A Researcher’s Path – Data Stories Leaders At Work Podcast

Summary: Michaela Mora talks about her research career and issues in the market research industry on the Data Stories: Leaders at Work podcast.

37 minute video. By author Michaela Mora on September 21, 2021
Topics: Business Strategy, Market Research

I had the honor to be a guest on Audiense’s Data Stories: Leaders at Work podcast, episode 26, hosted by Rahul Jerome.

We talked about my career, what research is needed to stay ahead of the competition, what makes a good researcher, what clients should consider when engaging research suppliers, some useful books, and the future.

The interview took place on July 28, 2021. Give it a listen (~37 minutes) or read the transcript below.

Education and Work Experience Magical Mix


Rahul: Well, I’m wondering where I start off the interview, Michaela, because you’ve got such a career. You’ve lived in countries, probably more than the countries I’ve visited in my lifetime so far, and some of your early education sounds really interesting as well so I’m a bit stuck where it started but let’s go to your early education.

From my research, I found out that you’ve done some courses and degrees in market research which is quite fascinating for me because a lot of people I’ve interviewed come from different backgrounds which somehow accidentally have them landed in the world of research and insights, but you’ve chosen to specifically do some degrees that specialize in market research which is really interesting. Let’s go to your university degree at a Cuban university and why did you choose to study in research and in science, why did you choose that degree?

Michaela: Well, I know there’s a lot of people coming to the insights industry from different paths, and my path has been, I relied heavily on education you as you mentioned. I grew up in Cuba and first got a master’s degree in Psychology from Havana University and early on I got interested in Social Psychology and the influence of mass media, so my first job as a researcher was doing media research for the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television which is the equivalent of Nielsen in the U.S., and I did a lot of audience research with teenagers, and in kid, children’s programming.

In Cuba, by that time, there were only two channels, yes, like two NPR channels, there was no advertising, this is like public television, and when I left and went to Sweden, I lived there and got my second degree in public relations, PR, and advertising at Stockholm University, and that’s when I really discovered market research because Cuba has a close economy, so there’s no free market, so the idea, the concept of market research is foreign and that’s where I discovered marketing and marketing research, and since I already had a research background, this was the closest.

So, I started doing publicity analysis and then went to work for the largest research agency in Sweden which is now I think the last iteration, they became part of TNS, and when I came to the U.S. then I got my third master’s degree in Marketing Research at the University of Texas in Arlington, which is an excellent program. My path, every time I go to a country, has been to go through the education, higher education path. It’s a long one but I felt that it gave me the best foundation to work in the field.

I started working in the marketing science group at M/A/RC Research. It’s an agency here in the Dallas area, in Texas. It has a long history in the industry and then went to the client-side to work as a sales forecast analyst for Proline International, hair care CPG company. They were bought by Alberto Culver so they don’t exist anymore, but I did more analytical work there and went to Match.com and Blockbuster Online, first as a research manager and then research director.

When I went to Match.com is when I started blending market research and UX research before it was called UX. Right now, is the thing, right? but it has existed for a long time, because in both companies there was a big focus on digital products.

UX is just an area of research, product development research essentially, but more with applications on the digital realm, I guess, and so I started early to, realized early that I needed to know more about principles of graphic and interaction design to be able to communicate with the product team and support for, to provide support to designers and developers and product managers so I ended up getting a UX master certification from the Nielsen Norman Group in user research and interaction design. They are the ones who really started the field of user experience, and so my path has always been through education, as you can see. I feel like I’ve been in school for a long time.

The Perils of Renaming Old Research Methods


Rahul: There seems to be a new name for a research methodology or a technique popping out every now and then we’ve got from UX research to UI, from CX to EX, from audience to digital, to clusters, did these exist during your early part of your career or is this more of a recent trend?

Michaela: Well, I know there’s now a lot of debate about how to call things because we are in the era of entrepreneurship and the creation economy. Everybody’s trying to come up with new names for old stuff.

We didn’t have necessarily, it was just research, it was different methods and if you have gone through, that’s why the more classical and formal education research prepares you to understand all the different methodological approaches. If you understand that the different areas of, in categories of research, so we talk about qualitative and quantitative, we talk about primary and secondary.

That helps you to create a system around a menu of methods that you can then use to decide to select from when a business problem comes to mind, so you will see me talking on LinkedIn and in my posts about first, define the problem and then think about the method, not the other way around.

People come sometimes, and say let’s do user interviews, so let’s do usability testing, let’s do surveys. It’s like stop for a second, and first, let’s talk about the business problem, and then we decide which of those methods and approaches are the most appropriate, so when I have, what I have seen in UX, and I have been to, you know, I got the training in even at NNG, which they are very known in this area, I saw that research methods are just adaptations of what we have been doing in market research for a long time. They just change the name, they do some specific applications sometimes, and people are now talking about UX research as something new, but it’s not, it’s just a discipline like you have advertising research, and you have certain set of techniques that is using, for example, shopper research, but they’re all part of the same family, and they are just applications of it.

In particular, in the qualitative research field, there’s a lot that has been appropriated and adapted, and sometimes people come up with names that don’t say much but they sound cool, and what happens is that new people that come to the field and see those names, they don’t see the connection to the roots of the methods, and so they are not able to find more information and learn more about, so, that’s why I’m always in educational mode, making the parallels between the terms used, so people can find their path to learning more about it.

When Research Was Used to Grow Blockbuster


Rahul: Michaela, I must ask you this, knowing that you’ve had a stint at Blockbuster, yeah, and you probably have had people ask you this. There’s a famous story obviously, you know, Blockbuster sort of refused to invest in Netflix when it was still in the idea, was in at an infancy stage. From your stint at that time, did you anticipate or predict that the future of firms would be online streaming when you were at Blockbuster?

Well, I think at that time, I wasn’t there when Netflix came and try to sell the concept, which is true they say no, and that’s what happens when you’re in a monopoly position, you think you know, and but I came there became a big group came from Match.com when they realized that there was a potential in the market and this was when Netflix was only 5 million subscribers and the stock was $18, and they realized there was potential for this, and so they built the digital team, and that was actually the best job I ever had because our management team was really very much into research.

Everything was based on research, and I gave birth essentially to a big product there it’s called Blockbuster Total Access, once we started with the market segmentation study where we saw the potential of merging the store experience with the online experience. At that time, there was just renting DVDs online with a very niche group of people who were doing that, and that was Netflix.

They created the category, and we had the stores, but the people started having both experiences if they wanted that and so we did the tons, tons, like two years’ worth of research with market segmentation, concept testing, focus groups, pricing, a [great] deal of conjoint studies, a lot of usability testing, so the product development was on the digital side, that’s why we had, we did a lot of UX before it was called UX, we had a usability testing lab in-house, and everything was happening at the same time.

All the UX research was coordinated with all the marketing research because we needed to figure out the feasibility in the market, how you’re going to position the product, what is the pricing you’re going to put, at the same time what is the experience that people are having, and so when we launched, we grew 1.5 million subscribers in nine months, and we were the only thing growing in our company, really, but then there was a change in administration, the new guy that came, [he] didn’t understand digital, and the first thing he did was to close the division.

Rahul: Oh wow, that’s mind-boggling, yeah.

Michaela: Yeah, it is. So, can you think now, you know, how many millions Netflix has, don’t you think it was like a space for another competitor, right?

Raul: Absolutely.

Michaela: And two years later he killed the company, essentially, because he was a retailer, he wanted to revive the stores, that’s what he knew, and he totally didn’t see the digital, you know, in the horizon and at that time streaming was not necessarily in anybody’s view yet, but I guess it was coming because I mean and even during that, Redbox came too, and we had our boxes too, so Blockbuster was a little reactive. They were not necessarily paying attention to what the small guys were doing. Although we were in the online business, we were a small group, and the giant was the stores, right? and so when they killed us. They killed the business really, essentially.

Advice for Business Survival

14: 17:05

Rahul: Yeah, what would your advice be for any sort of business, whether it’s a small business or a large brand who maybe some might have a monopoly over their market share, what’s your advice going from your experience and what you had from working at Blockbuster?

Michaela: Keep a brand health and customer satisfaction tracker alive. Those are costly, those take time and money, and resources, but they are your best tool to monitor what is happening because you’re going to see newcomers. There are some categories [where] not much is happening but in some, there’s a lot of movement, so you need to keep tracking that.

If you do ad hoc research now and then, you will miss it but if you keep a tracking program taking the pulse of what’s happening with your competitors, you have to track your competitors, you have to track your brand, how is perceived, how is used. You are not only necessarily competing with your competitors in the category, you might be competing with other substitute products, like for example in entertainment, when we were at Blockbuster we were really competing with people’s time, how they used it in entertainment. 

Even if we tracked Netflix and also other video rental competitors, we’re also looking at how people were using the internet and what are the things that we’re doing in the free time, you know, instead of watching movies, so you have to be broad in your view of who your competitors are, go beyond your category and track all the time. That’s the thing.

I know trackers have lost their luster. Before COVID, there was like, “yeah, we don’t need that, we just do social listening with social media,” which has its own issues, and now I think some companies realize, “oh, we need to start tracking again because things are changing now,” they don’t know what’s happening with COVID, how people are changing their behavior and habits, and so they need to track again, but only the big brands, the ones that really understand that you need to get feedback constantly back from the market keep those programs.

Becoming a Researcher With an Integrated View


Rahul: How’s your journey shaped who are you today? Are there any major moments in your life that changed your trajectory? Now you’ve worked both client-side as well as agency side, and you’ve gone on to set up your own business, and you’ve been running your own business, your own insight agency for quite a few years. Now tell us about your journey, how it has shaped who you are today?

Michaela: Oh boy, it’s been a long, long journey. I actually started the business just right after Blockbuster, when we all lost our jobs, the whole division was let go the same day, and we were looking for jobs here in the area. I already worked on the agency side and one of the things that I didn’t like about that was it’s very siloed, and I mean I used to work in the marketing science team at M/A/R/C research and of course, they have the account management.

I don’t know how they are organized now, but at that time they had an account management group and there was a lot of back and forth you not always had the chance to talk to clients to understand their problems and sometimes a lot of things can get lost in translation.

Finding that holistic position was hard, where you get involved in all pieces of the project, and so when we all lost the job, people started landing in different places, they have already worked with me and they started calling me, “Can you do this project?” “Can you do that project?” It’s like, well, maybe I can do this. I was not really looking for, you know, starting my own business but it came that way because a lot of people were asking me to work with them, and it has been, I’ve been doing that for 14 years now.

Rahul: And it’s a happy accident again there for using it, so yeah people have reached out to you and you didn’t intend to do your own thing.

Michaela: Yeah, and it helps to have breadth and depth in research methodologies to be able to do many different types of research which is what I like. I like the variety. I miss, from working on the client-side I miss the fact that you’re closer to the business issues when you’re on the client-side. As a consultant, you are a little more removed, depending on how open the clients are to share the actual problems with you, and sometimes you get it, you know, that that chance.

Sometimes they’re a little more secretive about it, and so there is a limitation to how much you can recommend and do, if the client doesn’t let you do that but on the agency side, in my case, I’m involved in all phases of the project, and that gives me the best chance of helping clients to find the right research design and also be able to translate that into the business implications, finding the answers to the business problems they came to me to solve so that’s the beauty of it. It’s a lot of work, but it is also very rewarding that way.

Learning How Many Mistakes Could Be Avoided by Using Research


Rahul: Knowing what you know now after all these years and doing what you’re doing, what’s the one thing you wish you’d have known before you began your career?

Michaela: You know when I started my career I had a very naive vision of what a researcher is, the value of research for businesses. I thought that people would just, it’s so obvious, right?

It’s like you need that, is like just knowing about methodology will kind of sell the thing, right? I didn’t know I was going to live in two different countries, start from scratch every time, learning two new languages and put so much effort and work in the process to really have a career, right? And coming from a different world, part of the world, the business piece was also unknown to me, and that’s why I was so naive about it.

I came to realize that people are susceptible to the same mistakes and biases when making decisions in business roles and as consumers. There are a lot of fragile egos and hubris, and plain incompetence in many C-suites that refuse to use evidence-based insights to make decisions related to the strategy, the organization, the operations, and their own leadership. So, the hard part of our profession that I didn’t know is to be witness to many avoidable business mistakes when research is ignored or not done because it’s seen as a cost and a barrier, so it has been discouraging at times, and I didn’t know that, but you learn you learn over time to find ways to help clients to see the need of research.

Essential Skills to Become a Good Researcher


Rahul: What skills do you think, Michaela, are essential for someone to be a good market researcher or an insight practitioner?

Michaela: I cannot, you know, stress enough the need to really learn the basics of research, the foundation about methodology. People are trying to wing it many times, and that’s how you get a lot of bad research out there, so you really have to have a solid understanding of different methodologies to avoid being jailed by the law of the hammer, you know, Maslow discussed that in the 60s.

If you have a hammer everything is going to look like a nail, and if you really don’t have a good foundation in research you will end up just doing one type of research even when it is not appropriate. If you only do surveys you will try to do surveys for everything. If you do interviews, user interviews, you will do that for everything, and that’s not necessarily the best approach sometimes, so having that good foundation it’s a must, I think.

The other one is just critical thinking and adopting the scientific method as a lifestyle in which you just look at things as hypotheses so you can guard against biases, which are, I mean, we’re all susceptible to biases you have to stop yourself and think, is this really something I really have evidence for or do we need to test this? and so you have to be curious and open and question yourself, be willing to change your mind, to rethink.

 The third one would be to be diverse and flexible in your thinking and be a little eclectic, looking for different ways of approaching the same problem, the business problem. The business perspective is very important particularly in our field so something you always have to have in mind.

The Search for Insights


Rahul: There’s a question I want to rephrase it was, it came from a conversation earlier, and you also mentioned that one of the ways that you’ve set up your own business was people coming to you, and clearly they know the value of working with you, what they get, and what should clients when they want to engage a freelance researcher, or a freelance practitioner or as a consultant, what things should they consider before they approach someone or they have someone in mind that they’d like to bring on board because as you said everybody is doing the same thing, everybody is saying the same things but how will a client know if they want to engage a consultant that he or she is really good?

Well, I think it has to do with the client’s perspective of what the role of the research supplier should be and what is that they really need from the supplier or the consultant. Right now, the industry is evolving, there is a lot of focus on technology and tools.

There’s a lot of discussions about artificial intelligence and automation, and there is a lot of data collected with those tools but there is little insights being derived from the data.

People don’t have time to really think about what to do with it and translate that into business implications, and so even when they have researchers in-house, which is now, there is you know there is a big trend with do-it-yourself, it often is just a do yourself data collection brought in-house, so researchers are overwhelmed and overworked spending a lot of time doing data collection in-house because it’s cheaper, it’s faster, they have different survey tools, they have access to sample sources, they can do that, they can cook pretty quickly a meal with a few questions and this is what we are seeing, but many times those teams are also working in silos.

They are not collaborating and not necessarily always connecting the dots with the strategy of the company, and so when a client goes outside sometimes if they are in a mindset of finding a strategic partner, it can help them to think through and plan, and create connecting all the dots across, for example, the customer journey from pre-sale to product use, and help them to understand how they can use, first how to derive insights and what does that mean for the business.

The Need for Research Foundation Knowledge


That’s where, for example, we see companies not willing to invest in the traditional market research suppliers, but they are willing to pay a lot of money to management consulting companies like the McKinseys, the Accentures, and the Bains of the world, right? because what they’re looking is for help in translating those insights into business implications, but to be able to do that when someone says I can help you to do that, they better know what the methodologies are behind the insights collected because you can have a lot of bad data, and the ones that you have might not lend themselves to derive the good insights, so you have to have a combination of business acumen and also have a good foundation in research methodology.

That’s where the quality comes, which now it seems like it’s not needed if you think of the focus there is on technology. People assume, particularly, the new people that don’t have a research foundation, they think that the tools are going to write the surveys for them.

The tools sell now these little package products which is just a set of questions, and people assume that those are being validated, and that’s the way to do it, and they even sometimes just adopt them without any type of customization, and that’s how for example the surveys get a little bad rap because there’s a lot of bad surveys out there.

People don’t know how to write them, you know, ask the right questions so quality is a key differentiator, and it tends to be combined with the process you work, how you work.

In my case, I have a very collaborative style. I’m very big about caveats, and sometimes some clients don’t like to hear about that. They already have some things in mind, that’s how they want to do it, and I always try to be very transparent and say you’re gonna get this with that, and these are the limitations, this is what we can do. No method is perfect. You always, ideally, gonna get the best results if you combine different methods because they give you a different perspective, and but you have to know, you have to have that background, you have to have the knowledge and methodology to be able to select the best approach.

Rahul: Absolutely, I totally agree with you on that, and I keep hearing that over and over again that different methodologies provide different perspectives, you have to connect the dots, and bring them together to give you a holistic view. Fantastic, wonderful, Michaela.

Useful Books


Rahul: I think we’re coming up to our time, so let me ask you a quick couple of things before we wrap things up. Read a lot or listen to podcasts? Are there anything recently that you’ve read or listened to that has inspired you?

Michaela: Oh god, I am a book hoarder. Thank God for digital books because these days I don’t have enough space at home to get all the books that I want to read.

I continuously go back to and check a lot of market research classics like the Market Research: An Applied Orientation from Malhotra, and Consumer Behavior from Hawkins, Best, and Conney.

Other classics I go back to often is Building Strong Brands but by Aaker, and Design and Marketing of New Products by Urban and Hauser. That’s one that I recommend a lot to user, UX people, because the book about product development was written in the 60s.

Sampling Techniques by Cochran, and Pricing by Monroe, and a lot of multivariate analysis by Hair. I do also qualitative research, so I go back to Applied Qualitative Research by Margaret Roller, Complete Guide to Writing Questionnaires by Harris, Doing Naturalistic inquiry by Erlandson.

The most recent books, I have enjoyed are the Jobs to Be Done by Jim Kalbach, and Quantifying the User Experience by Jeff Sauro.

I’m also involved in multicultural research, and I recently read a wonderful book called What is Your Race by Kenneth Pruitt, the professor of social affairs at Columbia, in which he does a great job at showing the evolution of what he calls statistical races in the Census in the context of social-economic and cultural changes in the U.S. It’s a fascinating book. So, I read a lot yes.

Rahul: I can tell yeah, certainly I think that there’s some great collection there. We’ll put some links to some of those on show notes as well so if people want to access those resources that would be helpful for them. So, yeah fantastic thank you for sharing that, Michaela.

Important People


Rahul: Are there any people that you’d like to call out today who have been influential throughout your career or your personal life? It could be your colleagues or your peers or someone of a famous figure that you tend to follow.

Well, I would say the first one would be, it’s more on you know my life, would be my father. He’s still living in Cuba he’s the most persevering person I have ever met in my life, his willingness to work hard in search of excellence is something I got from him without a doubt.

The second would be my first boss the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television. He taught me how to write research reports. He had a way of showing the errors you made without making you feel bad about that. He really embodied constructive criticism, so you felt grateful and enlightened and motivated to do better, so I could feel he believed in me, and you know, it has been more than 30 years and I still miss him. I always come back to those because I see them in my life every day almost.

The Future


Rahul: Michaela finally let’s wrap this up by asking what’s your personal vision, where do you see yourself in the next three-five years, what’s your vision for your business and yourself?

Michaela: The vision is evolving as you know, as the industry evolves, as I said technology has facilitated rapid data collection for both corporate researchers and suppliers, so there is more data than ever, and my goal is to continue providing high-quality evidence-based insights that give company we work with a competitive edge.

We do that with a combination of breadth and depth of expertise in research methodologies both qual and quant that allow us to find the best research design that will provide answers to the business problems at hand. 

We can help to connect the dots and derive insights and drive business outcomes, so my hope is that as the industry evolves, they come back to really what’s important which is using research to make decisions and stop the focus on technology in data collection.

You still need to invest in human capital to make this work. Technology alone, tools alone are not going to going to do it, even despite all the promises of artificial intelligence.

There is a limit to that and there is also a lot of things to consider in terms of biases of those tools, and there’s a lot of discussions now about bias against diversity from those tools because those tools and those algorithms are made by people, and that’s the point some people forget so we still need human capital and that’s what I am.

Rahul: Michaela all the best, and some of the highlights from your career are truly inspiring. Thank you so much for spending some time with me today.