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The 10 Commandments of Market Research Featured

10:02am EDT July 22, 2002

Bill Hauser was a prototypical '70s sociology grad student when he got his start in market research. With hair down to his waist, he filled in for a woman on maternity leave. And he never looked back.

His first real assignment in applied observational research came with uniquely attractive perks. The management of the then-new Richfield Coliseum hired him to study crowd behavior, which required him to patrol most of the scheduled events with clipboard in hand.

"It was cool," he says, "for the whole year, I had tickets to every event." He also got his first taste of counterintuitive findings: He judged the mature audience for crooner Frank Sinatra more potentially volatile than the more youthful crowd attending rock concerts.

Today, Hauser is one of the most prominent market researchers in Northeast Ohio. Until recently, he worked for 13 years at Rubbermaid Inc., where he headed the Business Intelligence Unit, a conglomeration of equals spread among the company's various divisions. Last year, the company-which is now in the process of being acquired-redeployed him to work full time on its Little Tikes division.

When he entered the corporate research field, he says, a Ph.D. in the social sciences was "almost an albatross." Today, he says, his background is respected for its ability to bring a fresh perspective to business challenges. Next year, he's due to become president of the Society for Applied Sociology, a nationwide group of about 500 professionals.

It's not hard to surmise that he flourished in the corporate environment due to his ability to balance the purism of academic research with the limitations of corporate research.

"I can't see doing academic research, where we have this perfect sample. It's too time- and cost-prohibitive," he says.

Similarly, while the sociologist in him knows that focus group results can often be skewed by a single strong personality whom others follow, he also understands that the immediate insights gleaned from them do have real value. With focus groups, "you get immediate results. You can watch it from behind the mirror, and walk away that afternoon and say, 'OK, I know what they said.'"

For market researchers operating in the real world, the most important skill is what he calls "triangulation." By using a combination of research techniques-some invasive and some not, some costly and others less so-"by the time I'm done, I can say I've looked at it three or four different ways." That blend of perspectives also gets one closer to the motion picture of real life than does the standard mall intercept or single focus group, where the artificiality of the experience for the subject can yield results more akin to a still photo.

"At least it's six frames instead of one frame. It's getting more of what I would call real life," says Hauser.

For some time, Rubbermaid has been taking that cinema verite research approach to a new level, by paying consumers to let researchers snoop around their kitchens. As he explains it: "Hi, we're from Rubbermaid. We just want to see how you have your kitchen organized. We'll give you $25 for a half hour of your time." Researchers will then take what they learn back to the product-development lab.

Hauser occasionally engages in his own form of observational research, by trolling around toy stores, playing the helpless male shopper. When he sees a female shopper perusing a toy by Little Tikes or its archrival, Fisher-Price, he would ask for advice by saying, "'I don't know, I'm a dumb male.'" He's even been known to pose as a retail employee stocking shelves.

His unassuming appearance and affable manner help him blend in. Even at the office, he generally dresses casually, perhaps in chinos and a golf shirt, to go with his silvery hair and salt-and-pepper beard. He supplies a visitor with a constant flow of irreverent asides that would horrify a representative from corporate communications or investor relations.

"I love to talk, I can't shut up," he says. Colleagues have dubbed him "Dr. Death," a reference to an evening sociology class he teaches at Akron University. "Death and Dying is actually fun," he says.

Mostly, though, he's a walking billboard for the benefits of market research. His high-octane advocacy is perhaps best captured in a passage of a book he's now preparing on the topic of trends.

"Historically, individuals have viewed research and data gathering as a boring, time-consuming endeavor," he writes. "But this is not true! If done properly, research can actually be fun and exciting."

For industry speaking engagements, Hauser has developed his own list of Ten Commandments for research clients to follow. We've tacked on some of his comments about each item.

1. Thou Shalt Know Why Thou Art Doing the Research

"Many times, research becomes one of those 'adjunct things-'let's go out and ask the consumer.' Many times it's not even integrated [into the company's larger activities], just done to say it's been done." That's a big waste of time, money and effort, he says. "Research is expensive. Don't just do it for no rhyme or reason."

2. Thou Shalt Remember that Bad Research is Not Research

"I could just stand out on the road with a product and hold up a sign: 'Honk once if you like it and twice if you don't.' The problem with doing bad research is that it could be a multimillion-dollar decision made by talking to six people." Even at Little Tikes, he admits to occasionally having been encouraged to cut corners by using employees as focus-group participants. The problem? A built-in parochialism. Packaging designers will focus mostly on the packaging, color specialists on the color, and so on.

3. Thou Shalt Not Trust a Research Supplier who Sayeth: 'Oh, Sure, I Can Do That'

"We used to kick companies like that out the door," he says. "I would say, 'pick a niche.' The researchers who say they can do everything have a staff of 1,000, and you never see the same person twice. I'd like to deal with the person doing the research, not be passed around to account reps."

4. Thou Shalt Work with the Supplier to Get the Information Thou Needest

"Before you even call that vendor in, get a clear idea of what you want to do, what your objective is," he says.

5. Thou Shalt Learn How to be an Educated Client

Most companies can't afford a Ph.D. research expert on staff to independently appraise the capabilities of various research vendors. That doesn't mean they can't become knowledgeable enough to be smart shoppers, though. "Know something about market research, whether you take a course or whatever." And always begin by knowing what it is you'd like to accomplish.

6. Thou Shalt Remember That Any Consumer Research Project is a Partnership

Any research that outside vendors are hired to perform is merely an extension of whatever research capability the company has in-house. "I always said that you should develop a close working relationship with the best in any field, which could be a one-person office or a big research house." But remember that the buck always stops with you, not the vendor. "The consultant doesn't know your business; you know your business."

7. Thou Shalt Remember That the Best Research is Not Always the Most Expensive

"Usually, the most avant garde techniques are also the most expensive. Either it's a larger group of research subjects or special software," he says. But that might not be the best answer for your situation. For a lot of small businesses, observational research-which may cost you nothing-is often the right answer, he says. "If I already have to sit in the back of the room to watch for security, why can't I also record [customer] behavior: 'Sally walked around the store for three minutes and bought X.'"

8. Thou Shalt Not Use the Research To Sell Products (at least not right away)

"You don't use market research to sell products, but to learn how to sell products down the road," he says. In most companies, there's generally a powerful incentive to bias the research in favor of particular outcomes. But companies mustn't let that happen. "You may not hear what you want to hear, but that's why you do the research."

9. Thou Shalt Remember There are More Types of Significance Than Statistical Significance

"What happened historically is that people got an MBA, and they're trained to only accept statistical significance." That narrow approach raises a particular problem in a focus group, where the sample is by definition not statistically significant. "But you can still get significant findings," he says. He recalls a former boss, a vice president of marketing, who had a blanket directive to the research department: "'If there's a finding that's not statistically significant, don't even bring it to me.'" He notes the executive is no longer with the company. "There are other kinds of significance: What did they like about the product, what didn't they like?" He recalls focus groups in which 90 percent of the participants liked a product, but the other 10 percent went on to provide more useful information than the former. "The 10 percent gave open-ended answers on what they didn't like, and we changed the product as a result. Whereas, if I were only paying attention to statistical significance," he would have merely reported a resoundingly positive take.

10. Thou Shalt Listen to the Findings, Interpret Their Meanings and Then Turn Them Into Actionable Intelligence

In other words, implement and execute.