Articles & Papers

The Marketing Research Profession Needs Certification

William D. Neal ARF Annual Conference and Exposition


Certification of marketing researchers has been a hotly debated topic in the research profession for the last 20 years. This admittedly biased paper addresses why we, as a profession, need certification, what it will do to improve the profession, and how we should do it. All of the pieces for a top-notch certification program for marketing researchers are currently in place. All it takes to make it happen is to get the main associations representing the profession to agree to do it and gather the initial funding to support the start up.

The certification of marketing researchers has been hotly debated in this country for the last 20 years. Several fact-based articles have been published on the subject along with several notable opinion articles. The two major quantitative studies on the subject (AMA - 1990 and McDaniel and Solano-Mendez, JAR, 1993) show very consistent results - over 60% of marketing researchers support certification. Younger and less experienced researchers support certification to a greater degree then their older colleagues.

Certification is a voluntary process whereby individuals receive a document recognizing that they have fulfilled the requirements of and may practice in the field. Most certification program requirements include passing an objective knowledge test, demonstrating a basic level of experience, abiding to a code of professional practices, and a commitment to engaging in ongoing professional development.

There are numerous reasons our profession needs a certification program.

There is too much "bad" research being delivered to clients - by untrained practitioners, by management consultants, and by ill-trained MBA's and marketing majors. This practice has a major negative impact on user organizations and it greatly depreciates both the profession and the practice of marketing research.

There are no standards or minimum qualifications for entering the field. Anyone can claim they are a research professional without knowing a single thing about what's correct or incorrect procedure. Unfortunately, too many of these "pseudo-researchers" do some really bad research and the whole profession gets a black eye for the ridiculous results they deliver.

On the other hand, many user organizations hire or promote unqualified people into research positions because they have no guidelines on proper credentials - be it training or experience. In many firms, completing a single undergraduate course in marketing research is sufficient qualification.

Over 50% of the MBA programs in the United States do not require a single course in marketing research. Yet, many of our clients are MBA's. So, the outcome is that we often have the uninformed directing the inexperienced to do the impossible, with little or no money. And, as usual, the research profession takes the rap for the usually untenable results.

Too many people engaged in marketing research are not following ethical practice. Most are not doing this maliciously, they just don't know any better.

Outside of the handful of dedicated masters programs in marketing research, training of marketing researchers is, for the most part, haphazard and unorganized. Again, there are no standards or generally accepted credentials for the profession.

Much of the business and trade press depreciate the contributions of marketing research.

How has this happen? In many cases we have let the "business" of marketing research usurp the "science" of marketing research. We let our clients do focus groups when we know they should be doing quantitative research. We compromise on sampling and sample sizes, and we too often engage in a myriad of other compromises to keep the relationship with the client. Over the years, this has weakened our professional image among the users of our product.

In many other cases, we simply have ill-trained researchers overstepping their knowledge base and capabilities due mostly to a lack of adequate training and experience. The result is the same - a weakened professional image.

In too many organizations, both provider and user, marketing research is not seen as a profession, but just a staff function to support marketing. When times get tough, it's easily expendable. They see no reason to support professional development of researchers because they do not see it as a profession.

And this takes us back to how we recruit and train researchers in the first place.

Outside of the graduates of the few masters-level programs, most practicing marketing researchers enter the field by happenstance. Their training is haphazard and most often incomplete. Even some of our most experienced researchers have major gaps in their basic knowledge set. We all learned "on-the-job" and most jobs did not, and do not leverage the entire skill set of a well-rounded researcher.

Furthermore, there are few entry points in the profession for those who truly want to become a professional marketing researcher. Most employers want to hire experienced researchers. They do not want to spend the time and money to train motivated, but inexperienced personnel. Those who are highly motivated, but need training therefore have few options to enter the field.

Certification will provide a platform and process for addressing most of these issues.

A comprehensive, well-publicized certification program will finally establish the field of marketing research as a recognized profession.

It will improve the practice of marketing research by promoting a core body of knowledge that can be studied and mastered by those wishing to practice in the field.

Certification will improve the practice of marketing research by promoting a set of ethical standards to which those in the field would adhere.

It would provide a visible signal to employers that the researcher possesses the basic knowledge and experience to practice the craft.

Certification will help strengthen the relationship between purchasers and providers of marketing research services by providing a common knowledge base and a common code of professional practice.

It will provide a starting point for those wishing to enter the profession.

It will greatly assist professionals, especially younger professionals, in planning their career.

It will improve the image of marketing research in the eyes of external constituencies - consumers, the business press, the courts, government, and business managers.

Certification will further differentiate marketing researchers from telemarketers and other direct marketers.

It will provide a professional identity for both those in the profession and those who use the services of the profession.

A comprehensive, well-publicized certification program will provide a signal to the entire business community that not just anyone can do marketing research. Good research takes a trained, experienced professional.

Is certification something new and radical? No. Many other specialized business professions have developed successful certification programs, including the International Association of Business Communicators, The Public Relations Society of America, the International Customer Service Association, the Business Marketing Association, the Center for Direct Marketing, the Association of Incentive Marketing, and the Project Management Institute, to name a few.

All the pieces are in place to develop a comprehensive certification program in marketing research. We have standards of ethical practice published by MRA, AAPOR, CASRO and others. We have a superb basic training program that is universally available through correspondence - the MRA's Principals of Marketing Research Program. Included with that program is a comprehensive knowledge test covering all of the basics in the field. We have a wide range of ongoing professional development programs offered annually by the major professional associations, universities, and private firms. All that is needed is for the major associations representing the profession to bring it together, organize it, and administer it.

We even have a model for doing that. Several years ago the industry came together through an initiative by the Research Industry's Leadership Forum (RILF - supported by AMA, ARF, CASRO and MRA) to form the Council on Marketing and Opinion Research to broadly address the issues of legislative restrictions on marketing and opinion research and to address the issues of respondent cooperation. That has been a very effective program that continues to grow and expand.

I believe a similar initiative should be launched to develop and administer a comprehensive program to certify marketing researchers. We are part of a profession that is at least 60 years old. It's time we started acting like a profession and put a certification program in place.