So You Want a Market Research Career?

Advice on Getting into Marketing Research for Students or Career Changers.

University of Iowa hats on clothesline.I’ve had research participants, clients, agency partners and other potential job changers ask me how to have a brand strategy or market research career. Apparently, chatting with people for a living, diving into the data, and helping to drive ideas in a company seems like good fun.

To Math or Not to Math?

Like many careers, the world of marketing research sometimes splits into qualitative (no-math) versus quantitative (yes-math). Qualitative researchers who conduct focus groups, in-depth interviews or in-home ethnographies often prefer the world of emotion, opinion, nuance and richness. They believe that understanding the why behind a situation is more meaningful than just knowing what.

Qualitative researchers tend to come from psychology, sociology, anthropology or marketing. They feel comfortable with people and relish helping others feel comfortable with them. They know how to make people comfortable and yet study them at the same time. They might be extroverted introverts, those who present to others as talkative and creative but who privately need time to think things through in order to come to conclusions.

Quantitative researchers lead with statistics, and like the hard analysis and seeming certainty that comes with the ability to make others feel lesser because they don’t know what a correlation coefficient, heteroscedasticity or interquartile range are. They like to study people from more of a distance, but also can put themselves into the perspective of a study participant who must answer the questions presented before the fun-to-analyze data become available to study.

(Personally, I like to do both, but did you know that 3 out of 2 Americans aren’t very good at fractions? ;-))

Some researchers have both sides of their brain well-developed (even though, of course, popular left brain/right brain concepts are inaccurate simplicities), and all researchers must be respectful and inclusive. Qualitative understanding must precede a strong survey in order to know what to ask and what answer options to include. Statistics give the rich findings from a qualitative study numeric heft, and show business where best to spend its money.

Communication Skills

Researchers of any stripe must be able to communicate their findings to clients in a way that’s understandable and meaningful. The intricacies of methodology, data analysis and coding must be described in a high level way to add gravity to the outcomes, but, like a dancer’s show that requires hours upon hours of practice, the final results and recommendations should make it look easy.

To this aim, market researchers should have strong verbal and written communication skills, and increasingly a sense of design as well with infographic beauty as one end game.

Business Sense

Marketing research helps businesses make better decisions by bringing in the perspectives of buyers, so an ideal researcher will understand the business end as well. While a PhD might excel in the statistics and social sciences involved in studying the problem, many MBAs bring a stronger ability to bridge the gap between theory and results. All must help the business succeed.

The process of conducting research must be led by the business need. If the possible downside of making a decision without research costs less than the research itself, that becomes a time when not to conduct marketing research.

Students at career fair.Opportunity

The Bureau of Labor Statistics only shows one option in business research, a Market Research Analyst. This analyst position would support others in the research process. has information on how to become a focus group moderator, including get an education, gain experience and become certified. Stunning advice.

Quirks contains a much more comprehensive salary guide, showing that succeeding the field can be lucrative. It also shows differences between corporate-side researchers and research companies. Corporate researchers study their own business’ buyers and build a storehouse for the company to use in shaping strategy and responding to customers. Research companies work for multiple clients and can often use experiences gained elsewhere and leading edge techniques to help businesses leapfrog the competition.

Good luck to all in pursuing your dreams. There are but a few direct US programs in market research – at Michigan State, Northwestern, U of Connecticut, U of Georgia and U of Illinois, but the field is growing “much faster than average” (BLS) and it’s nice work if you can get it. So try!

Jennifer Cooper, President of BuyerSynthesis, helps established and emerging companies grow revenues through better understanding their buyers.

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