The past two years have been a complicated time to join an industry: an all too familiar refrain. This has been even harder for market research. This is because your bread and butter is based on meaningful, focused interaction. The sudden removal of human contact as we once knew it has thrown up barriers to doing this.
I sometimes think that by entering market research when I did, I’ve missed the golden age. Qualitative researchers are, by nature, people persons. But we are also resilient and adaptable. This means the barriers that many would’ve thought were the death knell for market research have turned into five learnings.
Social anthropology’s conventional wisdom is to keep yourself at arms' length from your participants. You should, of course, build rapport. But keep it minimal.
Proponents of this line of thinking wouldn’t get far in market research, where connection is vital. You have a short space of time to build a relationship with someone. Not the 12 months anthropologists have.
Participants must know that you’re on their wavelength. That you're relatable. That you're interested. I've learned that professional doesn’t mean robotic. You don't have to follow the exact wording of the discussion guide or pretend to know the intricacies of Zoom/Teams/Google Meet, or stop yourself from making a joke.
All these things make us more human. They put participants at ease. We should have fun with participants, genuinely laugh with them, not be afraid of forgetting something and going back on ourselves.
Reciting your guide word for word will get you nowhere. But letting someone go on a tirade about how 'crap' something is and showing genuine interest will lead to a more comfortable, genuine, and fruitful discussion.
Be transparent about the research process.
Transparency throughout a project is valuable for everyone involved. From a participant’s perspective, it’s a building block of trust – something I really realised when a participant asked my colleague how many sessions he’d done over the week. This question which led on to a much wider conversation about their respective professions and the rewards. If he’d kept what I’d assumed to be not exactly confidential information but not something that he should readily make known private, the interaction would have ended there.
Prioritise human conversations
As qualitative researchers, when we find something interesting, our instinct is to at once ask a follow-up question, ending up lightyears away from the question we originally asked.
How many times have you casually asked a friend what's new with them, only to find yourself half an hour later having a heated debate on why The Office US is objectively better than the UK version? Sadly, when you only have 90mins to cover a hundred different things, your instinct must be to take a back seat. Resisting the urge to find out more about a 64-year-old participant's acting career is difficult - but necessary to make the most out of your brief time together. Talkative participants are a blessing. But being able to reign them in and subtly direct the conversation is a real skill. All of research is centred around people management, but…
...Project management makes the world turn
Life in a small agency is different than in a large one, where there are multiple bodies, brains and departments to throw at a project. In a small agency, you must be the judge, jury, and executioner, owning everything from the proposal to the filing of the invoice and every stage in between. Academia – and the internet – can prepare you well enough for the practicalities of conducting research but tends to fall short of informing you about the bureaucratic side.
Did my Google searches on how to conduct an in-depth interview or the application of semiotics tell me that I would have to frantically brush up on my Excel expertise to calculate costs for a client, or warn me that suppliers sometimes need a lot of hand-holding so we can fill often bizarre quotas? When you’re conducting fieldwork for yourself, as I did at university, I was the only one with exacting standards, and even then, there was no pressure on me to change the aims or sample size if I was having trouble. Being held accountable across the board by multiple parties was a completely new experience and only something you can learn how to manage by doing it.
Professional, swift, communicative, and diplomatic project management is vital to research: you can have a creative, airtight method and the moderating skills to back it up, but what’s the point if you can’t organise the study to begin with? Market research is about getting stuff done – the clients are the ones who need a problem solved, and we are the ones who solve it. As much as it may hurt to hear, being a great listener isn’t going to cut it: you need to know your way around a calendar app.
These are a few of the key things I’ve picked up during my first months in commercial research. When I was looking for jobs, I often thought a candid introduction to the industry was quite lacking.
There’re many short ‘day in the life’ pieces out there. But they’re conspicuous in their absence of any actionable insight (a phrase that, if you’ve been in research for a while, you’re sick of hearing. And if you’re just starting out, you’ll tire of hearing).
It’s nice enough to know what a typical schedule looks like, that someone spends an hour in the morning checking emails, then goes to a client’s office for a 3 hour debrief session before grabbing a quick Pret sandwich to eat at their desk while reviewing a proposal, but does this tell you anything practical?
With this piece, I hope to have given a more in-depth impression of my experience of the industry in general, as well as our agency.