A new landscape for researchers

Old way new way

Building a career in research used to be quite a straight forward process. Step one: Cut your teeth in an agency environment and work your way through the ranks. Step two: When your skills and experience were sufficiently developed, move client side into a senior role or stay on and be an agency lifer.

In recent years, the researcher’s road to career stardom has become tough to navigate, since the whole sector has undergone a fairly intense period of change. Driven by the economic gloom, brands that would previously have outsourced projects to an agency have instead opted to build an in-house team. The thinking being that with a dedicated research facility, an organisation can ‘do more with less’ and increase integration with the business at the same time. The upshot here, of course, is that as client-side employers continue to recruit researchers at all levels of seniority and increase investment in their research teams, a more competitive market is created making it harder for traditional research agencies to attract the next generation to their ranks.

The evolution of research methods has also had a big impact on those working in the sector.  Digital community engagement and social media research now feature heavily in the researcher’s toolkit, with the analysis of ‘big data’ quickly following suit.  The flood of data produced by the digital revolution has democratised the research market; enabling related organisations to feather their nests with their own research offerings.  Search marketing agencies, for example, are developing intelligent analysis tools that can automate the process of mining big data. Right now, they are focused on search engines, but for how long?

PR and marketing agencies are also recruiting researchers in order to strengthen their value propositions. Social networking is already a mainstay in their communications mix, so drawing on insights from a researcher’s qualitative and quantitative analysis in order to inform their social strategies is just good sense.

Outside of professional services, retailers also have much to gain from up skilling their data analysis capabilities and the race is now on to build the teams and tools able to meet this challenge. Already retailers are sitting on more data than they know what to do with, drawn from loyalty schemes, sales promotions, online purchasing, social media engagement, seasonal product trends, customer services and more. Retailers need x-ray vision and 360 degree analysis if they are to transform their data feeds into actionable insights that can be fed back into operations.  Increasingly, retailers are operating in the global market.  This means that customers, and the data they produce, can now span countries right across the globe.  For researchers, this can only mean one thing: clients will demand more accurate, insightful and deeper data analysis.

Equally, brands need researchers to measure the impact of their campaigns and extract the data insights that will inform future strategies and maximise their return on investment. To this end, internal research teams are being thrust into the spotlight as their data insights are being used to inform a much wider range of business strategies from market positioning, to product pricing and plans for development.

In a world of change, what does this mean for ambitious research professionals?  Firstly, it’s worth noting that not all future employers will yet know precisely what they are looking for. Companies seeking to enhance the research function may know what they want to achieve, but won’t necessarily be able to pinpoint the attributes they need to get there. Caution here will pay dividends. Researchers applying for such a post should do so with their eyes open; they will need to be sufficiently confident in their abilities to operate autonomously, it’s unlikely that they will be working with similarly skilled individuals.  Mid-ranking agency workers in particular should take heed of this; life will be very different on the other side of the fence.

In their search for new research recruits, employers will not only look for relevant experience, but also for a demonstration of the skills they require. With social media playing an increasingly important role, candidates should ensure that they are actively demonstrating their knowledge and familiarity with the various social platforms. Maintaining an up to date and well populated LinkedIn profile, together with an insightful and targeted Twitter stream is a good start. A well considered blog tackling key issues facing the industry is even better.

The market will continue to evolve, moulded by advances in technology, research methods and economic forces.  Now, more than ever there are widespread employment opportunities for researchers to expand their skills in a ‘non-traditional’ research role.  Just this week, of the new roles coming into Hasson Associates, several were with non traditional companies or even media and ad agencies.  My advice to research professionals is this: Explore your options carefully. Opportunities are opening up in new and exciting sectors, but only those properly equipped with the necessary skills and experience will succeed. A solitary yet high profile research role in an organisation unfamiliar with the research world will offer you no shelter if a storm comes your way.

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