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January 2, 2013

5 Guidelines For Media Research Practice

As we reflect on this past year, it's time to remember what's important—at least what's important in media research. I won't try and recap the major highlights of 2012, since most industry publications do an excellent job of that, along with prognosticating about 2013. Instead, I think it's time to remember our partners in research.

After the fantastic Steve Jobs biography came out, the famous Henry Ford line came back into favor. I'm paraphrasing, but it’s something like, "If I gave people what they wanted, I'd have built a faster horse." Recently, it’s felt like research was again being misunderstood and sent to the children's table. It's true, research won't determine the next hit or find the next great technology, but ignore it at your peril. Ultimately, we make TV shows, we provide services, and we make media technology for consumers. But you need to speak to and hear from the consumers to your job better, and research is there to help translate.

 
Good research is more than reading a survey, or reciting focus groups or compiling white papers. Smart researchers are putting the puzzle together when they don't know what the picture is and don't have all the pieces. So here are my guidelines to follow for good research. I hope they are taken in the spirit of the season.
 
1.    Tell the story, don't read the data. Too often have I seen a great research project ruined by a horrible presentation or lack of insight. Our job is not simply to repeat the top two box results or trended norms. Our job is to look beyond the numbers and weave together what we see. We must offer insights. Sift through the shades of gray and find the story. This is an industry of storytellers. That doesn't change for research—and who doesn’t like a good statistical story now and then? Researchers shouldn't be afraid of stepping outside the exact parameters of the study—applying what they’ve learned from other research and other experiences—to provide the best direction they can toward answering the questions at hand.   
 
2.    You are only as good as your last insight. The #1 complaint about research is that it’s always focused on the past. Let's not exacerbate the issue by sitting and discussing research projects months after they happen. In today's changing environment, studies done a year, six months, even three months ago aren't as relevant as they once were. Researchers are required to be more resourceful, to do more research, more often, and refrain from writing 15-page white papers. Research reports are living documents that should help us keep up with our fast-changing businesses.
 
3.    You are not a cheerleader. The role of the researcher is to speak for the customers within the company. At least that's how I have always viewed it. We are there to understand and, in a sense, give voice to the consumer. We're not creating the content, we're not selling it to the consumer—we’re helping to understand what drives them. That means we have to be critical. We can't be afraid to speak our minds, no matter who whom we’re discussing projects. Our goal is to help the organization grow, and we don't do that by simply playing with statistics and reporting the numbers.
 
4.    Don't forget about the forest. Many researchers tend to be introverts and work best when they can tackle problems on their own. That can lead to spending too much time on nuance—like poring over whether we should use a 5-point or 7-point scale, asking if there’s a statistical difference between 63 and 68 in a survey, or determining if a question is better with the word “very” or “mostly.” That’s not to say those aren’t important questions, but don't get stuck down the rabbit hole. Research is most powerful when it understands the entire business. We’re a service and a loss center, but also full of important information. Use the information to push the business, and stop worrying over every nook and cranny of your projects.
 
5.    Ask the Whats, but talk about the Whys. Human psychology is an amazing thing. The brain continues to fascinate me. I studied biology and film when I was an undergraduate student (good thing I ended up at National Geographic!), because I loved the art of storytelling and the science of human beings. I found that you have to read between the lines to fully understand what surveys, focus groups and Facebook posts are telling you.  Yes, we know people are multitasking, and we know people like to watch action. But why? What does your audience do when watching TV and what can you learn about why that is? Once you know why—or at least what you think is the why—it becomes a powerful tool for marketing, programming, sales (you name it) to further your business.  
 
There are certainly many other traits that make up great researchers, but these are some of the most powerful. I’ve worked with a number of smart, young researchers and have tried to help them succeed by following these principles. Research is one of the most powerful tools in a business’s belt, but it’s only that: a tool. It’s only as useful as you make it and it only works when you use it. 
 
At the same time, researchers need to show how useful they are by being proactive and helping make a difference. The industry continues to change at an amazing pace. I hope your researchers are keeping up with you.
 
(Oh, I should add it never hurts to bribe researchers with gifts. Have a wonderful holiday season and a fantastic 2013.)
 
(Brad Dancer is the senior vice president for audience and business development at the National Geographic Channels and a longtime member of the CTAM research community. Feel free to contact him with questions or comments (or offer your bribe) by emailing him at Bdancer@natgeotv.com.)







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