MR Heretic Explained

January 28, 2011
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Exclusive NGMR interview with the most mysterious blogger in research!

Exclusive NGMR interview with the most mysterious blogger in research!

If you, like me, feel market research is in dire need of change, then it’s hard not to enjoy reading MR Heretic’s sharp and witty posts, often containing very visually apt meme like images, on the Market Research Death Watch blog. While speaking anonymously, @MRHeretic does so with a certain elegance and restraint, that is hard not to admire. I often find myself hoping his efforts will encourage and spawn other masked heroes to join his ranks, taking on the establishment that market research has become.

Since I mentioned I’d be interviewing MR Heretic on the blog a few days ago I’ve had several people contact me with questions and guesses about his identity. Personally, I enjoy a bit of mystery, and so while there’s no harm in guessing, the following interview with MR Heretic is strictly about his views on our industry.

I’m pleased to delve a bit deeper into market research with MR Heretic here on the Next Gen blog. He indicated he might even take a few reader follow up questions/comments if there are any.

You’ve gotten quite a following, and a lot of people including myself really like and agree with what you have to say. Can you tell me a bit about why you started blogging and tweeting, and why do you do it anonymously?

I guess there is a heretic in all of us. That’s why I started the blog. The same things kept coming up in private conversations with friends, acquaintances, even clients. We all saw how broken MR is, and felt powerless to change it. Some were inhibited by fear of losing clients or jobs, others just tired of swimming against the current. MR Heretic became our voice. Especially early on, the inspiration for many of the posts came from other people… I just pressed the keys. That’s why posting anonymously made sense. MR Heretic is not a person, it’s an idea. The blog doesn’t belong to me, it belongs to everyone who is tired of the same old bullshit and in favor of destructive reconstruction for the greater good; I just post words on a web page. The fact that I can speak freely without putting my employer or myself in potentially sticky situations is a bonus.

I have to admit, I think part of the intrigue is that you are anonymous. I think the anonymity is something we’ve lost on the web with social networks. I think part of it is good, part of it is not. Anyway, a lot of us would still like to know a bit more about you. Can you give us a few clues about who you are?

I am the silent discontent of research-serfs everywhere, given voice and freed from fear of ostracization. I am everyone, and I am no one. In other words, I’d like to dodge the question.

Fair enough. Can you at least tell me a few particulars so we can sort of get an idea of where you’re coming from. Are you a Boomer, I’m guessing Gen X? Are you American, European, Australian… (you seem like a native English speaker)? Have you worked in any other industries before MR?

I’ve lived in Europe and North America. I worked briefly for a large ‘tech company’ a long time ago, the rest of my career has been in MR. I might or might not belong to GenX depending on the definition you use.

Getting back to Market Research, what is your single biggest industry pet peeve?

Seth Godin calls them ‘the forces of mediocrity.’ They are sheeple who fear change and resist it with devastating efficacy.

Ah, so you like Seth Godin. From where else do you get inspiration?

I try to ingest a variety of perspectives. The Cluetrain Manifesto has a special place on my bookshelf. Some others sources of information and inspiration: Getting Real and Rework by 37signals, @researchlive, @mrnews, all the usual MR Tweeple and bloggers including yourself, Mashable, TechCrunch, Ted talks, Twitter, Facebook, The Economist, Science, New Scientist, Advertising Age, Mitch Joel, Clay Shirky, Guy Kawasaki, O’Reilly radar, Kevin Kelly, and whoever else has something interesting to say on any given day. Some are in my content queue because I agree with them and they inspire me, others are there specifically because I think they are full of shit. The second group helps me remember that each of us projects our own reality and I shouldn’t take myself too seriously. My favorite quote this week comes from Hugh MacLeod talking about Rackspace’s evil plan: “believe in the future by creating it first.”

What company or companies do you most admire and why?

I admire MR companies that treat respondents like human beings. Sadly, I don’t know of any. Do you?

What do you mean exactly? I like to think my co. and many other companies treat our respondents ok.

I do think I know what you mean though about long surveys, spammy ads and low as you can go incentives without sharing any results with respondents? I can see how changing this would improve our data and street cred with civillians, but I think the other part of the equation lies in improving our analytics skills, leveraging and merging more data sources for predictive analytics, would you agree this is maybe even more important?

I agree that improving skills, merging data sources and predictive analysis are all important. I don’t agree that they are more important than re-framing our respondents as customers. It’s not an either-or proposition; both are essential. I focus on user experience because that’s what I know and that’s what I’m most passionate about today. We have an image problem, a serious one, and a deserved one. Tell the average 20-something you work on market research surveys and they will look at you like you have leprosy. This stigma limits who we can reach now, and if we don’t fix it it will continue to hold us back in the future regardless of what skills or tools we develop. I want to believe that your company treats respondents well, but I need proof. I invite you to let me participate as a respondent in some of your research and I will give you an honest review on my blog.

LOL, thanks for the offer. Not really the way we recruit (we have a small highly specific GenX2Z panel) but will keep your offer in mind. For many studies, we like all other companies I know of are guilty of  participating in the great panelist exchange market…

You are completely right about our reputation I’m afraid. As we branch out with new skill sets and techniques, perhaps this will be part of the change.

So, what do you think the future of marketing research looks like? 1 year from now? How about 10 years from now?

Nothing will change in the next 12 months. The industry will continue to hype innovation while dabbling halfheartedly to convince clients (and ourselves) that we are moving in the right direction. The buzzwords will change, but everything else will stay the same. In 10 years what we think of as MR will fill a small niche in a new ecosystem dominated by Web-based analytics and visualization tools connected to active and passive data feeds from a variety of sources. Think back to the music industry in the days of vinyl records, tapes, and CDs; now fast-forward to iTunes…this is going to be a bit like that.

I think I like the future. But I think many of us are not prepaired for it. What new techniques do you find most interesting?

Conversely, which ones do you think are already getting more hype than they’ll probably ever deserve?

Is this my cue to plug Odintext? It’s too early to declare winners and losers. We need to give all of them a sporting chance and see what works and what doesn’t. Of course everyone is going to back their own horse and try to trip the others up. That’s unfortunate but unavoidable; take everything with a grain of salt. No one really knows what they’re talking about. We’re all making it up as we go along. We will all end up using a variety of tools to get the job done, so don’t write any of them off just yet. I happen to believe in an interactive MR canvas where a variety of techniques are all available as modules and you simply drag & drop whatever is right at the time. I see a lot of potential in predictive analysis using search and social data. I also see an opportunity to rethink how we ask questions; something more intelligent than a poll, less annoying than a survey. Most importantly, I’m prepared to be wrong and open to having my mind changed.

Thanks for the plug, LOL. I like to think OdinText fits nicely into what you’re describing RE the interactive MR canvas. And like you, perhaps a persona might even develop around the effort ;)

In any case, It’s easy to criticize, I find myself doing it on more than one occasion. However, I think it’s also important to give constructive criticism. What are some things you think market research companies could do to improve?

Create a better respondent experience and you will gain the keys to the data kingdom. For starters, MR is a two sided market, so start conducting yourself accordingly. Respondents are your customers. They consume your Web content (surveys, apps, community websites, etc.) and pay with their time and data; start showing them some love. If you start designing Web experiences for customers instead of respondents good things will start to happen: the number of people willing to take your surveys will grow and dependence on incentives will decrease.

Create simple, beautiful, usable web pages and apps. Write question copy that is as good as the best marketing copy. Make the process as short and relevant as possible. Don’t use social media to recruit survey takers or scrape data in sleazy ways; hire amazing social spokespeople to provide customer service (i.e. support) to your survey takers and nurture genuine relationships. Use social media to make your company human and provide service to the community, then–and only if they feel it’s genuine–you won’t have to recruit them with cash and prizes, they will come willingly. We believe these things are hard, expensive, and reserved for ‘technology companies.’ That’s a myth. They require a different skill set and a different approach, but they can be done by any company with minor retooling and a big attitude change. When done right they are cheaper and easier to execute (not to mention better ROI) than the brute force tactics we are using now. If our entire industry is riding on the backs of the 1% of Internet users willing to take a survey, imagine how much money there is to be made if we could move that number to 2% or 3%. It can be done. I just told you how.

If you outsource any part of the data collection process, test it as a respondent. If it feels like torture to you, and you wouldn’t wish it upon your friends or loved ones, don’t let it happen to someone else’s loved ones. If you outsource participant recruitment via web search, check the referring URLs in your web server logs… I mean actually open the pages. You might be shocked at the sleazy tactics your suppliers are using on your behalf. Vendor practices are shaped by market pressures, put some pressure on your vendors to clean up their act.

If you commit to doing the things I described so far I tip my hat to you, and your web-customers thank you for making MR a lot less painful for them, but surveys and focus groups can only take you so far because there is no real value in it for participants. Start doing some serious blue sky thinking. Encourage it in your company. Don’t let the forces of mediocrity stifle it. Look for ways to gather data that require less time and effort from participants, give them something of real value in return. Don’t listen to the fear-mongering about Web data; if you gather it the statistical models will come. Try things. Experiment–a lot! Don’t be scared of ideas that break or cannibalize the current business model, they might be your future business model. If you don’t develop them, someone else will.

Thanks, wonderful advice. I think as usually I agree with most of what you said. Again, I hear the best interest of the respondent as key in much of it, which is good. It feels a bit like you’re holding suppliers a bit more responsible for the status quo than I think we deserve. Anderson Analytics has ventured into some of the areas you’ve mentioned. Facebook apps for instance, which were both more interesting for respondents, and collected a lot more interesting data.

We moved away from this early effort mainly because client interest wasn’t there. I heard “Was it marketing or marketing research?” and that the small extra expense wasn’t in their budget. I think part of that might have had to do with recession pressures, but we’re just responding to the demand.

So what I’m saying is, if we build something better, do you think they’ll really come, and want to pay for it?

Failure is good. We need to fail more. If you try and fail many times you will eventually build something they will come and pay for. The learnings you get from failing are breadcrumbs on the path to success. The key is to prototype quickly, without spending a lot of money, and feed what you learned last time into each new iteration. Web technology is perfect for that. Expecting everything to fall into place on the first try is unrealistic.

Yes, iteration is certainly key in what we do.

What skill sets do you think will be most important for the Next Gen market researcher?

The next generation of market researchers will use new technology and updated statistical models; those skills become pretty straightforward to acquire once someone writes the manuals. The tricky part will be staying current in a world of constant change. Curiosity, creativity, adaptability, and technophilia will be essential characteristics for the next gen researchers as much as analytical & statistical aptitude. In some ways those are the same things that make a great researcher today; the big difference will be the environment they will have to navigate and the ever increasing pace of technological and social change.

Are you happy with your efforts so far? What are your goals going forward? Any intentions of revealing your identity at some point?

I’m happy to see more candid and open minded discussion about the state and direction of the industry. How much that has to do with me is immaterial. I didn’t have any expectations when I started the blog, it became a success as soon as one other person read it.

The goal is to build the future I’ve been writing about. I was recently reminded by someone on Twitter that talk is cheap. That’s true if all you do is talk. I’m ready to get my hands dirty.

I’m sure I will reveal my identity to a few people at some point, and then it’s just a matter of time. So, yes I think at some point you will find out who I am. Am I going to broadcast it? No.

Thanks and great having you on the blog. I’m sure I speak for most Next Gen members when I say I look forward to seeing more of your posts soon.


@TomHCAnderson