What Can Academics Learn From Market Researchers?

August 20, 2015
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Having just attended the European Survey Research Association (ESRA) conference, my brain is now full of important learnings and ideas for future research. While many of those ideas fall into the category of “How to conduct better surveys,” a lot of others relate to how similar and different academic and private research conferences are. Let me give you a few examples of what academics can learn from market researchers.

Having just attended the European Survey Research Association (ESRA) conference, my brain is now full of important learnings and ideas for future research. While many of those ideas fall into the category of “How to conduct better surveys,” a lot of others relate to how similar and different academic and private research conferences are. Let me give you a few examples of what academics can learn from market researchers.

  1. You can mix business with pleasure. Market research conferences pay a lot of attention to balancing out brain heavy learning with brain light entertainment. For example, ESOMAR had a SoapBox to allow anyone to rant on any topic for a couple of minutes. MRIA had ping pong tables freely available during breaks. MRA planned a bar hopping social event. I’ve seen caricaturists, photo booths, prize drawings, and more. ESRA had, well, no activities.
  2. If it’s not practical, it’s pointless.  Market research presenters focus on practical learnings, not necessarily significant learnings. In many sessions at ESRA, I listened to the presenter speak about statistically significant results only to see that the effect size was too small to be of any practical use. Market researchers know that if the difference between two outcomes isn’t large enough to trigger a change in the marketing practice, then a statistically significant difference is no a difference at all.
  3. Ban paragraphs. Presentation slides shouldn’t be sentences and paragraphs, but rather bullet points and titles. If your audience is busy reading your slides, they can’t listen to you or match what you’re saying with what they’re seeing. Besides, if you use bullet points, you can’t read your slides.
  4. Tell me what happened. Many academics spend months or years on a single study, becoming so ingrained with it that they seem to forget no one else understands it with the same level of detail. This led to quite a few presenters concluding “These results were statistically significant suggesting that there are major differences among these variables.” Unfortunately, I would have rather heard “There were significantly more speeders among people whose second language was English.” A little translation would speed things along.
  5. Not everyone ought to speak. Market research conferences often seek out not just any speaker, but great speakers. Let’s be honest – no matter how important your research is, if you can’t communicate its importance, no one will learn from you. Before taking on a big conference, practice a few times in smaller, local venues. For many of us, that means chapter events. When you’ve mastered that, then it’s time to move up. Good speakers know how to mix great content with engagement and entertainment. It’s a fine line but it’s one important way of making sure that people understand and retain your argument.

But wait. Why can’t this post be called “What can market researchers learn from academics?” Let’s try things from the other side of the fence.

  1. Statistics don’t kill. ESRA presenters had no fear of statistics. Equations were shown all over the place. Betas and dfs and p-values littered the slides. Names of regression models and correction factors were listed, analyzed, and critiqued. No one apologized for showing their statistics. No one giggled and said they didn’t really understand what was on the slide or that we could talk to a smart colleague who could explain it. No audience members fainted or fell asleep during highly technical presentations. Some took pictures. Others asked detailed statistical questions.
  2. Null results matter. It is rare to hear about null results at a market research conference. You’d think we don’t value the Journal of Null Results. ESRA presenters had no problems discussing null, negative, and unexpected results. You see, life is full of uncertainty. Some studies go as planned. Others suffer from excellent sampling, excellent survey design, excellent analysis, and null results. There’s a lot to learn from determining why some results were positive and others negative. Let’s acknowledge the importance of both. It’s how we learn.
  3. Clip art wastes space. I must have seen 100 separate presentations and, among those, I saw one clip art. One. Presenters felt that it was much more important to summarize the methodology, raw data, and results in that precious space instead. Even better, showing me the data rather than a picture of a bucket allowed me to judge for myself whether I agreed with the presenters’ conclusions.
  4. You only need 15 minutes. As someone who has done 60 minute presentations, I now sometimes find it difficult to keep things short. However, 15 minutes is plenty of time to get the job done. There’s no need to create filler, pause for dramatic effect, or take acting lessons. You’ve come to share a piece of knowledge. Share it.
  5. You don’t need a theme. Many conferences have this strange need to come up with a theme. “Enlightening tomorrow” or “Increasing horizons.”  Well, the only theme I saw at ESRA was “Great content.” It was awesome.

Consider this post a list of challenges. As you plan for your next conference, pick one and dash it aside. For me, I’ve already started showing just a few more statistical details on my slides. I hope you enjoy them!