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Hear Me Out: Researchers Need to Be Marketers (and Vice Versa)

The two teams have more in common than you’d think, but learning from their differences can bring both of them better results and buy-in across the organization.

Words by Zack Hanz, Visuals by Alisa Harvey

I want to start by clarifying the title of this piece. In times of layoff worries and the potential for occupational overlap, I am not suggesting that either of these roles could replace the other.

But now more than ever, it’s important for teams to empathize, learn from each other, and find new and impactful ways to collaborate and ensure their place in evolving organizational structures. In both Marketing and Research, teams need to make their impact known and make themselves irreplaceable—something that is often challenging for these functions.

During my time as the Director of Product Marketing at dscout, I have become uniquely connected to both groups. Aside from talking with and learning from research prospects, I’ve been fortunate to work directly with some incredible “card-carrying” Researchers on my team and across the industry, and I’m a better marketer for it.

Last year, I was also fortunate enough to attend the Learners UXRConf Leadership Summit in Toronto, an intimate workshop between top minds in the research industry—who generously let this marketer crash the party.

I was still new-ish to the research space and attending as more of a fly-on-the-wall investigative journalist, to better understand the people I serve day-to-day.

And let me tell you, it was eye-opening.

Jump to…

How are researchers and marketers similar?

At the summit, what I couldn’t ignore in hearing research leaders’ challenges, frustrations, and motivations…was just how much they echoed what you might hear in a room full of marketers:

“Everyone thinks they can do my job.” “My results get ignored or don’t create the impact they should.”

Even the questions or challenges they both receive. For researchers: “How hard could it be? It’s only asking some questions.” For marketers: “How hard could it be? It’s only writing some copy.” For both: “How long could it really take?” and “We need it faster.”

And honestly, we’re both right to feel some of those frustrations!

Truly understanding customer needs takes more than just asking people in a quick survey. How many people truly know why they make the decisions they do? And good marketing that motivates the right audience toward a decision is a hell of a lot more than just some words slapped on a page.

Failed product launches and millions of wasted football ad dollars on forgotten brands can attest to that for both sides. So yes, both teams’ jobs take a lot more time than people realize in order to do them well.

We are two departments that don’t always intersect as we could, often lack the influence we think know we deserve, and we both seek the same thing—customer understanding. Where Research might approach it through a lens of Development and Adoption, Marketing comes at it through one of Acquisition and Retention.

So if we’re similar, what can we learn from each other? Well, it starts by acknowledging how we’re different.

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How are they different?

Now, this is going to sound incredibly obvious, but researchers do Research. Capital R. Italics. Rigorous, in-depth, carefully validated research. And marketers…well, we like to think we do research.

Marketers might run a survey here and there. Or hop on a handful of customer calls. Or listen in on sales call recordings (an underutilized approach IMO). And we test things constantly. A/B tests on subject lines, landing page layouts, ad copy, you name it.

But it’s lowercase r research at best. We don’t understand the best practices and nuance of avoiding leading questions, or how to conduct proper analysis to spot trends and ignore false positives.

And on the flip side, marketers by both nature and necessity have learned how to promote their efforts and tie their work to the business’ bottom line. Rarely can we get away with prioritizing projects that don’t bring hard numbers to the table on how they’ll impact leads, revenue, adoption, or churn and retention. And we’re held accountable to those numbers quarter over quarter. Marketing may not quite be as accountable as Sales, but let’s call it Diet Sales.

Researchers, on the other hand, may struggle to put a number behind their impact. Or to even want to, frankly. Because they’re often not practiced with it, and there’s an understandably frightening level of accountability and risk that can come along with that.

The best marketers understand the power of research. They inform their campaigns, content, and collateral with a depth of knowledge about their customers achieved through rigorous, quality fact-finding.

And the best researchers understand the power of marketing. They know how to tie their efforts to business objectives and tell a compelling story to ensure their insights have the widest impact possible.

Zack Hanz
Director of Product Marketing at dscout

There are of course exceptions to this in certain research programs or in more clear cut evaluative or quantitative work. But I should clarify that this isn’t my own bold claim—it was discussed at length at the research summit I mentioned above and our Co-Lab event last year.

Researchers often take a more neutral stance and hand off their findings and insights rather than being more assertive in the implications and recommendations. It’s a “do with it what you will” attitude, or soft language like “our data seems to suggest…,” or “it depends.”

But here’s the thing…it can’t depend. And researchers are recognizing it more and more. Business operates in black and white more than shades of gray. And if there’s any team that deserves to be assertive in its recommendations, it’s the one with the most in-depth customer knowledge in the organization. It’s the Research team.

So what can we learn from each other?

When I joined dscout, I worked with a member of our Research team on a very foundational project to better understand our audience. I’d never done anything like it before. And I was blown away by the depth and quality of work. This person was brilliant. Their skillset was one I’d desperately needed without ever realizing it.

But the main thing I realized is how much we each needed to be more like each other.

The best marketers understand the power of research. They inform their campaigns, content, and collateral with a depth of knowledge about their customers achieved through rigorous, quality fact-finding.

And the best researchers understand the power of marketing. They know how to tie their efforts to business objectives and tell a compelling story to ensure their insights have the widest impact possible.

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What can Marketing learn from Research?

There are a few things I’d love for marketers to pick up from their researcher counterparts:

1. Learn how to structure better questions, surveys, and interviews

We can establish some best practices and frameworks with Research’s help to get deeper, more reliable insights—and avoid common pitfalls like asking leading questions.

Here are a few People Nerds articles that can help you or your marketing colleague get started:

2. Change your approach to analysis

Pivot tables are cool and all, but if we don’t have the volume in our tests to achieve statistical significance, we need a better way to make sense of the data (both qualitative and quantitative). Researchers are absolute pros at this process.

Some articles to help you get started:

3. Tap into research tools

I have to shamelessly plug dscout here based on my own experience, but whatever research software they might use, try to get access! The first time I logged in and dug through a study, I was shocked by what these tools can provide for marketers.

Even something as simple as how researchers use a tool like Miro can be incredibly eye-opening into how we even think about organizing and slicing up data to identify trends.

I remember when I first discovered revenue intelligence and sales call recording tools. As a marketing leader, I immediately requested access for my whole team, and we began sharing insights every week at our team meeting. As marketers, we think we’re great writers—but when you can hear the lightbulb go off for the customer and use their own language, it’s so much better.

Research tools take that even further. You’re seeing and hearing from your audience without needing to do that legwork yourself. You’re benefiting from hours of analysis and tagging to help you find what you need to gut-check a new campaign, subject line, site page, whatever it may be.

4. Learn from what’s already been done

A classic marketing faux pas is for a new person to come in guns blazing about testing something that’s actually already been tried and failed before. When I think of the potential that research repositories have for helping marketers avoid duplicative work, it makes my heart happy. And in the absence of a true repository, something as simple as regular check-ins or attending shareouts can be helpful too.

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What can Research learn from Marketing?

Similarly, there are some things I hope more researchers can start doing with help from the Marketing team:

1. Bring the numbers

It’s hard to attach a number to mitigating risk, but plenty of the work researchers do supports better conversion, adoption, retention, and more. It’s not just the Sales or Product teams’ success. Your friends in Marketing would be happy to share what’s worked for them to generate buy-in.

Follow the thread after your work is done to truly gauge its impact. Triangulate deep qualitative insights with the quantitative, and learn how it ties directly to behavioral data and business metrics. Then, shout it from the mountaintops!

2. Take a stance

If there’s one thing Marketing does well, it’s being unafraid to experiment, learn quickly, and pivot. I said before: business operates in black and white. And the Research team has more customer insight than any other. Moving out of the gray and pushing those learnings more assertively can help generate the influence you deserve.

3. Simplify your story

The first time my researcher colleague came to me with a 20+ page shareout document of the findings, I did a double-take. “How am I going to get through this?” “What do I actually do with this?” And when we whiteboarded together to try and boil down some trends, we started with a list of 24. The marketer in me knew it needed to be fewer for anyone to ever reasonably digest.

Getting insights down to a list of 10 was a serious challenge. Seeing the forest through the trees once we knew all the nuances and all the shades of gray took a lot of work, but it’s the job. Distillation. Categorization. Clarity and simplification of very complex data so that your audience can easily understand it.

Do more with less by giving yourself constraints on word and character counts in your messaging. Force it into a slide or two versus a lengthy writeup.

4. Market your work

If you want your insights to get adopted across more of the org (like they deserve to be), challenge yourself to treat it like an internal marketing campaign. And use bullet 3 above to keep your campaign succinct and compelling.

What’s your slogan? Your key benefits? Spread that message across multiple channels to ensure people see it. Have a goal for what adoption should look like, and hold yourself (and others) accountable to it.

It’s all easier said than done, of course. But once we acknowledge that we can do better in these areas, we can break down silos and tap into each other's expertise for support.

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How can we work together?

One of People Nerds’ regular contributors Nikki Anderson put together a great piece on Research collaborating with Sales and Marketing.

Researchers have tons of knowledge to share that can help marketers develop personas and customer segments, run competitive analysis, and even establish foundational messaging and positioning standards.

What if Marketing tapped Research for what they might already know on a topic before they run off and do sub-par research? What if Research invited Marketing as a hidden observer on more of their sessions to get closer to the voice of the customer?

Hopefully the ideas above can be a strong starting point to help each side think a bit differently and find ways to collaborate. Even just scheduling some regular meetings to share projects and learnings can be a great, easy start.

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Looking ahead

As much as these two teams can learn from each other (which I hope I’ve offered some ideas into), I said at the start that both can struggle with finding their influence or with other teams thinking their work is easier than it is.

So the next step might very well be for them to learn from the other teams that already have more of the influence that they aspire to. How have those teams gotten to where they are? Made themselves heard? Made themselves…irreplaceable?

I’d love to hear from you on how you’ve worked across these teams, or how else you think we can learn from each other. Our People Nerds Slack community is always open for conversations like this!

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Zack is the Director of Product Marketing at dscout.

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