Beware The Bells And Whistles, 'Proprietary' Research Methodologies Are Often More Sizzle Than Steak

As former MRA presidents who have worked on both the client and agency side of marketing research, my business partners and I have been around the block more than our receding hair lines would sometimes like to admit. But with the accumulation of all of this “scar tissue,” it strikes us as amusing and potentially disturbing to see so much of the buzz in marketing research and sports sponsorship ROI assessment being attributed to purportedly new methodologies and unique panels of respondents. At the end of the day, the best research inevitably comes down to asking the right questions or observing the right behaviors in the right environment among the right people…and then effectively and rigorously analyzing those findings to frame actionable and informed strategic recommendations. 

The above customized approach is the secret sauce that we strive to incorporate into every client study or program that we embark upon. Yet, there still seem to be many firms in the overall research space that frame their key selling proposition on thinly veiled pitches built upon “proprietary methodologies” or “special communities of respondents.” We’re, of course, fine with such a pitch because it incorrectly puts the emphasis on the process. It’s akin to a chef being more concerned about ingredients than the ability to synthesize those into an overall dining experience that is truly special and memorable.

To maintain the cooking metaphor, there are no barriers to acquiring the best ingredients beyond time and cost. For those clients who buy into the notion that some research firms offer up unique groups of respondents, I submit the well known industry fact that the overall community of those taking surveys and participating in qualitative research today, are typically doing so across multiple panels. Just because a provider claims to have “packaged them” does not mean that they aren’t accessible to any good full service firm that understands sampling and knows where to “fish.” Therefore, I put greater emphasis in assuring that the respondents in our research are the right fit for a specific study. They are blindly screened to assure qualification, and we deploy multiple data hygiene protocols on the back end to assure that they are not speeding through a questionnaire or randomly selecting answers. These protocols themselves are, in all fairness, not unique to our firm, but then again neither are these “proprietary panels.”

Furthermore a recent research emphasis on “social media listening,” “big data synthesis” or “observational research” may indeed be the flavors of the month, but there are low barriers to entry here. We have our ears firmly attuned to what’s going on in the research industry and while we are thrilled to see the creativity with which information is now being collected, we’ve yet to see anything that is truly unique or not replicable.
So, my focus will remain on listening well to what a client’s issues are; towards making sure that for each engagement we involve ourselves in, the custom approach is one attuned to the timing, budget and utility realities of a particular study. More importantly, we’ll strive to match that approach with our own direct experience and knowledge within the vertical categories that we specialize in, and invest our time in staying on top of those markets so that findings can be placed in proper context and that steep learning curves are unnecessary. If that’s a proprietary technique, I’ll gladly claim ownership.

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