Connecting the Dots toward Your “Godfather Offer”

By Zoë Billington, Lead, Research & Customer Insights, Vimeo, New York, New York, zbillington@gmail.com

Ari Zelmanow on the Importance of Crafting a Personal Value Proposition that Your Stakeholders Can’t Refuse

I had the pleasure of catching up with Dr. Ari Zelmanow, the modern-day, consumer-focused Sherlock Holmes. We covered a wide range of topics, including his passions about why we need to change how we think about the research and insights function, the value of a non-siloed insights department, and the importance of qualitative researchers creating their own unique “Godfather offer” that stakeholders can’t refuse.

Setting the Scene

As an introduction to Zelmanow, it feels only fitting to put on our Sherlock Holmes hats for a minute. Here are a few clues about his background and influences that help provide some baseline of why he thinks differently:

  1. He was a metropolitan police detective for nine years.
  2. He holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology.
  3. He has built and led analytics, research, and insights organizations at Twitter and Panasonic.

What this set of data points is missing is some context. So, let’s connect the dots.

While former Officer Zelmanow once collected evidence and contextualized clues to solve a case, today, Dr. Zelmanow works to unite qualitative and quantitative data streams into a strong point of view that ultimately drives growth for businesses. “Data without context is inert because it’s missing the why,” says Zelmanow. “You have to tell a compelling story… Connect the dots between insights work and the bottom line.”

Zelmanow has connected the dots between his unique experiences to build a strong value proposition for himself as a leader of an integrated research team at Panasonic where data analytics, UX, and qualitative/quantitative are all under one umbrella. He helps connect the dots for other companies as well.

To better understand what this means and how his thinking may be relevant to our work as qualitative researchers, here are two cases of Zelmanow’s ideas at work.

Exhibit A: The Case of the Centralized Research Department

According to Zelmanow, “One of the biggest historic challenges in market research is that we haven’t contextualized data very well.” He invokes the parable of the elephant and the five blind men to illustrate this point. Each man is touching an elephant, but they each arrive at different conclusions as to what it is based on the different parts they are touching. For example, the man touching its trunk says it’s a snake, while the man at its tusk says it’s a spear.

Bringing this example into context, a market researcher, user researcher, and data scientist each approach a business question from a different lens—for example:

  1. A market researcher would study the competitive landscape, focusing on competitive intelligence.
  2. A user researcher would turn to customer experience data (attitudinal and behavioral) and consumer analytics.
  3. A data scientist would look to quantitative research, data science, and data engineering.

They, like the proverbial five blind men, are likely to come to different conclusions as to how their product or business is performing, because they each wield different sources of data and expertise in interpreting it—without having the context of what their cross-functional counterparts are seeing.

Instead of siloing these three insights components, Zelmanow insists upon having them work together, as one consolidated and centralized team, to provide a single source of truth for key decision-makers. To achieve this mission, Zelmanow built an integrated team of analytics, research, and insights professionals at Panasonic, where he is currently the head of Analytics, Research, and Insights—Smart Mobility at Panasonic USA.

Qualitative research plays a crucial role in this centralized insights team model—without it, many businesses would be missing the “whys” behind their big data findings. As a reader of this publication, you likely don’t need to be convinced of the value of qualitative research. But some clients or stakeholders may still need to be, which leads us to our next case.

Exhibit B: The Case of the Godfather Offer

In Zelmanow’s view, qualitative researchers have not been as successful in positioning themselves as bringing large-scale value to an organization in the way that quantitative researchers have. The increasing focus and reliance on quantitative research have forced qualitative researchers to position themselves against quantitative research, which is a tall order because the two serve different purposes. As a result, we have started seeing research projects include dozens more interviews than necessary, or the fairly recent development of automatic transcription coding software to quantify qualitative data. These are attempts to compete with quantitative research rather than better clarifying the value proposition of qual research, which Zelmanow promotes.

“If we got on a job board of qual researchers right now, we wouldn’t be able to discern the difference between [the qualitative and quantitative researchers],” believes Zelmanow. This is because, on paper, many qualitative skills have been devalued. In 2021, writing a screener, crafting a discussion guide, and moderating interviews—while specialized skills—are no longer strong enough differentiators. When positioning and selling your services as a qualitative researcher this way, Zelmanow feels “you’re a commodity, and then the differentiator is price. When you are a commodity, you get cut in lean times, which brings us full circle: quant research organizations and tools have done a better job of differentiating themselves than qual researchers.”

Instead of trying to compete with quantitative research or data science, qualitative researchers need to focus on the output and the impact of the qualitative research work, rather than focusing on methodologies we use and what tech platforms we’ve mastered for conducting the research itself. The focus needs to shift to the expertise we’ll provide based on the insights we uncover. As Zelmanow puts it in context, “When you go to the doctor, do you want just the lab results, i.e., your pH is 7.45 (data)? Do you want your doctor to tell you that your blood is alkaline (insight)? Or do you want your doctor to tell you what is wrong and offer the treatment plan for you? You are looking for the doctor’s expertise. Insights are no different.”

Zelmanow believes solidifying a point of view on your expertise as a researcher is where the magic happens, and what you need to focus on when making a case for your work. “If you go in asking ‘please sir, can I have some more work?’ Oliver Twist style, you’ll just be a provider. If you have a clear value proposition, you’ll be seen as an expert or advisor. Don’t tell them ‘I moderate interviews,’ but tell a story of how you will push forward an organization.”

This belief drives Zelmanow’s team at Panasonic—and it’s not just visible in the non-siloed structure of the insights team. It is seen even in the way Zelmanow hires researchers for his team and how he expects them to work once they’ve joined. For example, the researcher’s goal is not about delivering insights in a PowerPoint deck, because anyone can “deliver insights.” Instead, their role is about providing counsel. The key focus of reports is the researcher’s point of view of the business implications, which is then supported by an executive summary, and then comes the data to back it up. “This is why the business sees [our team] as a business partner, not a service,” says Zelmanow.

Whether working in-house at a large company like Panasonic, or partnering with individual clients as an independent consultant, qualitative researchers need to move away from leading with methodology and tools and instead focus on the point of view or value offer we’re going to provide. If qualitative researchers can provide a compelling reason that we’re best suited to decode consumer or user behavior and translate it into growth for a client, that will be an offer that provides unquantifiable value, and cannot be replicated by any other competitor. That’s a “Godfather offer” that can’t be refused.

Connecting the Dots

Zelmanow has talked the talk about the importance of rethinking the way we position qualitative research as a key contributor to business growth. He has also walked the walk in creating integrated insights teams that use multiple data streams to contextualize the consumer landscape and truly act as the voice of the consumer. As a result, he’s transformed research and insights from a service, or a cost center, within an organization to a true business center, or growth driver.