Next Generation Leaders in Social Research July Interview

Every month we interview leading market research experts in the new social media world to explore the issues that they are facing.  This month our interviewee is Murray Hardie the former head of planning at Fallon, CEO of Hall and Partners and general lifetime research expert.

1. What company do you work for?
I’m the founder of Reluctant Strategist. Prior to that I was US CEO of Hall and Partners – a full service brand & communication research agency and before that I was a strategic planner at a bunch of advertising agencies like Fallon, BBDO and Droga5.

During my career I have both:

Been a classical market researcher for more than 25 years (I was trained in one of the last old school apprenticeship systems (interviewer, coder, data processor, questionnaire writer & client service). More recently I have been buying and using research as a planner and freelance strategist.

2. What are the major responsibilities of your job?
Organizing lots of disparate information into a coherent strategy. More simply put, I articulate strategic stories using research insights and other information.

3. What is the biggest social analytics challenge that you face?
I have a slightly strange relationship with social research. I have had some very positive experiences where it has been extremely productive, insightful and strategically helpful.

On the other hand I find that I am also bit of a Luddite.  I reject the point of view that social research is the answer to everything and I certainly don’t believe social research will kill off traditional research. It seems to be the fashion these days to proclaim the death of traditional market research. OK I get it. It makes a salient headline or provocative claim from a conference podium but frankly it’s utter nonsense.

I do however believe that social research will become an ever more valuable tool in many areas of research. The real future I see is a greater inter-dependence of both traditional research (or asking research) and social research (or listening research). In many ways I find social research a hybrid of qualitative & quantitative research – it’s qualitative research on a quantitative scale. But if you only use social research you miss out on an incredible amount of insight that can be gained when you meet and speak with people in person, which is what good traditional research does. The inherent value of social research is the organic, conversational nature of the content, which is not tainted by an artificial research effect. It seems to me the ideal solution is a combination of the two approaches and each has strength and weaknesses.

I also worry that some – perhaps too many – social research companies lack genuine research expertise and discipline when it comes to the basics things that make research work – things like high quality data collection, sampling and statistical analysis.  I see people who are wowed by flashy charts and fast, technological solutions, which often lack the substance to make the insights they yield of any substantial value. That’s like fools gold. It’s not only dangerous because the underlying data, sample and coding are unreliable but it also undermines the value and credibility of both the traditional and social research companies who do things with rigor, discipline and expertise. It’s important to take the time to really understand the data you’re looking at and not just be wowed by cool graphics and fancy digital delivery systems.

4. How do you decide what projects are right for dashboard solutions (like Radian 6, Crimson Hexagon, Sysomos, etc.) and which are not?
For me dashboards are just a way of representing information and are only as valuable as the information that goes into them. They can be valuable as a means of quickly highlighting issues that may require deeper diagnostic analysis. But if the data set is shallow, then deeper diagnostic analysis is difficult or, in the case of many social dashboard tools, impossible.

Over nearly 30 years in research I have seen clients swing between the desire for speed and depth.  80’s was about speed and frequency, 90’s depth, ’00 speed, etc.  Dashboards vs. custom research tends to be based on where that pendulum happens to be.

The smart clients are looking for more than just fast data and flashy charts.  They want deeper diagnostic information.  They want meaningful insight.

Much of the new social data doesn’t help me that much – it lacks depth and substance in much the same way the conversations they analyze (like twitter or Facebook for example) lack depth and substance. That’s not to say that all social conversation in the digital space is shallow, but I think much of it is, therefore the value is limited.  

Like many people I don’t know how to make sensible informed decisions with all of the data I can access these days.  I encounter many people struggling with the sheer volume of options and seem overwhelmed. Sometimes it is good to go back to basics, stand back and take stock of it all and when you do that, you understand that social research is just another piece of data  – not the answer to everything.

I may be an old fart, but I have seen a lot of things come and go in 30 years, but the constant is for sure change, and there’s more pressure for change than ever before. For many client organizations change is slow (no matter what the press is saying).  For example, companies like P&G have been saying for the last ten to fifteen years that survey research will be dead soon.

I suspect the advent of social market research will be like arrival of TV into the media mix.  It will find its role and value and exist, happily alongside other methodologies that are available.

5. What is the one thing that would make your job easier every day?
I sometimes wish I could be given free reign to spend a clients’ research budget. I know it’s not an easy task to do well but I think I could do a great job of combining tried and true approaches with innovative new ways of doing things successfully to address evaluative and developmental needs.

6. What question would you ask yourself that we missed?
Has the kettle boiled yet?