The field of qualitative research attracts individuals from many walks of life. Some moderators actually study market research, but many others come from diverse fields such as psychology, sociology, anthropology and marketing. These different points of origin mean that the moderator picked for a particular study may bring a unique point of view or approach to a research challenge. When informally interviewing various marketing clients, many stated that they wanted a qualitative researcher who could not only report findings but who also could easily grasp the marketing issues with which the team was grappling–all while assisting them on a decision path. To this end, moderators owe it to themselves to become savvier in their marketing knowledge. Here are five steps that every moderator should take to add more value to their clients in each of their projects.
- First and foremost, you should raise your general marketing “awareness” by becoming familiar with basic marketing terms and some of the key questions that should be asked to understand your client’s research challenge. Some of this will naturally be learned through exposure, but reading a basic introduction to marketing book should quickly get you up to speed. Probably the three most important things you should know about your client’s business are the following: target audience, brand equity, and the context of the business in its competitive environment. Understanding these key areas will allow you to do just that. From a marketing perspective, these are critical. The target audience is to whom the brand is supposed to appeal; it may or may not be the current target using the product or service. You need to understand this as well, as it clearly has implications on exactly how you recruit for the research. The brand equity describes what attributes and perceptions the brand owns from its target audience. Understanding this provides a framework for listening in the research to determine how this equity impacts the brand either positively or negatively in terms of the research objective. And finally, understanding the competitive environment provides a context for evaluating the brand and the various forces that push perceptions one way or the other. If the client does not know one or all of these areas, then a talented moderator would be smart to recommend this as part of the research objectives since you are critical to any marketing plan.
- Secondly, if you do not understand some of the marketing jargon, you should simply ask the client. Thoughtful questions posed to the client do not indicate lack of qualitative research skills, merely they suggest to the client that you really want to design the best research and develop the right discussion guide to meet the client’s needs. Many organizations use their own “insider language” which you aren’t going to find in any marketing textbook. Interestingly enough, different organizations have different acronyms and terms for the same thing. For example, brand equity is mentioned earlier; some companies would refer to this as the brand “footprint” because it suggests the desired impression left by the brand when the brand is not present. I’ve heard clients refer to A&U’s and U&A’s; the letters both stood for the same thing–awareness and usage–but the order was flipped. At one point in my career, I was working with a chemical company, which was outside my typical client base, and the team kept referring to “VOC”. I had no clue what this meant. As it turns out, it stood for “voice of the customer” (how this company named their research process) rather than some mystery ingredient I thought was in their fertilizer!
- The third area relates to understanding the ancillary business information that might be essential to interpret findings. This could include a new competitive threat, new legislature or guidelines that impact the market, a required change in product formulation, or specific business objectives that must be met. Probably the best example of this relates to communication research which could be visual, auditory, or both. This would include any type of creative work such as advertising, website design, graphics, or logos. All too often a client will bring this work to a qualitative researcher stating that they needed to identify the “best approach”. The problem is that “best” can refer to many things–best at reinforcing the brand, best at entertaining the audience, best in terms of being most relevant, etc. In reality, “best” does not necessarily mean the “favorite” approach. All of this type of work has been created off of some type of design brief or strategy document. If you simply ask for a copy of this document, you can listen to see how well the stimuli shared delivers against objectives. During the debrief you can add much more value by stating that a certain approach did/did not deliver on the specific objectives to which it was designed rather than just cherry-picking at the various executions with pros and cons.
- Forth, it is very important to have a clear understanding of how the research will be used. This provides the language to formulate actionable recommendations for the client. A marketer has many decisions to make for a brand. These decisions could include communications, public relations, pricing, distribution, sales strategy, packaging, target audience and/or new product development. When you are armed with this information regarding the anticipated next steps, you know how to serve up your recommendations. This information helps you know if the research outcome supports the client’s desires and wishes. And, more importantly, if they don’t you can be more diplomatic or sensitive to the client. The last thing you want to do is make the person responsible for the project look bad; after all, you want to be hired again! This does not mean that findings that conflict with desired outcomes aren’t revealed; it just means that language can be softened to minimize the blow. It also allows you to provide a much more comprehensive report–not a “this is what they said” kind of report that requires the client to slog through lots of reporting to find a conclusion.
- And finally, the best way to show a client that you understand marketing is by the way you market your own business. What exactly is your brand? It is helpful to have a positioning for your own services that keeps you memorable with your clients. Understanding your area of expertise and strongly communicating it shows the client that you know what you’re doing. The business world is looking for specialists, not someone who says they do everything well (even if you do). Part of the reason you’re considered a qualitative consultant is that you own an expertise that you can consult with. Dovetailing with expertise is simply how all the elements in your marketing mix are showcased. Your website, business cards, promotional advertising, or works published should all be consistent with what your brand stands for and your overall message.
Putting yourself in your clients’ shoes and truly understanding their issues can separate a good moderator from a great one. Being able to provide actionable and relevant conclusions ensure the moderator can be the partner the client desires.