Three Changes to Make Following the MRIA Conference in Saskatoon

by Briana Brownell

I always find conferences inspiring, and the recent MRIA conference in Saskatoon was especially motivating. It was packed with great concurrent sessions, provocative panel discussions, motivating keynote presentations, beautiful views of Saskatoon, and great times talking with the many industry leaders in attendance.

Now that I’m back in the office, I’ve got my desk cleared off, and I’ve written up my lengthy conference follow-up to-do list. These are the top three changes I’m going to make:

#1. Be okay with frayed edges
I’ll always remember one designer’s interview comment about the Canadian fashion market: “You can’t sell frayed edges to Canadians. They just don’t get it. They need everything to be done.” This is true as well for marketing research in this country – we’ve got big firms with a fairly wide array of off-the-rack products that see minimal modification. And I see why: structure is cozy. It’s so nice when a research project has clear boundaries. When you’ve collected the data, done the analysis as per the plan, and written that last word in the PowerPoint “conclusions” slide, you can be satisfied that it’s done.

But, unfortunately for a quant person like me, not everything can be so nicely captured in an SPSS file. Instead, the edges of the research often become important, as we have seen in the many new and often surprising findings in customer satisfaction research. To this end, I was happy to see several exploratory presentations that examined a customer’s holistic interaction with the brand.

Lesley Haibach and Anne Kossatz’s presentation on their successful implementation of a change in RBC’s inbound call centre explored times where a company has the greatest chance to impact customer satisfaction. They found that an important insight came from understanding the customer’s state of mind when he or she contacts customer support and allowed RBC to make a small change in the organization that had big results. What was so impressive about this research program was the alignment of the organization with the research results. They achieved considerable buy-in from all levels within RBC, so much so that human resources even altered their hiring practices!

Amy Charles and Joel Weinberger explored the edge of conscious and unconscious responses using a very interesting method based on psychology experiments to derive implicit associations. I’ve seen this technique used before (actually, I personally feel that this is an example of such successful gamification that it becomes a methodology in its own right. But that’s a discussion for another time…) but not as nicely as this. What was new this time was their ability to reach some pretty profound conclusions from the methodology. They determined implicit drivers of customer behaviour in retail and for airlines, finding stark differences between demographic groups and contrast with more traditional methods. My favourite finding was that the conflict in explicit and implicit methods can be a great help with messaging. Women don’t necessarily want to tell you that they are buying clothing to look sexy but they often are. I can think of many applications in the context of branding, new product adoption, and social influence.

#2. Embrace the phrases I hate
As much as I hate hearing about “the death of marketing research,” Tema Frank’s talk on taking advantage of other available metrics to measure online marketing ROI was a much-needed breath of fresh air. Rather than a doom-and-gloom talk about how the industry is dying, she provided a no-nonsense view of which online marketing metrics are actually important to business development and which are more important to ego development. I can see this being a major topic to watch in the next few years. An added bonus was that her topic was quite attractive to client-side researchers.

The only phrase in market research I am more tired of hearing than “the death of marketing research” is “doing more with less” since too often it is can be translated as “doing a lousy job.” But, Susan Williams and Susan Ince’s case study of mining transactional data from Cadillac Fairview mall gift cards was a treat. For anyone interested in big data, it was refreshing to see a clear discussion of the research’s value (how neat to see the clusters of cross-shopping in the mall!) along with a frank discussion of its limitations (only transactions from mall gift cards could be tracked). Too often, conference presentations falsely claim a panacea, but this one explored whether we can get value from “imperfect” research projects. Spoiler: we can.

3. Cause tension and encourage debate
As someone who’s been frequently kicked in the head during sparring practice, I can tell you this: it’s hardly ever a complete surprise. There are always signs. Maybe their elbow drops as a counterbalance. Maybe they shift their weight for stability. Maybe they wait until they see you throw. Everyone has a tell if you pay enough attention.

At the conference, I saw elbows dropping and weight shifting in just about every panel discussion and every keynote. Jeff Hayzlett’s message of embracing change couldn’t have been more appropriate. His call to foster a corporate environment where risk-taking is supported was encouraging. Nevertheless, it was evident that many companies face difficulty in this area: in the CSRC panel the onus was placed on the research suppliers to justify innovative methodology and help clients sell it internally. That’s a pretty big ask to suppliers, I think. It begs the question, though, where does innovation in the industry come from? Where should it come from?

Debate is one thing, but mudslinging is quite another. The political polling panel made reference to the negative side of open debate in the industry that has played out between various competitors in newspapers across the country. As far as I have seen, no one is yet taking the lead on the methodology/margin of error debate and frankly someone needs to.

From my perspective, the harbinger of the massive industry change is just as much about changes in consumer behaviour and its effect on methodology as it is with business behaviour and its effect on our products and services. Most things are simply evolving: even with all the mobile-neuro-gamification, the survey is still here. We, as an industry, have already made great strides in overcoming many different challenges. But that doesn’t mean I am planning to sit at my desk and let the industry sort itself out. To summarize a comment from a fellow young industry disruptor at the gala social: “It’s our industry and it’s going to be our industry 20 years from now. We’re the ones that need to be making the changes.”