One of the questions I get asked quite often is about the advice I would give to people entering the market research profession. People are aware of the changes being wrought by DIY, big data, the decline of surveys, in the moment research, etc, and wonder how should new entrants best prepare for an uncertain world.
Having had plenty of time to think about it, I would suggest thinking about skills and choices in three groups.
However, before looking at these three, I will start by answering a bigger question, ‘would you recommend joining the market research profession?’ My answer is a definite yes! There will be an interesting, vibrant, and profitable research industry for at least ten years, and, frankly, that is about as far into the future as most young people should be looking. The skills learned in market research can be readily applied elsewhere, the money is not bad, the people are mostly great, and the work can be fun (but stay away from doing the repetitive bits of trackers).
There are some things that everybody looking to be successful in market research should master and I think these are:
Understanding the role of market research
For me this means knowing the basics of turning a business problem into a research problem, into a research solution, and then turning the research results back into something that facilitates better business decisions. It also means knowing the difference between qual and quant, knowing the main strengths and limitations of both, and knowing how to combine them. At its core it means knowing how to ask the right questions and how to interpret answers.
Understanding the basics of business
Market researchers are not an island, we exist to help businesses make better decisions, and these days that requires an understanding of issues such as ROI, churn, distribution, marketing, and, for example, being aware of the difference between revenue and profit, and between prices and costs.
Being able to create and deliver a story
A few people may specialise in the advanced use of data visualisation tools, but everybody in the market research profession will need to be able to find the story in the data and then create a narrative that enables the insight to be turned into action. Being a storyteller will not be a specialism, it will be table stakes.
With a few exceptions, it does not really matter what the new entrant to marketing research decides to specialise in. People who are really good at something can usually find plenty of good opportunities. The exceptions are likely to be things like running a print room or call centre.
However, key areas that I think will be in strong demand are:
- Data scientists – ideally ones who understand causality and why researching people and social systems creates additional challenges.
- Qualitative researchers – ideally with a blend of face-to-face and digital skills.
- Project managers – projects are getting faster, cheaper, and more complex. There is a growing need for people who have the skills to manage a team and the training/tools to project manage.
- Problem analysts – in IT one of the key groups are the systems analysts. People describe what they do to the analysts and what they’d like to be able to do. The analyst then assesses what is possible, how it can be achieved, and factors in the client’s limitations in envisioning what they will want when the new system is in place. This is a growing need in market research, i.e.to listen to business problems being described in business terms, and designing a solution that will, via research, deliver business answers.
- Sales people – for too long many market research companies have felt only market researchers can sell research. This is bunkum, and over the last few years there has been a steady growth in the use of sales teams, armed with tools like Salesforce. In the future there will be many, many more sales people in market research.
A British politician (Dennis Healy) once said that to be a good politician a person needed to have a hinterland, i.e. other areas of interest and experience that informed their views and decisions. The same is true of market researchers. Market research is about people, so researchers who can draw on being scout leader, a musician, a member of a sports team, a charity fund raiser, an academic, etc will be better able to place research projects in a wider social framework.
In the past, many people chose to keep their private and work lives separate. But in a digital/social/mobile world these different selves are colliding together. I would urge young researchers to blend their lives, drawing on their wider interests and passions within their professional lives.
These are my tips, I’d love to hear your thoughts, suggestions, and warnings.