This month, John and Megan discuss the perils of unprofessional language for market researchers.
MM: Over the past few months, more than any other topic, we have talked about language. Of all the issues to address, why is this one so important?
JM: I believe the absence of professional language among market researchers endangers both the credibility of our profession and the process of scientific inquiry. The so-called “true” professions law, medicine, and engineering each have a carefully defined and universally agreed upon set of unique terms that allow professionals to communicate accurately and provide them legal protection by avoiding miscommunication. The language of market researchers is often so casual and imprecise that it impacts the validity of the work we do, affecting the insight and value we can provide clients.
MM: Can you give examples of some common language issues in market research?
JM: There are two main types of language problems. The first is bad grammar, and that is not confined to market researchers or market research but is part of a larger threat to professional competence. For example, I often see incorrect use of tenses— findings “are” and what we did “was.” Then I see reports with “We used research for the decision” – that is incorrect, you used the “results” to support a decision. Often, there is confusion about the meaning of decisions, hypotheses, and “findings” versus “conclusions.”
Secondly, there is general laxity in the use of what little technical language we have. For example, “the two variables are correlated” – no, the conclusion is that they are related or associated; the correlation coefficient supports that conclusion. Then there is failure to recognize that the sample design (DATA SOURCE) and data collection (HOW) are different with distinct specifications that must be separated in reporting. Furthermore, there is poor use of critical concepts, especially declaring “randomness” and/or representativeness when the requirements are not all met. Finally, how often do you see the term “interview” incorrectly used to refer to internet data collection or a self-completion questionnaire?
Especially aggravating to me is misuse of the term “survey” epitomized in a report I received once that stated “we conducted a survey using a survey.” The term “survey” is widely used such as by engineers (land survey), librarians (literature survey), and auditors (resource survey). It has a broad meaning, usually about examining multiple points for a review, investigation, assessment or inquiry. However, in marketing research we must use more precise language: a product development study, a self-completion questionnaire, a telephone interview.
MM: What is the main consequence of poor language?
JM: Lack of precision opens the researcher to criticism, especially from competitors, makes him or her look incompetent, and legally vulnerable. Consider facing an expert in court where you testified a random sampling was used, yet all required specifications of this sample design were not met. How would you respond to a cross examination pointing out the shortcomings? Would you state that you didn’t know? Imagine if this was further compounded by the opposing lawyers submitting a document labeled “Questionnaire” that you referred to as a “survey,” claiming data collection was “internet interviews” when it was actually a self-completion questionnaire. The key issue is that an understanding of, and adherence to, a strict set of practices and guidelines lend credibility and consistency to what is basically a scientific process.
MM: Why does market research, in particular, face these issues? What can be done?
JM: To your first question, unlike the requirements for doctors, lawyers and engineers, there is no common education or certification from a professional body that is required to be identified as a “market researcher.” Although there are standard rules of ethics and behavior (e.g., AMA, CASRO), there is no overarching mechanism to ensure professionalism for concepts and language. Unlike law or medicine, many people enter the field without formal training. It is inconceivable to go to a lawyer who did not graduate from law school or a doctor who didn’t graduate from a reputable medical school. This issue is compounded when considering the hiring of research associates without any formal business training. So, you may hire a capable analyst who is good at math but without more formal training, they may not understand the nature of their new profession.
This brings me to the second part of your question. The starting point is to take greater care when employing people. Lack of training in marketing strategy and operations is a difficult deficit to overcome, and nearly impossible without training in research methods and statistics. In the marketing space there are associations and vehicles through which people can try to be more professional but at present, most education comes from the employer. It is now critical that the industry build the education and certification we need, until then it is up to all of us to seek individual improvement.
What do you think, is non-professional language a problem? What can be done?
This month, John and Megan talk about the differences between importance and salience, and why they should matter to market researchers and their clients.
MM: In September we talked about differentiating goals from needs, and why market researchers must be more precise in their language. This month we’re discussing a different kind of distinction—between importance and salience. What is this differentiation?
JM: I see salience and importance as two different conditions to address significance. Salience is about the prominence of something that can change quickly (dynamic and short-term) while importance is about something more substantial and enduring (stable and long-term). I think it’s helpful to visualize importance and salience as ends of a continuum representing types of significance. As researchers we should attempt to represent those different conditions since they have a major bearing on how our results are applied. Things that are salient will change fast and actions may accentuate those changes. On the other hand, things that are important will have more long term meaning for enduring applications.
MM: We know that, in market research, significance is central to understanding decision making. Can you give a concrete example of how importance and salience fit in?
JM: Think about what matters most to you now for service calls to your bank. It may be speed of the response. However, when the bank takes action so that your speed requirements are always met, something else will rise in significance to you, such as respect or treatment. So speed is replaced by respect, and we can expect another change in the near future in what is salient to you. On the other hand, you have personal values, such as honesty and responsibility taking. These may vary in their relative significance but remain stable over time in their importance. At present, researchers use significance and importance interchangeably while salience is often ignored altogether.
MM: This is where it gets a bit fuzzy for me; the idea of short-term versus long-term significance seems a bit nebulous.
JM: It’s quite a pragmatic distinction. The word “important” should represent applications where significance is long-term or basic to what matters to a person. “Salience” refers to more dynamic criteria where significance can be changed. Put simply, importance is highly relevant when building offers and salience is relevant when identifying where to apply improvement programs. Both are concerned with revenue (importance to acquire and salience to retain) and cost (importance to trade-off what is provided and salience to prioritize maintenance expenditures).
MM: It’s clearer to me that the “importance” is best used when trying to leverage attributes of a company, product, or service, and “salience” is appropriate when we are measuring a process or criteria that are constantly shifting. But, why is this distinction so important?
JM: At the core of market research, is the desire to understand motivations and decision making. When we are more precise with our language we are more precise with our methods. We are better able to determine which criterion is most significant and then to prioritize what is most meaningful, it directly translates into improved business strategy and decision making.
Next month John tackles the problem of imprecise language in Market Research. What terms do you most often see misused; “data” instead of “results,” “survey” instead of “questionnaire?” Let us know in the comments.
In this month’s “John’s Corner,” John and Megan discuss the evolution of segmentation.
MM: Market segmentation has been around a long time and new methodologies continue to develop. Why is segmentation so relevant to business?
JM: Segmentation comes from economics; it supplies some of the greatest benefits to businesses available through market research. Its great contribution is enabling major improvements in two critical areas. First it aids effectiveness—identifying and getting products or services to the right people, and second it increases efficiency—less spend per person. That's a very simplified characterization of the classical approach to segmentation.
MM: In the past two decades, a more nuanced view of segmentation has evolved at CMB, can you speak to that?
JM: Segmentation was a dominant research focus for us from day one. Most marketing decisions require segmentation. As we conducted more projects we used our learnings to establish guidelines that would ensure clients received more and more useful outcomes. These best practices that are still used today and include: starting with the end in mind—determining how the segmentation will be used before you begin; allowing for multiple bases—taking a comprehensive, model-based approach— incorporating all potential bases; leveraging existing resources and databases; and above all having an open mind and letting the segments define themselves.
MM: How, and at what point in the process, do you determine what approach to take for segmentation?
JM: About twenty years ago we realized that there were two types of decisions for which segmentation was used. The first was strategic, dealing with decisions about what the business unit was doing, and the second was tactical, focusing on how to carry the strategy out such as targeted messaging. Understanding these options was significant when we scoped projects and determined how to proceed. As our client base grew with multiple divisions we realized that for diversified businesses there was a third set of decisions to address: those at the corporate level above the business units. However, it was not until about 2003 with Microsoft that we had the opportunity to conduct this corporate level segmentation.
MM: So you decided that there are three levels of segmentation: corporate, strategic, and tactical. What made the corporate level so necessary?
JM: Keep in mind that across all of these levels we are looking at decisions. Decisions required at the corporate level are opportunity based and about organizational alignment (e.g., work together) versus more narrow decisions about market communication or product design. For large corporations with multiple divisions you need a broad view to focus synergies across the organization. To segment by divisions in large corporations is to miss the bigger picture and obscure the most fundamental decisions that ensure that the total organization will meet its goals. The corporate level segmentation provides the market focus framework to identify, understand, and capture corporate opportunities.
MM: In an age of big corporations and conglomerates, why don’t we see your three level approach used more broadly?
JM: I think the fundamental reason lies with the education system where segmentation is treated as a homogenous marketing phenomenon, and has failed to recognize management decision making. This myopia is also certainly reinforced by day to day practice. I’m sure most people in market research understand that segmentation projects differ but not sufficiently to make a radical differentiation that informs how projects are scoped and undertaken— which is really the key.
So what do you think, has segmentation evolved? What best fits the corporate culture?
In this month’s “John’s Corner,” John discusses the limits of benchmarking and its alternatives with CMB's Megan McManaman.
MM: Today we’re discussing a topic that you feel strongly about, the misuse of benchmarking in marketing. Can you tell us what benchmarking is and how it’s used?
JM: Before we get too far along, I want to make it clear that benchmarking is a process aimed at enabling you to become the best through improvements. It is not a score. Often benchmarking is used poorly in marketing, with too much emphasis on standardized “descriptive” scores. Yes, a comparative score is useful in raising a red flag, but then what should you do for success? Unfortunately, there are third parties that don’t just offer comparative scores, but encourage you to meet or exceed this score using a diagnosis based on a “standard” set of externally generated criteria. By focusing on the gaps between you and your competition you are assuming you can become the “best” by essentially copying competitors using criteria. In reality that will actually ensure you will not become distinctive.
MM: I can see why a “best in class” company might not want to focus on standardized competitor scores, but what about the fifth ranked company, the tenth?
JM: For companies somewhere in the middle I also consider it unlikely they will gain a notable market advantage by closing the gap with higher score competitors. In fact it could be quite detrimental. A focus on scores using standard measures will obscure what makes your company unique and distinctive. It is your commitment to innovation that will better your performance and market standing, leading to improved financial performance. Apple does this well. They are a company committed to being distinctive: they would hardly be where they are today by copying others.
MM: It strikes me that this has been a fundamental problem with how benchmarking has been used in marketing from the beginning, is it particularly problematic now?
JM: Yes, it’s true. People are acquiring information differently and at faster rates, and it is not just because of the internet. The myopia that comes with focusing on standard benchmarking scores and gaps is particularly dangerous for companies in a marketplace saturated with a broader set of competitors. In part because people travel more widely, and information is not centralized, there are very few companies that are the “only game in town” and that number will grow fewer. So benchmarking as a process striving for distinctiveness will become even more important.
MM: Could you help me understand what a diagnostic approach aimed at distinctiveness looks like?
JM: Remembering that benchmarking is a process, the essential nature of a best practice is diagnostic: functionally and in what is produced. In marketing we must aim at a holistic perspective due to the interconnectivity of all the strategic and tactical elements, and also the growing relationship to operations or value delivery. So, the “diagnostic approach” recognizes the need to know what your competitors are doing, but rather than scoring yourself in comparison, you customize systems and methodologies directly relevant to your unique organization that focus on what will both help you stand out in the marketplace and improve your efficiency.
A process with a customized diagnostic approach allows both small and large companies to account for emerging challenges and opportunities, and be more nimble and distinctive in the face of these changes than companies that focus more on comparative standards. Innovation and distinctiveness are more important than ever, and a custom diagnostic approach reveals these in a way that a competitive descriptive score based benchmarking cannot.
Download the full conference presentation here: The Perils of Benchmarking 10 things to consider when deciding how you should benchmark against the market.
So what do you think? Does benchmarking stifle innovation? does it encourage marketers to "keep up with the Joneses?"
Introducing “John’s Corner”
Many times the people we think of as “Thought Leaders” seem unapproachable or intimidating, especially when they’re the Chairman of the company. Here at CMB we’re lucky to have Dr. John Martin, Chairman of CMB, Co-founder of South Street Strategy, innovator, professor, mentor, and a very approachable (and often shoeless) guy.
This month we’re kicking off “John’s Corner,” a series of articles sharing John’s 30+ years of experience in research and strategy, with a conversation with Kristen, CMB’s VP of Marketing and John about the challenges researchers face in defining goals and needs.
Distinguishing Between Goals and Needs
Kristen: Often in research we try to identify and most importantly prioritize what actually motivates people to make certain decisions. Why do some choose one product or service over another? John, tell us what you see as the biggest challenge researchers face in helping companies distinguish between goals and needs?
John: I think it starts with the language we use; the language used in market research is surprisingly messy. For example we use terms like “needs” and “wants.” However, “needs” are often used broadly to represent several types of motivational dimensions. Then we have related terms such as “demand,” “preferences,” “value,” and ”value drivers,” “decision criteria,” evaluation criteria,” “goals,” and “requirements.” We need to be more precise because this lack of precision leads to poor measurement and consequently mistakes when interpreting research findings to make precise recommendations.
Kristen: Interesting, this is what I love about our conversations. I can see this is a “hot button” for you. So I can see where there might be confusion and a danger of using some of these terms interchangeably. What can we as researchers do about it?
John: Well I think we all need to commit to “greater preciseness” and be more deliberate in our choice of language when talking about goals and motivators. This starts by distinguishing between what people aim to achieve (goals) and what will enable those goals to be achieved (needs). This requires agreement on a definition for goals which I consider to be extremely important.
Kristen: I’d like to talk a little more about the nature of business goals. Now that we have agreement around goals being the primary motivator, what’s next?
John: Accepting goals as the primary motivator positions companies as providing what people “need” in order to achieve their goals. This allows companies to take a more objective look at criteria used to gauge value or how much a proposed solution or offer will enable them to achieve their goals. So, since goals are the primary motivator we can expect a company's core brand promise or vision to reflect the goals of their target market members in order to provide the basis for engagement.
Kristen: When you say “How much an offer will enable ‘them’ to achieve their goals.” Do you mean the customer? Sounds like this approach is very customer-centric and requires companies to have an intimate understanding of customers' needs.
John: Yes that’s just it. See, the benefit of this approach will be felt by all when a company enables customers to meet their goals while enabling them to be successful (goal alignment). A focus on goals encourages companies to adopt a proactive and forward looking perspective as they establish what best they can do to help people achieve their goals.
Kristen: Going back a bit to what you said about engagement, you've just published an article in Quirks outlining the special challenges for measuring loyalty in low engagement industries like insurance. How can insurance carriers with little end consumer contact identify customer goals and position themselves to address customer needs?
John: The customers' goal is peace of mind—to sleep well at night, knowing they and their family have coverage. But historically the industry has set up barriers to engagement, by adding complex language, limiting access to information, and expecting blind trust from the customer. Changes in the marketplace mean companies are removing barriers—engaging in social media, dealing directly with customers, letting them access information on the web etc. Enabling engagement and recognizing they have to meet customer needs through understanding their goals is only going to increase.
So what do you think? Are goals on top of the motivational pile? If goals are on the top, how does understanding goals help us identify and meet consumer needs?
Can you foster customer loyalty in a low-engagement industry like insurance?
Creating customer loyalty is a challenge for every company and has never been more important. Over the last few years, a plethora of loyalty programs have emerged to build cross-selling, retention and up-selling across a variety of industries. Customer cards, frequent-shopper programs and reward programs all work toward achieving these business outcomes. However, one industry that has had a greater challenge with creating customer loyalty is insurance, specifically personal protection. Read the whole article here.