Getting Past The Catch-22 of Communicating Research Results

SLRG President Jon Last speaks to the challenges of effectively communicating research results in a time crunched environment.

Professional marketing researchers are in an interesting predicament.  We’ve been conditioned to exercise methodological and analytical rigor. We pride ourselves on an ability to dive deeply into data and find nuance beyond basic descriptive statistics. As such, the best of us draw out deep insights that may not be intuitive and often lend themselves to complexity in explanation.

But at the same time, we are often faced with clients who say:

“I need to leave the meeting early, what are the highlights?”

“I’m double-booked, let’s just quickly run through the executive summary”

“Just give me three bullets that tell us what we need to know.”


The ADD, soundbite-driven society that we live in has spawned a trend towards infographic-laden one-page summaries that run the risk of our not showing enough value or highlighting the rich depth of findings gleaned through the project.

Why, then is it a surprise when time-deprived client managers pass these cartoon summaries along to a subsequently underwhelmed senior management, who then question:

“Why did we spend $50,000 on this?  Next time just let an intern post a survey on a DIY tool and move on.”

If we want clients to see us as key members of their team, with that “seat at the table” we aspire to, how do we strike that balance in communicating research results?

We have been maligned as an industry that we are too detail oriented and academic and can’t draw those succinct conclusions, but when we aim towards that (often employing data visualizations and infographics) we are knocked for not being rigorous enough.

We’re being pushed to showcase the results with the rigor of a researcher, the client-speak of a marketer, and the strategic direction of a management consultant.

But there is an answer, and that may mean to both embrace the move towards succinct data visualization while also bucking the trend. For years, I’ve driven my teams to differentiate themselves by having the courage to go beyond just reporting of “findings” to provide actionable implications. I’ve advocated that rather than look over our shoulders and fear obsolescence at the hands of DIY and automation-enabled substitutes, to look forward at the management consultants where we become a competitive value proposition.

There shouldn’t be a big difference between excellent marketing research and insights-driven strategic marketing consulting.

Provide the infographic-enhanced 20-second takeaways upfront, that can be packaged into the executive summary.  But don’t overlook the rigor in an appendix or detailed discussion of findings that follow. Call out not just what the data says, but what it means, what it implies, and why those implications are important for the client to consider. Pose additional questions, suggested by the findings, that beg for the client to insert the pragmatic realities of the business needed to take that next step towards actionable solutions.

Researchers have often feared that they lack the deeper industry knowledge and contextual grounding to make intelligent and strong recommendations.  There may be some validity to that, but what is stopping us from going the extra step to “research” the strategic context, or to ask the client to fill in those blanks?

Certainly, we are in a time where there is a proliferation of readily available information that can make us smarter about our clients’ industries. Armed with that information, we can become more than data dumpers and morph into strategic resources.  Like good management consultants, we (especially the qualitative folks among us), know how to ask good and probing questions of our clients, that can demonstrate not only our commitment to being a strategic partner, but inform us in ways that can help our summaries and recommendations speak not just to data, but to strategic considerations.

Note that I didn’t say “recommendations” or “answers” in the previous sentence.  Unless implicitly stated as a project objective, we shouldn’t let a hesitance to arrive at a possibly incorrect definitive answer, impede our willingness to engage clients in thoughtful strategic conversation.  That’s the kind of value-add that can earn our keep and hold at bay, the dumbed down alternatives that risk undermining marketing research.