Industry Expertise Matters When Delivering Insights vs. Data

I can still recall my frustration in receiving countless emails and voicemails during my years as a client-side marketing researcher in the sports, media and leisure industries.  The pitches all took on a familiar and uninformed tone.  They thought that our company sounded really cool…and they were a “great” marketing research company that could deploy a range of “cutting edge methodologies du jour.”

In a sales and marketing environment where knowing and understanding the customer is tantamount to business success, it never ceased to confound me when this flurry of blind solicitations quickly revealed that the hopeful seller hadn’t spent any more time than required to find my contact information, to learn about my company and my department.  Had they done so, they would have understood that our department had full custom research capabilities, replete with in-house experts on sampling, data collection design and field management, as well as data processing, analytics and reporting/story telling.  Further, they only needed to do a simple search on our group to find countless white papers, industry specific reports and other thought leadership that we had produced, thus rendering useless their empty claims that to be able to perform an array of modalities that we were already proficient in.  Unfortunately, too many of these sales pitches were all about the product that they were trying to sell rather than about what we, as potential customers, might actually need.  It was abundantly clear that in addition to offering nothing but capabilities that we already possessed, they had no specialized knowledge of our company or our industry.  It led to the obvious conclusion that there was probably little of added value that they could offer.

When we launched our research firm, some ten years ago, I made a vow not to make the same mistake. If we were going to be successful among the morass of research providers, we needed to be customer centric and well versed in our specific categories of study.  We needed to surround our MR skills with an industry expertise and the flexibility to lend that to specific customer challenges, rather than being simply product or methodology focused.  To simply say that we were proficient across a range of methodologies or provided full service qualitative and quantitative research, would not allow us to differentiate ourselves from the pack. That meant investing time and effort to learn the landscape, and leverage our past experience to service specific vertical categories with more than just methodologically sound marketing research. Added value could come from deploying a pragmatic understanding of these categories so as to provide consultative insights rather than just data.

There’s a line I’ve often used over the years to describe what my client side departments and current company strive to represent…”The only difference between us and the big strategy consultancies is that we’re six figures less expensive than their entry level engagements.”  I truly believe that living that mantra can be a hedge for any marketing researcher who wants to avoid being commoditized or marginalized.

I still shrug my shoulders when so much of the research industry conversation gravitates towards what is purported to be shiny new methodologies.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m constantly in pursuit of innovative new ways to collect and process information, not to mention how to package and present it.  But with that comes a more than healthy dose of skepticism and significant wear on my tires that has led me to conclude that most of these innovations are simply marketing spin and fancy window dressing on a tried and true methodology, with little barriers to entry.  Ie…most everyone else can build their own version of that mousetrap, if they set their mind to it. What can’t be replicated is contextual understanding of what the mousetrap provides.

At the end of the day, exceptional marketing research is ultimately about obtaining the right answers to a client’s questions, from the right people, processing it and applying it to a broader body of contextual knowledge that can help the client move their business forward.  Too many MR practitioners don’t even get the questions or the sampling part correct.  It’s the rarer few that do the contextual application part, correctly.  That requires a time investment and focus in learning your client’s business and competitive set, often before you even walk in the door.  But that investment can create sustainable competitive advantage that yields benefits along every step in the research value chain.

To cite real life examples, it can be as simple as being able to quickly spot and remove professional respondents, who claim to be avid, skilled golfers, and then disqualify themselves when they fumble a carefully designed probe that exposes their lack of equipment knowledge.  At the opposite end of a project, it means understanding the real environment that a client works within.  Again borrowing from actual experience, it requires going beyond a generic and non-actionable conclusion—-“Game tickets are seen as too expensive, so consider lowering prices”—to something more informed and pragmatic, that recognizes and understands the revenue model in place, as well as management hot buttons.

Providing insights rather than data is not always easy.  But bringing a fundamental understanding of a client’s specific and broader situation is tantamount towards making that leap.  Doing so, can allow any researcher to stand above the pack, and that’s a perfect way to gain that often elusive “seat at the table.”

Jon Last is President of Sports and Leisure Research Group, a full service marketing research consultancy serving the sports, travel and media sectors with consultative custom research.  Learn more at www.sportsandleisureresearch.com.

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