Market research opinion: a contradiction in terms?

April 16, 2009

About 4 years ago, I did a master’s degree in organisational psychology.  I started off with the intention of changing career quite radically; I ended up (in the manner of many career changers) by making a more gentle change, to focus on science, new technology and (where possible) applying all that newly-updated knowledge of psychological theory to real-life projects.

Last year, I mostly worked with non-research organisations: usability agencies, user experience consultants, management consultants and learned societies.  Different working practices, different worldviews, different assumptions.

One huge difference in assumptions is that the practitioner is expected to bring their own professional opinions and wider knowledge to the table.     It may just be my impoverished experience, but too often researchers expect to present the findings rather coldly and consider the job done.   That’s what many research users expect, too.  You decide what to do with the findings once the researchers have backed out of the room.

At the same time, the Market Research Society complains (as it has done for over 20 years if my experience is anything to go by) that researchers are not getting enough respect as providers of true insight.

It is a remarkable thing when researchers offer insight.  Possibly a rather rare thing, too.

I think researchers box themselves in without even knowing it.  It’s a craft job, apprentice-taught.   There’s a startling lack of basic knowledge.  Although professionalism is creeping in via training, you’ll still find plenty of quantitative researchers who can’t tell you what a correlation coefficient is, and plenty of qualitative researchers who think that social constructivism is some form of Russian architecture.

We’re mechanics then, mostly, not designers and theorists.  There isn’t much of a theory of mechanics, and the mechanics struggle to offer meaningful insight into automotive design.

If I think about my own qualitative research training, then I don’t think I received any significantly useful professional development since I sat at the feet of Roddy Glen (himself an ex-planner) as a wee junior.     Doing a qualitative project as my Master’s thesis offered the chance to get stuck into theory;  and theory, as it turns out, is one of the most practical things you can learn.   Understanding competing theories, and you understand your own landscape for the the first time.  You’re clear about what you do, and you can offer your own opinion with far more perspective.

It’s a bit of a stretch, but I also wonder whether that atheoretical, fear-of-taking-a-stance working practice is one reason why there are so few research bloggers.    Having a personal opinion simply isn’t done.

My bad experience? Or would you agree?

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

kumeugirl April 16, 2009 at 2:05 pm

i think it’s different in different countries. i started my qual career in a small market where qual research is used strategically, and worked with senior marketers, and even CEO’s. Nothing is cold when you are working with senior people in a business, and you have to think strategically to survive the grilling. i have learned different things from different people over the years- psychologists who do great brand work with archetypal methods, an ex global planner out of Diageo, ideation specialists, people who specialise in advanced analytics who taught me to think conceptually about segmentation studies, senior qual researchers from other markets who bring a greater awareness of cultural differences and implications for research etc. But it was also a third career, and i have postgrad degree with plenty of theory. i have been part of passionate debates about whether qual was an art or a craft… but never really struck a perspective of qual as mechanical. And now – given the huge changes going on – i think its about re-design; the most exciting time in qual research for decades


Alison April 16, 2009 at 2:37 pm

I think my experience of working with smaller organisations and senior people has been exactly as you describe. I’ve seen the boxed-in projects most often when delivering research to very large organisations where you’re often very far from the decision-maker. Also, I think my comment about ‘mechanical’ applies more to quant in the UK than it does to qual. Having said that, the first qual company I worked for in the UK wanted me to keep quiet about my Ph.D because it made me look too intellectual…took me a long time to work out that part of my place in this life is sometimes to be intellectual!

In terms of qual, I think it’s incredibly valuable to be part of a community or a team which truly understands the methodology. I have spent a lot of time in quant-orientated companies where it can get quite lonely staking out a nuanced qualitative perspective. Going back to academia was a shot in the arm, in that regard.


Tom April 16, 2009 at 5:09 pm

At a large research company I worked for I used very often to hear the following: “We need a point of view on this.”

‘This’ might be anything from a sector to a client to a methodology to an abstract concept.

Because I was in the marketing department I was often drafted to create these “points of view”, usually by talking to senior people and synthesising their wisdom. They were never very good because – as I vainly protested – nobody in the company had managed to define what a “point of view” actually WAS: what it would look like or be for.

Ironically the company had several genuinely inspiring senior people who left to their own devices would produce excellent – and opinion-rich – material.

So it wasn’t that researchers were scared of opinion – they just didn’t know what it looked like.

My feeling is that one effect of this is that the research biz is often held hostage by people who know a lot less about it but DO have opinions – ad people, planners, marketers, clients… all very free with their opinions ABOUT research, which contributes to the industry’s continual self-flagellation.


Alison April 17, 2009 at 9:59 am

I’m thinking about some of those presentations where the client says sniffily, ‘So did anyone actually SAY that?’ and the anxious researcher worries about the data and clamps down, rather than rising magnificently and opinionatedly to the occasion.

When I do website reviews, I do take absolute joy in just saying, ‘Actually I think you should do this, because this part here doesn’t work.’

Yes. Marketers are very loud and very confident, often with little knowledge. I am reminded of the value of loudness every time I watch the Apprentice.


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