remain trustworthy in spite of pressures to get in line with the current mode of thinking. Part of remaining trustworthy is remaining up-to-date on methodologies and strategies. This is possible by consistently prioritizing learning, attending conferences, staying in touch with peers, and connecting with researchers new to the field. But being trustworthy also means defending the truth even when it is inconvenient to do so. There will often be pressure to confirm what managers already believe or what other research has already indicated. But a researcher's duty is not to the present belief but to the objective reality. Holding firm to this might cost a researcher friends in the short run, but it will gain him/her respect and trust in the long run.

The third skill is more of an art - the art of influence. Research is only as good as the ear that will hear it and the mind it will change. If the researcher lacks the necessary skills to convince others, then the research is for naught. Influence can come from the ability to tell a story with data in a clear and illuminating way. As data visualization becomes easier and more sophisticated, researchers must stay attuned to the clearest and most compelling ways to present data. Influence can also come from understanding how decisions are made in an institution and mastering the process of turning an idea into an action. Both of these attributes will lead to a more influential researcher. 

3. How do you see your career unfolding and what are your aspirations?

My career path and aspirations are rather vague at this point in my career; however, I do have more broad goals to which I hope to stay true. The first is never to get comfortable. A mentor once advised me to keep pushing myself out of my comfort zone, either by trying new techniques, changing positions within a company or industry, or even changing industries entirely. Doing so will lead to constant improvement, armor against changing trends and the ebbs and flows of the economy, and continual interest in the field of market research.

My second goal is to keep learning. I never want to get caught in a web of complacency, and I always want to stay up-to-date on new techniques and frameworks. To do this, I plan to keep learning from professionals in the field, attend conferences that promise to challenge me and force me to confront my own weaknesses, and continue to connect with peers as they learn new things as well.

My third goal is to find better ways to connect the "what" to the "why." Right now, quantitative data is often used to describe what is happening, and qualitative data is used to try to understand why it is happening. But both approaches are so discrete from each other that they lose context and accuracy. I want to continue to find ways of combining methods of answering "what" with methods that answer "why." This could include new techniques that synthesize quantitative and qualitative data (such as neuroscience, online community panels, and virtual shopping as described previously). This also includes finding better ways to connect shopping behavior with consumer behavior. Shoppers often answer the "what" by demonstrating how items are viewed and purchased in store. Meanwhile, consumers often answer "why" by giving insight into the internal belief structures that feed into an ultimate purchasing decision. As shopper insights becomes more refined, I hope to be on the cutting edge of synthesizing what we know about the consumer with what we know about the shopper so that internal beliefs match what if offered at shelf, leading to a seamless flow from brand promise to product purchase.