Russ Rubin Q&A: Storytelling’s Role in Market Research


We recently came across this great post on why storytelling is critical to making research impactful and engaging by market research industry veteran Russ Rubin of Cambiar Consulting. Russ’ take on storytelling is on the mark and resonates with the feedback we hear from our research clients—many of which use the results (from our dial testing tools) to help craft compelling stories to report and present their study results.

Not only do we think that Russ makes some interesting points on this topic but we also find his background holding senior research positions on both the client side (with General Mills) and the supplier side brings a unique perspective to the storytelling discussion that we wanted to delve deeper into and share with you. So, we asked (and Russ generously agreed) to chat with us more about this topic.

Q: How has the role of a market researcher changed in the last 20 years or so, and how do you see if further changing in the years to come?

Russ: The role hasn’t really changed. It’s still about providing the right kind of information that will drive business decisions. That’ll always be the same. What has changed, and will continue to change, are the skills and personality traits needed for success. And this is due to the environment where speed and complexity have increased.

Q: Your recent article touts the critical role of storytelling in research reporting. How do you think researchers can best blend data and narrative to advise their clients?

Russ: The first step is to think. What are the one, two or three things that matter most to the business decisions? Most researchers on the provider side, and many on the client side, are on automatic pilot when they write their reports. They don’t differentiate between an important and unimportant point.

The second step is to feel ownership, which means to follow it as it moves through the client organization. If you aren’t personally invested with how your reports will be used, then you’re probably not thinking appropriately.

Lastly, you need to collaborate. Research is a team sport and too many reports are written without the involvement of others until it’s fairly late in the report process.

Q: What newer methods, technologies and tools have you seen or experienced that can help make researchers better storytellers?

Russ: This question is the proverbial, “tail wagging the dog.” You can’t be a good storyteller without having a good story. And the telling of the story isn’t necessarily dependent on tools, technologies or methods. It’s dependent on having something worth sharing that will matter to the end client. Now having said this, I’m a believer in movement—in telling a story which speaks to the use of video as a real plus whenever feasible. I’m also a believer in brevity and focus.

Q: From your client-side days, can you recall a time when you were won over by a great story?

Yes, but if I went public with the details in a blog, I’d be in trouble.Let me say this… in our field, great stories are almost always driven by great insights. And great insights almost always reflect an insight into a behavior or an attitude that, when brought to life, leads to a key business decision. I’ll spill the beans on one generalized insight (stripped of the story). In my old CPG life, size impression was of great importance and was one of the key factors in perceived price/value. The ability to tell a story about this insight was quite telling and helped us make major decisions about packaging.

Q: What storytellers inside and/or outside of the market research field have you learned from and are getting it right?

I minored in creative writing as an undergraduate where the notions of story and emotional truth are first and foremost.  That was a great introduction to the use and power of words. Then at General Mills, we had a training program, which was sort of like an apprenticeship, where we had all of our work reviewed on an ongoing basis. But honestly, I believe the most important ability is the ability to identify the story line—what’s worth sharing.  If you can do that, odds are good that the actual story will be good.  This is as much about apprenticeship, practice and experience than about anything else.

My last point is that in “market research land”, well told stories are short and focused, which I hope, in the case of this interview, I have been.

Yes, well told Russ and thanks for your time. Want to hear more from Russ on a variety of market research topics? Check out the Cambiar Blog.