Where do the largest companies spend their market research budget, so that they can help their organizations the most? How do they innovate bigger and better, develop strategies that align with customer needs and continuously support product deployment to consumers at the most tactical level?

I attended many exceptional company presentations at the IIR TMRE conference in Orlando, including presentations by Ford, Blizzard Entertainment and MTV that illustrate strategic rigor, business planning and tactical tweaking: the rocks, pebbles and sand that make up a strong research foundation.


In my mind, rocks, of course, are the structural elements that shape all else…the constructs around which everything hinges (or henges?!). As the recession deepened, and Ford mortgaged “the oval” (Ford’s logo), Marketing made deep organizational and project cuts, according to Christine Stasiw Lazarchuk, who runs global insights for Ford. The world as they knew it vanished, and they needed to change. Christine reported that—faced with revenue decline—the marketing organization shouldered intense budget and staffing cuts. They re-organized by function (customer segmentation, target customer development, product research, ad research, tracking and performance), by region and by nameplate. This allowed Ford Global Insights to fuse local subject matter expertise and understanding with functional excellence and expertise: this new hybrid organization is the structure upon which they now conduct research that is “chock-full of insights”. Specifically, their core research plan includes key elements…or rocks…that inform day-to-day volume decision-making. Specifically:

  • Segmentation that supports 80% of Ford’s volume, focused on attitudes and values, lifestyle and lifestage.
  • Brand customer satisfaction trackers in nearly 50 countries, covering 92% of Ford’s volume benchmarked to best in class.
  • Global real time syndicated studies in 15 key markets tracking 75% of the global ad spend.
  • Dealer sales and service satisfaction in ~70 markets. 

Thanks to sound navigating and some favorable trade winds, Ford is sailing towards innovation and global growth. They attend to the big things and keep their eyes on the little details and how the details inform their strategy.


Pebbles are those projects that inform specific business-line problems…product, package, messaging development. These projects take weeks and months to execute and often are a mixture of qualitative, quantitative, secondary research and internal data/text analytics.

World of Warcraft anyone? Ask big data guy Jason Anderson, the head of research at Blizzard Entertainment, whose Twitter handle is @dirkgently, after Douglas Adams’ holistic detective. Blizzard’s strategic goal is to create the most epic entertainment. With that as the goal, they need to know “What would make our games more epic for you?” and as such, everything they do organizes around this single strategic question. You want holistic? Blizzard collects terabytes of information weekly on their gamers. They dedicate themselves to refining their understanding of their audience, positioning, competitive threats and gamer satisfaction. Here are some of the critical pebbles:

  • Who are these gamers? While 50% of them have avatars that are female, ~80% of them are male. The average gamer spends 20 to 30 hours a week playing World of Warcraft. The gamers live everywhere, making it a truly global base: at any given time, gaming activity can be seen throughout the U.S., Europe and Asia. Their real-life friends and their gaming-life friends overlap significantly: the most engaged are the ones who spend the most time with their friends. If their friends quit the game, they all seem to move on to other activities. Blizzard wrestles with issues such as: should World of Warcraft be an easy or hard game? Is ‘easy’ better or is ‘hard’ better? While ‘easier’ may take less time required to accomplish something, big wins don’t feel as legendary. While ‘harder’ is alienating of the casual user with less leisure time, it has a greater emphasis on skill competition. Cater to one and you’ll lose the other.
  • Why do they play? Some adopt a PvP (Player vs Player) play style. The other segments that World of Warcraft has defined include the Hardcore PvP, Casual PvP, the Soloer and the Advanced Soloer, the Casual Player, the Generalists and the Completionists. Some gamers work with the primary motivation of collecting rare items and pets.
  • Who is World of Warcraft’s competition? While it’s not intuitive to the uninitiated, the true competition is anything takes gobs of leisure time: sporting events, comics, etc.

Concentrating on these research pebbles produces bam-bam results for Blizzard!


Sand, of course, is the day-to-day continuous gritty war of listening and tweaking products, programs, positions and experience to make it ever more authentic, relevant, compelling to elicit that gut “I have to have this” feeling. Or, in the case of MTV, that “I have to watch this” feeling.

MTV’s Jillian Curran, senior customer insights, put on an excellent presentation about the sand…the stuff that helps them continuously refine their experiences. Of course, MTV rocks! And while MTV has its rock and pebble projects, including programming concept tests episode tests, the sand is exceptionally critical to their livelihood because early on there needs to be strong signals of what’s working and what’s not. Satisfaction can’t be measured post-hoc and quarterly.

To this end, MTV conducts tests continually to understand what the audience is experiencing. They partnered with Dan Coates, President of Youth Pulse, to sort the spontaneous information and provide insights in real time. Youth Pulse conducted 147 projects last year with MTV. All of these are the critical explorations that increase their knowledge of their audience so that down the road, they are spot on with their programming….garnering bigger ratings and viewership.

Enchanting the youth audience year in and year out requires an intense level of listening, temperature checking and interacting. MTV’s program helps them keep pace with changing attitudes and preferences of their audience. Youth Pulse has given them a fast methodology, making it easy for MTV to stay focused on the prize…relevance.

Rocks, pebble and sand – research can inform the strategic, operational and tactical decisions that build strong business foundations.

Author Notes:

Jeffrey Henning

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Jeffrey Henning, IPC is a professionally certified researcher and has personally conducted over 1,400 survey research projects. Jeffrey is a member of the Insights Association and the American Association of Public Opinion Researchers. In 2012, he was the inaugural winner of the MRA’s Impact award, which “recognizes an industry professional, team or organization that has demonstrated tremendous vision, leadership, and innovation, within the past year, that has led to advances in the marketing research profession.” In 2022, the Insights Association named him an IPC Laureate. Before founding Researchscape in 2012, Jeffrey co-founded Perseus Development Corporation in 1993, which introduced the first web-survey software, and Vovici in 2006, which pioneered the enterprise-feedback management category. A 35-year veteran of the research industry, he began his career as an industry analyst for an Inc. 500 research firm.