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Research Generalist vs. Research Specialist

To Specialize or To Generalize — That is the Question


Do you choose Research Companies by Specialty?  Sometimes it’s a good idea.  Sometimes it’s not!


The Specialist Inspires Trust

You know the old saying: Jack of all trades, master of none.  Going to the Specialist generally saves time (they don’t need to re-invent the wheel).  And, they bring lots of good experience with the techniques they have mastered.  This not only inspires confidence in the prospect of a flawless execution of the study, but the “mastered” technique can often enhance the Spe­cialist’s analytical contribution.  It is not surprising that many members of the market research commu­nity assign sections of a total project to different Specialists (the concept testing experts, the product testing experts, the tracking study experts, the packaging research experts, qualita­tive experts, big quan­titative study experts, statistical experts, etc.).

Sometimes being a “specialist” is in the eyes of the beholder.  As an example, some clients use us only for concept tests, others consider us to be “the college market expert”, others figure our talents would be wasted on anything that did not dip into intense sta­tistical analysis.  And, one client would not consider having anyone other than Ron Nelson do focus groups!  (I do an unorthodox focus group, but that’s the subject for another Nelson Research Bulletin.)

The Other Side of the Coin

The analysis of each Specialist may be highly frag­mented (each may not know the “whole story”).  It is, therefore, difficult for the Specialist to “go beyond the numbers”.  Since the Technique Specialist’s knowledge of the product category and relevant marketing background may often be incomplete, many Client Researchers prefer to do their own analysis and rely primarily on the Research Company to execute the study and provide tabulations.


However, in today’s economy burdened with reduced staffs, it becomes increasingly more difficult for the Research Manager to manage, analyze, write the report, give the presentation, go to the endless num­ber of meetings, plan for the brand’s research needs and still be able to get 8 hours sleep at night.


The alternative:  Assign a product category to a Research Company who has proven to you they can wear many analytical and technical hats.  Keep the Project Director constant.  (Unfor­tunately, this is not an easy feat with a large company.)  If part of the assignment calls for groups, the Project Director should be skilled in this area (sitting behind the one-way mirror, or listening to the tapes is not quite the same thing).  If the project calls for Statistical Analy­sis, they should have the answers (or, as a reality trade-off, at least know the questions and understand the answers from their staff “expert”).


Knowledge from one phase of a study seeps into the other phases.  This increased knowledge makes it pos­sible for the Research Company to provide you with a more complete analysis.  The more they can do, the more time you have to ponder the Marketing Implica­tions instead of getting wrapped up in analytical detail.


The following case history illustrates the contributions of the Research Generalist.


The Quantitative/Qualitative Connection (The Ambidextrous Researcher)


Additional analytical ammunition can be provided by using the rich insights from qualitative research to put meat on the bones of the numbers supplied by quantita­tive research.


In a recent A & U study for a health care product, we found that several of the “more personal” symptoms did not surface to the top of our benefits-sought list.  However, some candid replies from qualitative research we conducted prompted us to dig a little deeper (fortunately, our client did not skimp on sam­ple size).  A glance at ratings by age within sex revealed that younger women considered relief of these symptoms to be very important.  Men routinely dismissed the importance of these “personal” benefits.  Since Nelson Research also conducted the qualitative phase, we were able to observe the same phenomenon first hand (but with some rather colorful quotes to illustrate male denial and some consistent testimony from the female groups regarding the need for a product to address the personal symptoms).  A traditional GAP analysis in the A/U study clearly showed that younger women did not feel that currently used products were providing these “personal” benefits in proportion to the degree sought.  Insights from the group sessions suggested ways of addressing the issue in a socially acceptable manner.


If all we had were my group sessions, we might not have had sufficient reason to pursue the strategy.


If we didn’t personally conduct and analyze the group sessions, we might not have delved as deeply to find that the sensitive benefit was important, but only to a specific segment.  [Passively sitting behind the one-way mirror or seeing a videotape is not nearly as inspiring as personally moderating and analyzing the groups.]


The qualitative research provided a spark.  The quan­titative research, when properly analyzed, identified the spark as a major opportunity among a specific segment of ailment sufferers.  Further, the qualitative research stimulated creative ways of positioning the benefit.



Dealing with Sticker Shock

The following is an excerpt from an archive edition of the Nelson Research Bulletin and seems even more relevant today than it was years ago.

The costs of marketing research studies have a high “shock effect”.  Marketing research is not a profit center.  The value is not easily seen on the bottom line.  Therefore, in a “tight money economy,” dwindling research budgets are the rule rather than the exception.  Saving money is always a virtue.  But it is never a long-term solution to lack of business growth.  Marketing research studies help marketers to make informed business decisions.  This means taking advantage of business growth opportunities by learning, ahead of time, the probabilities of success.  It also means having the ability to avoid risks involved by making wrong business decisions.

The following event illustrates how I overcame the “sticker shock” effect of research costs by providing a perspective for thinking about price/value issues.

When I was a Senior Vice President, Director of Marketing Research at Marshalk, I presented a plan to conduct a market segmentation study to Ike Herbert, then the Marketing Director at Coca Cola (one of the agency’s clients).  The cost of the study was approximately $200,000, which was quite a sizeable sum in those days.  Ike responded, “You have to be kidding.  That’s a lot of money even for Coca Cola.”  My response was, “What’s the probability that the results of a comprehensive segmentation study would yield insights for developing marketing and advertising plans, which would result in sufficient added business in year one to pay for the study?”  Ike laughed and said, “We waste more than that in spilled gallonage each year. You’ve got the study.”

The study proved to be a goldmine for revealing strategies, which when implemented, resulted in impressive gains for the Coca-Cola Company.

In situations when the research budget for the year has been depleted, but your information needs have not, it is like running into a brick wall to get more funding, since it is not readily apparent how the results of the studies contribute to increased sales.  Perhaps the following arguments can reduce the hardness of the “brick wall”.

  • How much incremental dollar opportunity will be lost by not developing optimum positioning strategies for our products?

–       Strategies to attract more prospects

–       Strategies to get more business from current customers

–       Strategies to discourage customer attrition

  • What risks are incurred by failing to understand the customer/prospects needs through “their eyes” (rather than through our eyes)?

Finally, what is the likelihood that an intense and creative analysis of the studies will inspire marketing strategies, which will yield incremental business far in excess of the costs of the studies? Once you have succeeded in getting management to look beyond the “shock value” of marketing research costs by putting a perspective on the value of the insights provided, the next challenge is finding the money.  Sometimes a little creative game-playing arithmetic can help.  If the cost of a study were taken from the advertising budget, how much would that really weaken the advertising impact?

One last thought on Ron Nelson’s business philosophy.  When I was on the client end of the business, I did not want to be remembered as the Research Director who saved the company $200,000.  Rather, I wanted to be remembered as the Research Director whose studies and analyses resulted in developing and implementing marketing/communicational strategies that produced incremental sales of several million dollars.