The joys of being a generalist

Peggy Moulton-Abbott is a moderator and owner of Newfound Insights, a Virginia Beach, Va., research firm. This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared here under the title “The joys, and benefits, of being a marketing research generalist.”

Lately it seems I am meeting a lot of potential new clients (this is on purpose) and they always ask me about my specialties. This relates to business sectors, respondent types, methodologies and techniques. It’s an interesting mix between research buyers who feel strongly that a moderator should know their specific subject matter and methods intimately and those who prefer someone with a broad range of experience across many industry categories and techniques.

In one instance a potential client insisted that I provide a pitch detailing my specializations in just two industries, two audiences and two qualitative methods. That was very difficult for me because I no longer specialize. I had another potential client tell me, “I meet plenty of researchers who say they are specialists, but very few really are.” That felt like a gauntlet being tossed down (in a good way), so I took the challenge and began categorizing and tallying my work just to prove that I really am a generalist. While I’m not the best statistician, I did the math and I can now provide empirical evidence: I am a generalist!

This introspective exercise on my almost 20-year career in marketing research forced me to think about how and why I evolved into a generalist. I started out on the client side, so I was limited to a single industry, albeit a very interesting one with many niches. When I jumped to the vendor side I landed in the middle of a very health care-focused client list, which I promptly expanded to include other industries. I clearly understand the value of marketing researchers who develop a specialty: They have history in the industry and/or methodology. They know the players. They get the big and little picture. Clients feel a level of trust in someone who speaks their language and walks in knowing what keeps them up at night.

I used to be one of those researchers, specializing in just a few different industries. I was also one of the very early adopters of online research, qual-quant methods and hybrid ethnography. So in addition to having experience with in-person and phone methodologies, I was on the front end of the electronic research revolution. Yet, having a constant diet of just one industry sector, respondent type or methodology always left me feeling confined, yearning for broader horizons and, dare I say it … a little stale.

Here’s what I find so fulfilling about being a generalist: it means I am constantly challenged. I get to keep learning, stay engaged – I’m compelled to stay on my toes, questioning everything – and after all, isn’t that what all researchers should do? Before every project is even designed I spend a significant amount of time learning or refreshing my knowledge about the business sector, specific product or service, competitive set and potential respondents. I come to the table without biases or preconceived notions. When I do develop a hypothesis, it’s often from a fresh, unbiased perspective, which I think has value to all parties in the research equation.

Being a generalist is also valuable to respondents. While it’s great for participants to know the moderator has a basis of knowledge in their chosen field, it’s even better for them to feel the need to give detailed explanations for their responses. Knowing that I am not “one of them” means respondents will go the extra mile to express their thoughts in a way I can understand. By using good projective exercises, I can give them the freedom to express their deeper, more emotional responses in a setting where they will not be judged by a peer. Being the lone non-engineer in a room full of them discussing the relative merits of soundproofing in hospitals is a personally challenging experience that I highly recommend.

The benefit to clients is that a generalist brings a range of experience to the table, not just in terms of industry sectors, methodologies and techniques, but also respondent types. I’ve always been one to jump to conclusions – not in a bad way, I think – but as a means of connecting the dots. My generalist background means I can see patterns in the big picture and translate them from one category or methodology to another. My 30-year working life has also allowed me to develop a long view, one that is good for understanding product life cycles, experiencing the impact of sociological phenomena and even anticipating sea changes. All this allows me to potentially provide deeper insights that lead to actionable conclusions, bringing better results for the research buyer.

Some might say being a generalist makes me “Jill of all trades and mistress of none.” To them I would respectfully say: I’ve done it all, from chain saws to the kitchen sink. Try me!

This entry was posted in Consumer Research, Focus Groups, Moderating, Qualitative Research. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The joys of being a generalist

  1. Agree all around, Peggy! Great article – hope to see you in Montreal.

  2. Linda Flynn says:

    Definitely agree – I run into the same biases all the time! There is a great speech on TED from a Yale (?) professor on the advantages of being a generalist/////

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