Advice to New Market Research and Insight Professionals

SeedlingPosted by Ray Poynter, 18 August 2019

One of the questions I am asked most often is What advice would I give to people entering our profession? Here is a summary of the key points that I highlight.

Be T-shaped
A T-shaped person is somebody who has a broad base of skills and a specialty. In the case of market research, this means an understanding of the basics of qual, quant, how to ask questions, how to summarize information, and the ethics that surround the area of market research and insights. In addition to this broad base of knowledge, people should develop a specialty. To some extent, it almost does not matter what that specialty is. For example, it could be ethnography, choice modelling, semiotics, research with children, B2B, etc. Indeed, as the remit for market research and insights continues to expand, the range of useful special skills increases, taking in storytelling, video editing, game designing etc.

Understand Business
Perhaps the biggest weakness (that end clients and stakeholders complain about when they talk about market research) is the lack of business acumen/relevance amongst researchers. The problems include not understanding the business question, not understanding the limitations that the client is working under, and not being able to offer practical and insightful recommendations. All researchers who want to be successful should have at least a 101 understanding of business.

For example, researchers need to understand how their client makes money, how sales and marketing operate in that market, and the difference between revenue, gross margin and profit. The link between the economy, share prices, market conditions and the issues facing clients should be something that every researcher (including the most junior) should be interested in. Consider reading business publications, such as the Economist, as well as the writings of management consultants such as Seth Godin.

Take Opportunities
When chances come along, take them! Don’t wait to be asked, put your hand up or ask to be involved. For example, if your boss wants somebody to trial a new piece of software, and you suspect that this could be a major development for your company, ask to be involved. If your company is running an internal competition for best speaker, best idea, best proposal etc, enter the competition. Even if you do not win, you will learn more about yourself, more about your colleagues, more about your business, more about research, and you will become better known within your company and market.

Note, this is NOT the same as offering to do every extra job that is available! You do not want to become the overworked company dogsbody. Taking opportunities means recognizing whether something is an opportunity or not.

Develop your Personal Brand
Developing your personal brand serves two key purposes. The first is to help grow your career. A good personal brand will increase your network, advertise your strengths, and increase the number of opportunities that become available to you. The second benefit is that it will help your employer, colleagues, and clients to understand your preferences. Most people would prefer to offer you work and opportunities that match your preferences, but most people are not aware of what other people’s preferences are.

One key element of developing your personal brand is via social media, but what you do in the office is also important, and what you do in meetings is part of your brand. For more information about developing your personal brand, check out this NewMR webinar recording by Sue York and Ray Poynter.

Put in the Extra Effort
If you want to succeed at anything, there will be times when you need to do more than your regular hours. Anybody who succeeds (and by succeeds, I mean works on the projects they want to work on, who makes more money, and who has a greater say in how their work is organized) has put in extra effort along the way. However, this does not mean that you should let your employer or client dump unreasonable workloads on you. It means that when something is important enough (in your opinion), you put the extra time in. For example, if you get the chance to present at a conference, it will work out best for you and your future if you do some of the preparation in work time and some of the preparation in your own time.

To be good at something requires practice. If you want to present better, you need to practice. If you want to write better research designs, you need to practice. Practice implies doing more than is strictly necessary to get the job out of the door, it is part of putting in the extra effort. Another form of putting in the extra effort is going beyond your comfort zone. For example, you are asked to attend a course and then run a training session, this might be a scary task, but putting in the extra effort can really help develop your career.

Ask for Help and Advice
For many people, it is a good idea to find a mentor. However, an alternative is developing a network of people from whom you can ask for help and advice. Even if you do have a mentor, you can still create a wider network of people for help and advice. My tip when asking people is to be specific and time limited. For example, you might ask somebody if you could share the text of a blog you have written to get their thoughts, or ask if you can practice your presentation with them.

Thoughts for Older Researchers
Most of the points above are equally true for researchers who have been in the industry for five years or longer.

Most of the points above are equally true for researchers who have been in the industry for five years or longer.

  • Being T-shaped The world keeps changing, the core skills required in market research keep evolving. Keep checking where the base level is and keep adding specialties to your toolbox.
  • Understand Business You need to keep developing your business skills and you need to follow the changes in business models, practices, and priorities.
  • Take opportunities As you become more senior you still need to be aware of which situations are opportunities and take these opportunities when they present themselves.
  • Develop your personal brand. You want people to ask you to do the sort of work that you prefer. When you develop a personal brand it increases your clients, colleagues and employer’s knowledge of your strengths and preferences.
  • Put in the extra effort. As your career progresses there will be things you really want to do and there will be opportunities you want to take, this will typically require going the extra mile. Few people succeed by just doing what they are paid for. HOWEVER, you should avoid putting work before life (i.e. before health, friends, family etc). Putting in the extra effort means being willing to do more on those occasions where it is needed, not simply as a way of existing.

Thoughts for Employers
And finally, here are a few thoughts about what employers can do to enhance the future of their companies and the profession.

  • Enable the development of T-shaped employees. Do not just train people to do the task they are currently doing, aim to build their general skill base and encourage them to develop a specialty.
  • Give your new staff the chance to be involved in pitching for projects, for designing projects, and debriefing projects. Most companies seem to ask graduate entrants to present research findings as part of the recruitment process, but that process is often followed an 18-24 month period where the new staff are kept away from clients, until they have been turned into yesterday’s researchers (i.e. the sort of researcher you and your colleagues already are).
  • Instill a business and customer-focused culture across the whole organization. When I talk to clients that complain that research providers do not have enough business savvy, they are not just talking about the younger researchers – the lack of business focus tends to start at the top.

2 thoughts on “Advice to New Market Research and Insight Professionals

  1. Book recommendation: Seth Godin: LINCHPIN – Are you indispensable?
    This book is perfectly matching the thoughts of this article.

  2. Thanks for this great article Ray! I wish I had something like this when I started my journey in Research.

    My two cents:

    The skills you need to be a great MR Analyst, are, I will be very honest, about 90% the skills you need to succeed in any job, with the other 10% depending on your market/role

    You need three qualities – be curious, detail-oriented, and able to interpret data.

    That’s more or less it, and the last point is critically important. Other people will be telling you to learn Excel – I agree. Excel was something of the order of 90% of my job. The more you know starting out, the more you will be able to accomplish.

    It’s also important to have a clear idea of what MR is and what people working in the industry do.

    To get a general idea of what is happening in the industry, I would recommend to follow people and trade sites like Greenbook, ESOMAR, Jake Pryszlyak’s “Research Geek” blog, or Ray Poynter’s NewMR hashtag, and Edward Appleton’s Research and Reflect Blog etc

    There’s also a lot that’s country specific – doing MR in India is very different from doing MR in the UK for example

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