Marketing Execs: Researchers Could Use a Softer Touch

ARF Panel Talk Emphasizes Need to Ditch Surveys and Listen to Consumers' Stories, Feelings

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SAN FRANCISCO (AdAge.com) -- Long known for crunching numbers and being statistical gatekeepers of the marketing industry, market researchers need to shift their focus toward listening and developing ideas better on the front end and away from "feeding the metrics monster," Kim Dedeker, market research VP for Procter & Gamble co., told an Advertising Research Foundation forum on the industry's future.

It's potentially a huge change for P&G, the industry's biggest buyer, which now spends about 80% of its market-research budget on evaluating ideas prior to launch rather than listening to consumers on the front or back end of a product launch to help spawn ideas or improve products.

Softer skills
Ms. Dedeker was one of several players who said researchers need to employ softer skills, such as finding and telling compelling stories or making greater use of ethnography and online communities. The latter has helped lead brokerage Charles Schwab to an unlikely surge in new accounts and funds under management in recent months even as financial markets plummeted.

"What we've lost, because of that focus [on evaluating product concepts], is the opportunity to listen more on the front end and co-create with consumers and to sense and respond on the other side," said Ms. Dedeker, P&G's VP-external capability development for consumer and market knowledge.

She blamed corporate habit and Wall Street expectations for low risk and predictable results for the focus on the gatekeeper role, adding that she has heard that other package-goods marketers, automotive companies and others have told her their research outlays are similarly skewed.

"We're so focused on initiative qualification scores, on the check box that comes with the survey and feeding the metrics monster within our companies," Ms. Dedeker said.

Ms. Dedeker said marketers need to look at engaging consumers more, using tools such as social media to glean insights and winning back the trust of consumers by showing concern about them as human beings.

For Charles Schwab, social media -- specifically custom communities created by Communispace for such groups as Gen Xers or boomers within five years of retirement -- has been a solution for getting beyond conventional surveys and connecting with consumers in their own voice.

Defied the odds
Such tools, combined with heavy use of in-person ethnography, has helped Schwab somehow defy the odds amid plummeting financial markets, remarkably adding more than $100 billion in new assets under management last year and 30,000 new investor accounts in October during the height of market turmoil.

Schwab used its Gen X community to invite consumers on a jargon treasure hunt to flag the huge amount of financial lingo they didn't understand, then find ways to explain it in ways they do, said Stacy Hammond, director of market research for the company.

At Levi Strauss & Co., a focus on finding consumer stories through ethnography and then telling stories either in reports to management or in marketing has been a key to reinventing market research, said Michael Perman, senior director of consumer insights and consumer relations.

Developing such soft skills and new approaches is crucial both for research and for marketers to survive the recession, he said. "What we're experiencing right now is a complete sea change requiring us to completely rethink what were doing. We need to think our way out of this recession, not just wait for it to get better."

But the problem isn't always so much numbers so much as using the wrong ones or thinking of them the wrong way, said Joel Benenson, pollster for Barack Obama.

Probing deeper
He noted that Mr. Obama's entire campaign might have unraveled had it taken John McCain's huge 55% to 29% advantage on the has-the-right-experience question at face value. Probing deeper, he said, Mr. Obama's polls found factors such as temperament and perceived ability to handle a crisis could also factor into that experience score, which Mr. Obama in turn used to help blunt and eventually turn the experience question in his favor over the course of the campaign.

Mr. Benenson is part of a panel, also including executives from P&G, Unilever, General Mills, Levi Strauss, WPP's Kantar Group and Nielsen Co., helping the ARF plot a new course for market research less dependent on conventional surveys and more focused on creating strategic insights for marketers.

The ARF Industry Leader Forum today, the latest in a series of such talks, grew out of an effort of Chief Research Officer Joel Rubinson to have research seen as cool, featured in an Advertising Age article last year. Mr. Rubinson approached others featured in the story, including Pete Blackshaw, exec VP-digital strategic services for Nielsen, to launch an industry reappraisal of its role.

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