Got a Talent for Storytelling? Put It to Use in Market Research!

Susan Monahan
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Hands up if this has ever happened to you. You’re in the middle of writing a research paper for a class and you think, “I love this! If only someone would pay me to do it.” If so, you’re in luck! Susan Monahan puts those type of skills to use every day in her role as Associate Director of Research and Strategy at Kelton. Susan uses her research and business storytelling talents to help clients develop their marketing strategies.

How do you get from paper-writing rock star to a full-time position in market research? We ask Susan to share her career path and advice for anyone who thinks a company like Kelton might be a good fit for them.  

What is your current job title? If your title has changed since you joined Kelton, what was it when you first joined?

I am Associate Director of Research and Strategy. When I first started I was Research Manager on the qualitative research team.

How would you describe your role within Kelton? What does a typical day look like for you?

My job type is really twofold. One role I have is an engagement lead with our clients, which means I manage that relationship, their expectation, and involvement throughout the life of any given project. The other role I play is working as a project manager of the internal team assigned to a study.

My typical days are split between the two, serving as the link between the client and our internal team, which is comprised of research experts, analysts, and usually one of the company’s partners. Any given day, I can be found receiving a brief from a client for an upcoming study for which we plan to pitch, or speaking to one of our ethnographers about the ideal mix of respondents we might recruit for upcoming focus groups, or drafting a memo to give clients progress reports and early findings from a recent set of shop-along interviews.

What drew you to your current profession? Which skills, education, and experience were necessary to get you there?

I began my career in advertising. It was exciting and creative and fun, but after a while I found myself preoccupied with what people are exposed to outside the epic ad campaign which tries to convince them. I know choices are made by a collection of thoughts and experiences. How do people decide to shop somewhere, or stop shopping there? Why do they buy one brand over another? Why do they just believe some ad campaigns more, or not connect at all with others?

So, I went back to school to study marketing science—basically, the scientific way to understand what compels consumers to make the decisions they do. This program—the Integrated Marketing Communications Master’s Degree at Northwestern University—imparts you with tools from cognitive psychology, anthropology, statistics, finance, and communications in the form of storytelling for business.

I entered this profession with about seven years of project management experience, but the learning curve for data analysis is the tough one.

Every research agency has a slightly different way of doing things. It only requires a college degree to get in the door at Kelton—but a candidate must prove highly malleable and eager to learn.

What was your college major? How does it relate to your career path?

I majored in Journalism for my undergraduate degree at the University of Oregon. It absolutely relates to much of my daily interactions at work. Most of all, it made me good at interviewing people. Asking the right questions is crucial both for understanding your clients’ needs and in conducting research with consumers.

How would you describe Kelton? How does it fit within your industry at large?

Kelton is rare. It’s a close-knit organization that truly functions as a team. Over ten years of growth from five to 50+ people, the partners have maintained the personality they originally injected into the company, and all employees embody a varying brand of inquisitiveness, determination, creativity, and a strong work ethic.

What are your favorite things about your job? Which aspects would you change if you could?

The people are my favorite. Totally cliché if you’ve interviewed other Keltonites! But seriously, they are inspirational and motivational in leading by example. And they help you figure out stuff too.

What I’d change? The pace of work—just when you think one of your projects is winding down, it’s time for the next! There is a lot of travel involved in qualitative research, as you often must visit fairly remote locations to get an authentic “mix” of respondents.

It is hard to predict “free time,” but instead one can be guaranteed there’s never a dull moment! As for free time, I guess that’s what the weekends are for!

What advice would you give to college students interested in pursuing a job similar to yours?

My advice would be listen to your strengths, and have the confidence to make them speak out on your behalf. Even if you aren’t sure what career that will lead to (or if it’s even in the research or strategy world), just practice being a thought leader on what you feel most versed in.

And secondly—be a news sponge! Read up on whatever you can when you can. The trends, shifts, and “big stories” will be an immense help to you when trying to solve your customers’ business problems, because you’ll just have the referential context to start with.

Homework time! Have you started thinking about which companies you’d like to apply to? If so, spend some time following them in the news. Pay attention to what’s going on in those companies specifically and in their industry at large. Practice being “a news sponge” as Susan suggests. Use the information you’ve gathered to formulate some good questions for your job interviews.

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