How Can Market Research Regain Its Mojo? Watch ESPN

Summary: This article discusses how ESPN implements and value market research by putting insights at the center, looking forward, and using hybrid approaches.

3 minutes to read. By author Michaela Mora on June 21, 2011
Topics: Business Strategy, Market Research

ESPN Market Research

One of the presentations I enjoyed the most at the recent 2011 Market Research Annual Conference in Washington DC was the one by Barry Blyn from ESPN. He provided superb examples of how market research should be implemented and add value to an organization.

First, Blyn made an important distinction between Measurement and Insights. Measurement tells you what people did, while Insights tells you why they did it and how to get them to act in the future.  In my view, this is where market researchers can add the most value.

ESPN’s research efforts are led by these guiding principles:

  1. Research projects are about insights working more like weathervanes than speed cops. It is more important to know where the business is going (weathervane) than measuring how fast things went by (speed cop).
  2. Research projects are led by neither quantitative nor qualitative work. They work together like peanut butter and jelly. Results from any research method are presented together to answer the business problem.

According to Blyn, ESPN has become fanatical about listening to their audience. In 3 years they have conducted more than 400 in-depth interviews all over the country and 15,000 surveys. In the search for insights, they have been combining traditional and innovative types of research with consumers trying to get at the heart of the business challenges ESPN faces. Blyn presented two examples of how these guidelines are implemented:

Health Tracking (Crusade)

This is a brand tracking program that is seen as an orchestra where different research methods are thought of as instruments and are combined to reach the ultimate goal: monitor ESPN’s brand strengths and hunt for weaknesses making sure ESPN is always in touch with fans’ perceptions about the ESPN brand. In this program, ESPN combines qualitative and quantitative methods such as:

  • RDD telephone interviews with 1,500 adults 12+
  • Quarterly online surveys with 1,600
  • Backyard barbecues with fathers and sons (group discussions)
  • Conflict groups with ESPN fans debating ESPN detractors
  • “College campus crawls” (Group discussions with students about sports over beers and wings at a college bar)
  • Word of mouth/social media  monitoring
  • Attending baseball games with fans
  • Brand Eulogy (Imagine ESPN has passed away and deliver a eulogy)

Deprivation study

This is by far the most provocative research approach Blyn presented. In this case, they paid $400 to 60 avid sports fans (30 who only used ESPN TV and 30 who use ESPN TV and other platforms to get sports news) for abstaining from watching ESPN during football season. The main objectives were to:

  • Get vivid illustrations of how consumers felt about the brand
  • Identify where fans were going when they couldn’t watch ESPN TV (identify content “blindspots”)
  • Build a five-tool player, meaning being a brand that can do it all for everybody on different platforms

In this study, ESPN allowed participants to provide feedback through different channels: video and audio journals, focus groups (“therapy” sessions), before and after surveys, and in-depth interviews. From this research, it became clear that ESPN needed to align its different brand properties from a fan-centric point of view.

In a time when many believe the market research industry has just missed the train, the ESPN case shows that to make research relevant to organizations today, market researchers need to:

  1. Become more insight-centric. Bring the insights into the spotlight and leave the research methods used in the background
  2. Provide forward-looking insights
  3. Use hybrid research approaches and triangulate results

I think we can all do that.