Market Research in a VUCA world

A VUCA world – Volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.  While you may not have heard the term VUCA itself, I think most of us resonate with those descriptors of today’s world.

The term VUCA was originated in the military in the 1990’s and is now being used in management circles.  One of the first steps an organization can take in ensuring that it responds appropriately to VUCA situations is to understand what is going on.  That is exactly what Market Research is so great at!  But how well does Market Research take into account the VUCA dynamics?  Let’s look at the various components of a VUCA world and think about how Market Research can help.


A lot of times in Market Research we work with averages.  We describe the majority of responses and use terms like most and many.  That is valuable work and we shouldn’t stop doing it.  However, volatility comes from the non-majority.  Volatility comes from the outliers that may have been there to read but we might be ignoring them if we only focus on the norm.  A scan of the social media universe would be helpful in uncovering some potential volatility. After all, we know what one well placed tweet can do to upend a long term strategy.

One of the studies I did for a client illustrates the kind of work that might help in a VUCA world.  In the year 2000, there were starting to be rumblings about vaccines causing autism (today’s equivalent might some tweets).  A large scale segmentation study was able to identify how many people held these anti-vaccine attitudes and how those attitudes fit into their life view.  This group was a potential VUCA type event waiting to happen and we can hypothesize that that group has grown in size today.  (This study was published by the client, Merck, and can be found in the journal Vaccine in March 2005.)  Conducting these types of studies to understand the entire landscape and then following negative groups can be the key to understanding the potential sources of volatility.

Another area to consider is how we forecast trends.  We spend a lot of time uncovering potential events (competitive new product launches, potential legislation, etc.)  We take trend curves from various other historical launches into account and then adjust them for those events we anticipate.  That’s useful, and well and good.  But those are for things are continuations of what is going on today.    What are the things we can’t know about?  Perhaps this is only a topic for war gaming but is there anything market research can do to uncover what some potential sources of volatility might be?

Uncertain-This would be an interesting area to explore how well Market Research can pick up the uncertainties.

Complex- We all want things to be simple, we want to understand.  But we need to walk a fine line between creating a comprehensible story line so people can make sense of what is going on and simplifying too much, so that they lose the texture of the events.

Ambiguous- Market Research can certainly help reduce ambiguity.  We can describe the world as it is and try to figure out what might be.

So perhaps a plan for Market Research in a VUCA world should include an annual scan of the social media world, followed by a large scale custom study to assess the resonance of the negative items, if any were found.

I’m just beginning to think about the types of studies that we would need to help management better understand the VUCA world of today.  I’d love to hear some more ideas from readers.

Working at home and introversion: Is there a relationship?

There have been two items about working at home in the news lately.  Marissa Mayer (a self confessed introvert), CEO of Yahoo, has announced that working at home is no longer allowed at Yahoo.  To quote her:  “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side,” the memo said. “That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.”

Then, the Census Bureau reported that work at home had reached an all time high.  “Some 13.4 million people, or 9.4 percent of U.S. workers, labored at least one day at home per week in 2010, compared with 9.2 million people, or 7 percent of U.S. workers in 1997, according to one Census Bureau report released Tuesday.”

Susan Cain, in her book Quiet, notes that Introverts work better on tasks that need concentration when the noise level is low and extraverts (sic) work better when the noise level is high.  She notes that the open office plans that are taking hold right now can be problems for introverts.  I can attest to that fact, when I worked in a cube I was very frustrated and not as productive as when I had my own office just around the corner.  When I was in the cube, there was one woman whose voice was like fingernails on a chalkboard for me, but she didn’t seem to bother others the way she bothered me.  Now that I have read Quiet, I attribute a lot of my reaction to being an introvert.

I personally welcomed the ability to work at home as a way to overcome the problems of working in an open office plan.  So I wondered, whether more introverts work at home, or at least are happier working at home, especially if the option is a (relatively) noisy cube.   I raised that question to Susan Cain, who thought it was a very interesting question.

As I market researcher at heart (even though I am only consulting occasionally ), I am curious. So, I have created a survey to study this issue.  Actually, since am using the free version of Survey Monkey, I’ve created two, one for extraverts and one for introverts.  Below are the links for each, please click on the link that applies to you.  Feel free to pass it on to extraverts and introverts you know.  I will report these results in this blog when I have gotten a reasonable number of response to each.

If you are an extravert and have worked in more than one type of work environment (work at home, work in a cube, work in an office with a door) please use this link:

If you are an introvert and have worked in more than one type of work environment, please use this link:

Thanks for your participation and please feel free to pass it along to others so I can get enough responses to be meaningful.  (As of May 7th, I have 43 introverts and 23 extraverts – I need 50 of each minimum, so please pass this along to your friends.)

Big Data and Primary Market Research

One of the phrases we have started to hear a lot of lately is “Big Data”.  First, a definition for those who aren’t up on this trend.

From Wikipedia: Big data usually includes data sets with sizes beyond the ability of commonly-used software tools to capturecurate, manage, and process the data within a tolerable elapsed time.  Big data sizes are a constantly moving target.

Big data type analysis is used now in a lot of different venues.  One use of big data that has been getting a lot of attention is when people pull together data from disparate sources such as credit reports, on-line browsing behavior, car ownership records, and other sources to create individual profiles of people which can be used for targeting purposes.  Social media is generating a lot of data, which may be folded into this, as well as locatoin data from cell phones which now allows delivery of coupons based on where your phone is   Big data is finding uses in health care, with the advent of electronic health records.  It has been touted as bringing the ability to affect changes in health behavior such as reducing hospitalizations.  In essence, it is an extreme form of segmentation – we are now talking about segments of one.

Big data is giving rise to new privacy concerns.  I used to dismiss concerns about the safety of giving out information to Market Research both because I knew from experience (at that time) that the CASRO guidelines meant the data wouldn’t be used to sell plus that marketers weren’t interested in individual behavior and couldn’t deal with the volume of information on an individual basis. At that time in the past, detailed data like that had no value for them.  Well, the decrease in computing cost and the development of more sophisticated software has changed that.

Implication:  This may be another factor contributing to the decrease in cooperation rates for market research surveys. We may know that we are adhering to CASRO guidelines or HIPPA regulations, but our audience doesn’t know what those guidelines are, and can’t discern when something is true market research and when it is data collection to enable direct marketing.  Recognizing this factor could help us identify a potential solution to declining response rates. As I have noted before, if the decline doesn’t stop, we won’t be able to conduct quantitative market research for much longer See my post here for more details:

Beyond these, there are some other implications of Big Data for Primary Market Researchers.

  1. Unless your corporate market research department shows that it is capable of dealing with Big Data, another  department will.  Find out how to make use of it fast!  or else you will lose an opportunity.  (It may already be too late.)  
  2. Learn how to integrate Big Data with primary market research.  You should use it before doing any primary study to inform what you do, and you should interpret your results in light of Big Data findings.
  3. There may be some projects that you don’t need to do with primary research because you can do them instead with Big Data.  Do it!  Don’t waste respondents time and energy providing estimates when you can get actual data.  Every unnecessary use of a respondent may contribute to declining response rates.
  4.  You should know which of your vendors can deal with Big Data, so you are ready to have them help you integrate Big Data with Primary Market Research.

However, in my opinion, Big Data should never substitute for Primary Market Research or for the insights that people can bring.   This article from the NY Times makes a great case for how Big Data can’t substitute for human reasoning and intuition.

As always, I appreciate your comments and suggestions.

Market Research with Impact

One of the recent Research Daily Reports that Bob Lederer has posted on YouTube has stuck with me.  This showcased David Santee’s (former client side MR) views on becoming a trusted advisor.  I do recommend watching it.

His views dovetail very closely with what I have been saying about interaction.  To recap, McKinsey has identified that the types of jobs in which interaction are crucial are the growth jobs of the future. But when we in Market Research focus on getting our projects done and not on making sure they get incorporated into the companies DNA (David Santee’s words, not mine), then we aren’t doing the interaction part of our job very well.  When we think our reports will speak for themselves and don’t work on how to ensure they get acted upon,  we aren’t doing the interaction part of our job very well.  When we avoid meetings as a waste of time, and then complain that the brand team are idiots because they ignored what we wrote in our report, we aren’t dong the interaction part of our job very well.

I’ll repeat what I said in my back to basics entry.  The purpose of marketing research is to help a company increase sales.  If you aren’t working towards that, if you think your job is to create reports, then you aren’t doing your job.  No wonder senior leadership of MR departments is sometimes drawn from outside MR, such as the example that David Santee cites.  I saw that first hand several years in a department I was in. Back then, I didn’t get the reason, but I do now.  It’s a failure of Market Research to look beyond their work to what the impact of their work is.

David Santee has some good recommendations for change at the senior level which  you can see on the video, and I’ll add ones here for how to get this thinking further down into the organization.

  • Adding into people’s objectives things that measure the impact their research has had.  Perhaps, how often their research solved the problem for the brand or pointed to a new direction,
  • In status meetings, don’t just talk about active project status, talk about what efforts people are making to ensure that their previous research is being implemented.
  • In department meetings, highlight people or projects that changed the brand or company’s direction.
  • Make it mandatory that MR staff take a course or read a book on the topic of persuasion and identify one thing that they can do to ensure their ideas get listened to
  • Mandate that employees attend meetings at which they might have a chance to affect the decisions being made, regardless of whether it is based on their research.
  • And (echoing what Mike Garcia has added in his comments) get your vendors involved in making sure the project has impact!

I am sure there are other ideas that you can come up with and I’d love to hear them, and what happens when you start implementing them.

Back to Basic II: How does marketing research help marketing?

The role of marketing research is to increase the effectiveness and decrease the risk of marketing efforts.  Marketing decisions can be made without any input from customers, but decisions made by understanding customers often yield better results than if you don’t do research.

For example, 80% of all new product entries fail.  A good marketing research program can  help reduce the risk of that failure.  It won’t eliminate it, because marketing research has not yet reached the stage when it is infallible and because people ignore or misinterpret the results of research, but it can reduce the risk.  Failure of a new product costs a lot of money, which is why marketing research programs are worth the investment.

The best way to explain how this works is to look at the 4 P’s of Marketing and explain how Market Research can help with them in the context of launching a new product.

Price:  A product may fail because it is priced too high or too low.  Marketing research techniques have been developed to collect customer opinions on price.  One commonly used technique is called the Van Westendorf model.  However, the research is not infallible.  I have seen products priced in a way that fits with the research and still be perceived as too  highly priced.  But usually the results are better than if you didn’t do the research.

Place: This is a neglected area of market research but perhaps with mobile technology this area will get more interest.  It is important to know where your product is most likely to be purchased so that your product is distributed in the right way.  I have seen products fail because the marketing department didn’t take “place” into account in a clear enough way and there haven’t been good tools for researching that.

Product:  This, and promotion, are the areas that get the most attention in market research.  The belief is that if you get the product and the advertising right, that a new product will succeed.  Typical kinds of research done about the product in the consumer world are concept tests (where a written description is shown to respondents who rate how likely they are to buy the product) and product placement tests (where the consumers are given a product to try and rate.)  Some companies efficiently screen multiple concept tests at one time. Then the top scoring concepts are given more attention and polish.  Product testing is often skipped: It is one of the most expensive types of research plus some regulated products can’t be put into product testing, such as pharmaceuticals.

Promotion:  For many years the major (and most expensive) form of promotion has been advertising.   Market research can help you identify the key elements of developing an advertising campaign:

  • Target audience- this one is key.  When you do your concept testing for developing the product, you need to pay attention to who is most likely to buy the product.  That should go into your forecast (to determine if you have a big enough target market for the product to be successful) and also inform your advertising.  Advertising that doesn’t take into account who is likely to buy the product runs the risk of being annoying and unpersuasive
  • Perceptions of product and category- in order to create great advertising, the ad agency needs to know how the customers feel about the category as it is. Do they have a problem with products in the category that your product can solve?  If you don’t do research, you run the risk of making assumptions that are false, which can lead to failure.
  • What is the most effective message to say about your product? Once you know how consumers think about your product, you can develop several options for your basic message.  Testing the different options to find out which one is most compelling gives you a more informed basis on which to make this decision.  This may be overlooked, because people want to jump straight to advertising and/or they may think the strategic focus is obvious.  Getting the message right can have a huge impact on sales.
  • What is the most effective way to say your message?  Ads that say the same message can look and feel very different and have very different effectiveness at selling the product.  Thus, an ad agency will usually create multiple “creative concepts.” Testing the final options for the creative concepts is one of the most creative types of research there is.  There are many ways to do this from focus groups and one on one qualitative interviews to large scale ad tests to the new neuromarketing techniques. Problems crop up with this stage when you haven’t done the earlier stages.  I’ve also written about some of the problems of testing ad concepts in another post.   (Link here   )

Introversion and Market Research

I recently took the Myers-Briggs Inventory for the fourth or fifth time and as before scored (as expected) as an introvert – not as an extreme introvert- but still solidly in the introvert camp.  Taking the test reminded me of how my score on a test right after college led to my career in Market Research.   I was presented with a list of potential careers based on my test results, which included Market Research.    So, one reason why Market Research may be filled with introverts is because career counselors have identified it as appropriate for introverts.

I think Market Research is well suited to introverts, it can be a great career.  (It was for me.)  But it has changed since I entered it.  Prior to automation, there was lots of solitary work, pulling data, creating charts and graphs, and writing reports.  With automation and outsourcing, some of that has gone away.

There are other work environment changes in recent years that affect the suitability of the work for introverts.  In her book, Quiet, Susan Cain talks about the relatively new emphasis on team work, which puts a strain on introverts.  The world in which cube farms are common and offices are rare also puts a strain on introverts.  Thank heaven; this is counterbalanced by an increased ability to be effective remotely so that more and more people are working at home.   Working at home would seem to be a dream situation for an introvert, but if the person doesn’t make an effect to get out to make sure your work gets recognized, it could be make one less successful.

Introversion is a hot topic.  I am getting lots of readers of this blog who want to know about introverts can act like extroverts.  Bob Lehrer, in his PharmaMR newsletter that came out this week, has chosen to focus on my views about introversion.  The first draft I reviewed sounded like I was very critical of introverts, which I am not.  Just to be totally clear, I consider myself militantly pro-introvert! I am however focused on the tension between introversion and what it takes to be successful in the Market Research function.  One of my goals in this blog and the work I do is to help introverts become more effective, without changing their fundamental nature.  While I loved the premise of Susan Cain’s book Quiet, that the pro-extrovert world should adapt to recognize and get the most out of the introverts in the world, I know that I can’t do anything about that.  What I hope to help with is to identify small changes that an introvert can make to adapt to the “world that won’t stop talking” (from Susan Cain’s subtitle).


For Newbies-Two types of Market Research

This blog has primarily been written for Market Research Professionals such as myself, but it appears to be showing up when people search for the different types of market research.  Since my previous post about two different types of market research isn’t appropriate for a newbie question, here it is the information which newbies to market research may be looking for.  Those of you who are experts, please feel free to comment and make any corrections, or skip it.

The term Market Research encompasses a lot of things.  If you are being asked for two different types of market research in a class, the answers your teacher might be looking for could be “primary” and “secondary.”  The question also might be asking for the two different types of “primary” research – qualitative and quantitative.  It can also be referring to the two main different types of qualitative research.  Explanations of each are below – you will have to figure out what is appropriate based on the way your particular teacher asked the question.

Primary market research is when you (the client, i.e., the person or organization who is going to use the information) decides what questions to ask, and then work out a way to ask them.  There are lots of ways to collect data for primary market research- it can be done online, in person, on the telephone or via mail.  Your decision should be based on how you can best reach your respondents (those who you want to ask questions of) and what you want to do.

Another crucial decision when conducting primary market research, is whether to conduct qualitative or quantitative research.  You can mix and match technique (qual/quant) with medium (online, telephone, in person) – there are innovative ways that have been developed to do almost anything.   The Qual/Quant decision should be based on the nature of your questions and the answers you need.   Here’s a way to tell them apart – if you want to use statistics and say “blank” percent of people said that KKKK OR more people liked RRRR than SSSS  OR people rated concept WWW higher than concept TTTT – then your question is quantitative in nature.  If you are content with saying “It seems that the key to why people liked concept WWW is the last line.” OR “People got very excited when shown BBBB because they really resonated with the idea of UUUU” OR “Concept development in this area needs to take in to account people’s needs for  FFFF, RRRR, and JJJJ”  then your method should be qualitative.  (One of my personal pet peeves is people who try to combine them both without really knowing the limitations of both. Take it with a grain of salt if someone shows you an average from a focus group.)

Within qualitative there are two basic types – individual interviews (also known as depth interviews) and group interviews (also known as focus groups, but also can be known as dyads, triads, or mini-groups.)  To decide between them, you need to think about whether the group interaction will be useful (such as in some special projective techniques) or whether the group interaction will cause influence that is not useful (for example, since ads are usually viewed when people are alone, showing people alternative new ads is usually done one on one.)

Secondary market research is when someone else has taken responsibility for the data collection and the client or end user doesn’t (usually) get any input.  This can refer to data such as sales data or prescription data, or to surveys done on a syndicated/subscription basis or published surveys used as promotional efforts.  IMS, Wolters Klouwer, IRI and Nielsen are some big names in the area that collects data on sales and prescriptions.  NPD collects consumer purchase data in categories like restaurants and clothing.   Another type of data like that is census data (available free online from the government) which is used for identifying where to put retail stores.  For health issues, there are government surveys such as NHANES that are also free.

Some companies make a business of conducting surveys and selling them to companies on a subscription basis. There are many but some big names include companies Gallup, Datamonitor and Decision Resources.  Also, a company may be trying to get attention and may do a study and provide some of results for free in order to get publicity.  Another category of data you can access is completed by stock analysts who sometimes issue reports that can be useful if you have access to them. Google is a great source, but a good information specialist at a specialized library or firm knows about sources that you will have trouble finding on Google.

Even if you are going to do primary research it is a good idea to check out secondary data – it usually makes you smarter so you ask better questions.  Sometimes it can be good enough and save you money.