Thursday, October 25, 2012

Read This Now

I was lucky to attend business school with some really smart folks. One is Kerry Edelstein, who founded Research Narrative a year ago today. She has a great post today about interesting questions in media research. It's worth reading particularly because of the emphasis on the business decisions made based on the research. You all know I'm a huge fan of determining the decision you're going to make before doing the research, so I couldn't agree more.

Attention to all full-service market research firms out there: don't forget the message! I always prefer you to come back with a viewpoint. If I don't like what the research said, I can dispute your interpretation with facts, but I (hopefully, if you have done good research) can't dispute the facts themselves. Now, it's up to you to present a story about the facts and help me understand what to do as a result. Then listen to me and help guide my restatement of the story in a way I can tell management.

If Kerry continues to do that for her clients, Research Narrative should go far.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Poll Watchers Beware

Every presidential election year, I find myself re-addicted to an awesome source of polling data, These guys aggregate the raw results of various independent polls and post them in a mostly unexpurgated format. I only wish I could do cross-tabs to break down the results further (e.g., by number of Democrats versus Republicans, age, sex, income, and so forth). Frankly, I find the raw data much more enlightening than much of the terrible commentary. [One notable exception to the usual polling pablum was today's excellent Dianne Rehm show with two experts breaking down the polling into the necessary detail.]

Particularly telling is the number of people who are "unsure" or "refused" as reported in some of these polls. The numbers are as high as 8% in some polls, suggesting that a lot of people are either still undecided, are dedicated to the old-fashioned privacy policy about politics, or are just sick of being asked. Nevertheless, one sees that Obama has quite a lead in a number of these polls when voters are given the option to be unsure.

I often find that business executives want to ignore the "don't know" responses in survey data. I believe they think the results are somehow less meaningful if a lot of respondents don't know the answers. On the contrary, I think executives can learn a lot when people are given the "don't know" option.

For example, when I was on the Paint Consumers Research Program board, we changed the survey to allow respondents to say "don't know" when asked what price they paid for paint. Not only did we get much more accurate results, we discovered that almost half of respondents don't know what they paid, even when the purchase was a month ago or less. From this, I learned that price is a lot less important than I think most paint industry executives think it is. In fact, I believe that price point (low, middle or high in the store's assortment) is probably much more critical in paint buyers' decisions than actual real price. This effect could explain in part why consumers are willing to pay $50 per gallon at Sherwin-Williams when they can get decent paint at $35 per gallon at Lowe's or Home Depot.

Some of the most important decisions in new product development fall to market research interpretation, so I believe everyone involved needs to take a closer look at the results. Surprisingly, for example, the products most likely to succeed are often the products with the most positive responses and the most negative responses. When respondents rate new product ideas, the lack of a strong visceral reaction usually indicates disinterest whereas a strong negative reaction can mean that they have a real interest in the product but are not willing to buy it themselves. A number of market research startups have popped up recently to capitalize on this idea by having respondents design products "for other people" instead of making decisions with themselves in mind.

Perhaps this could be good news for Mitt Romney, whose negative ratings have been going through the roof lately. But not if you subscribe to the idea that real money markets can predict presidential elections. If that is true, our next four years will be Obama's second term.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Globalization Dilemma

My present job includes "Pricing Manager" among the various job descriptions. Facing a challenge in getting IT time to fix our quoting tool (let's face it -- who hasn't had this problem at a company that is not Google?), I turned again as I have in the past to outsourcing. I have successfully used in the past to find someone to do the work, but this time I turned to oDesk due to the nature of the work. Within days, I had found a Ukrainian developer with an amazing command of English and 20 years of experience in Java and Visual Basic including extensive work on Excel applications.

As I symbolic analyst, I often find this kind of experience troubling. When it comes down to it, most of my job could be performed anywhere in the world. I often suspect that most of the companies that hire me could find someone in India with my exact qualifications plus a Ph.D. and a background in computer science for 70% of my salary. George, my new Ukranian developer, earns $25 an hour for doing work for which I would probably pay $45 an hour at a minimum in the U.S. His English is so good that he knew the idiomatic phrase, "The devil is in the details." [Funny note of the day: in Ukranian, the literal translation of their equivalent phrase would be, "If your head is stupid on details, your legs go this way and that."]

On the bright side, this kind of internationalization means that local understanding and specialized skills can be in demand anywhere. For the market research expert in me, I find the outsourcing experience liberating because I know that some of my expertise and specialization in the U.S. consumer and B2B research market cannot be matched by someone else. Moreover, the internationalization gives me the opportunity to apply these skills to companies interested in selling into the U.S.

As a sidebar, I am in love with oDesk's awesome contractor time tracking tool called "Work Diary." It takes snapshots of your contractor's work periodically to show what they have been doing with their time. From the client's perspective, this approach gives me confidence that the contractor is working on my job when he says he is working. From the contractor's perspective, Work Diary makes it easy to track billable hours to your client and provides proof that you are billing for legitimate work if the client questions what is taking so long on an hourly project.

I foresee a future in which the percentage of work done on this kind of contract basis goes up dramatically. I can imagine that a number of companies interested in entering the U.S. market would not want to hire a market research professional full-time to do the market entry due diligence and might not have the money (or knowledge or project management abilities) to employ a full-service market research firm. These firms might turn to someone like me for a time-limited engagement that would expand their knowledge as much as they need to take the first steps in the U.S.

Overall, I think I am looking forward to this future, working on varied engaging projects for a range of interesting companies. I just have to get over my natural fear of being replaced by someone less expensive.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Breaking the Sound Barrier

Felix Baumgartner recently broke the world record for the highest skydive at 128,000 feet. The Guardian had an excellent story today about the partnership between Red Bull and Baumgartner. What I love about this idea is breaking the sound barrier... for the brand.

The "sound barrier" I'm talking about is the clutter of noise in today's multi-channel, multi-media environment. I was writing about this problem back in 1994 when I interned at advertising agency Ingalls, Quinn & Johnson in Boston before Facebook was even a twinkle in Zuckerberg's eye (I think he would have been getting his first pimple around that time). Media clutter has gotten so much worse in so many ways since then.

Breaking through the clutter often requires doing something that has never been done before. For Red Bull, it means an outlandish partnership that could have landed the brand in some trouble if Felix Baumgartner had been injured or killed. But for your brand, the partnership doesn't have to be so outlandish. For example, Barack Obama in 2008 created the world's first true nationwide, cloud-based expert system for elections that targeted voters at the individual level with grass-roots (read: millions of volunteers) targeting. This effort was a huge risk although not to the brand itself. Rather, Obama risked misusing millions of campaign dollars that had traditionally been spent on TV.

I have spoken before about one of my favorite marketing books: Mark Stevens' Your Marketing Sucks. Underneath the unpleasant title are many great tales of how to create breakthrough marketing, like Red Bull's stunt, that push the limit of marketing. His premise, with which I heartily agree, is that if you're not making a spectacle of yourself for the sake of the brand, you're probably wasting your money. If nobody sees the marketing and nobody responds, you wasted the money. Period.