Happy MR Podcast Podcast Series

Ep. 128 – Jessica Richards, Market Research Program Director at MSU

Today, my guest is Jessica Richards the program director for the marketing research program at Michigan State University. Michigan State is one of the top research universities.



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Over the last decade the market research industry has been disrupted.  Our largest agencies are struggling to keep up as their customers turn to newer, faster and cheaper data sources. Now we are on the edge of yet another market shift. Now is the time for us to reassert ourselves as the rudder of the brands we love. Thank you for tuning in to the Happy Market Research Podcast where we are charting the path for the future of market researchers and businesses. Hi, I’m Jamin Brazil and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast.  Today my guest is Jessica Richards, the Program Director for the Marketing Research Program at Michigan State University. Michigan State is one of the top market research universities. Jessica, thank you very much for being on the Happy Market Research Podcast today.


Oh, of course, thank you so much for having me.  I’m honored to be on the show today.


You’ve got a really interesting background.   We’re going to be diving deeply into your experience in the military, journey into market research, and what Michigan State University is doing to help prepare students for today’s top brands.  But I wanted to start with this basic question of what do your parents do and how has that impacted your career?


Well, that’s a great question.  So, my parents… my father works for General Motors, has for more than 30 years – he’s going close to 35 years now.  And my mom was an E.R. nurse for many years over at Sparrow, and she now helps to work with their process improvement.  And my parents have been wonderful – basically, guiding lights in my life. My dad is full of what they would call Dadisms, and he has tons of sayings that really have stuck with me since I’ve been a child til now.  One that really sticks with me is to “Take a smile with you and bring it home.” And I know that’s such a simple concept, but it’s something that can get you through anything in life, no matter what you’re facing. My mom, you know, she always taught me to be a hard worker and to… and they both told me to focus on my dreams.  And I never felt anything other than if I worked very hard and dedicated myself to my goals and what I wanted to accomplish. I truly believed that my potential was unlimited. And a lot of that comes from the way that I was raised and their mindset and truly helping me to believe in myself while growing up and into my adult years.  


One of the things I’m hearing repeatedly on this podcast from our guests is that one of their parents or somebody significant to them at an early age installed a tremendous amount of confidence – piggybacking on this word that you used, limitless opportunity, right?  It’s the confidence that our guests have had. And when you think about Rogier Verhulst – or just fill in the blank, right? – Laurie at GoDaddy. These are movers and shakers in the market research space. These are the leaders of our industry. It’s so important that parents or those people who are thinking about having kids at some point, understand that’s a core benefit that will stick, probably more important than education or any sort of material investment that we wind up making in our kids.  It’s just this fundamental empowerment that “You can do it.” And the other thing I want to talk about really briefly is this idea of “Take a smile with you home.” (I think I misquoted it, right?) What was it?


“Take a smile with you and bring it home.”


“and bring it home.”  That’s right. So “Take a smile with you and bring it home.”  There was a study done about 15 years ago in Portland where they A/B-tested clinically depressed individuals.  I just happened to read an article on this, and so it’s timely that you bring this up. One group was given medication, and another group was asked and monitored to smile for between 20-30 minutes consecutively, in a row in a day.  And they actually found that the people that smiled had as much lift or benefit as those that were medicated. And so this concept of smiling is just such a core to impact who we are and I think literally the smile has somehow the power to magically – and it’s not magic – to change our psychology and our lens that enables us to interact with the world in a more positive way.  So I loved hearing that quote. Thank you for sharing it.


Of course.  As simple as that sounds, it really has a lot of complexities to it.  And I truly believe in the power of positive thinking. And we’ll talk about that more as we kind of deep dive into, you know, the experience I had with the military.  But I truly believe that our mindset and believing that we can accomplish anything and overcome any challenge is truly how we reach new levels of success as leaders, really in any industry.


So, you do have a military background in the Army National Guard.  Talk to us a little bit about how you wound there and then moved out of that into the Master’s Program at Michigan State.


Absolutely.  Well, growing up I was very much into sports, and competing and success, and achieving.  I wanted a challenge that a lot of people… something that I viewed as really challenging, I wanted to accomplish.  And I decided that I wanted to join the national guard (this was before September 11th.)  And I wanted to help people who were in need.  And I wanted to do like hurricane cleanup and help families who were in need while I was in college to get some more experience of different areas around the United States and learn about different families and how they grew up and just kind of get some different perspectives.  I was 17 years old, so my parents actually had to sign for me to join cause I wasn’t quite 18 yet. And then a month later September 11th happened.  So, instead of going to …  Well, I went to basic training and military police school the fall semester after I ended up graduating.  Actually, I did one year in the National Guard part-time before I graduated. So I was still in my senior year.  And then once graduated, I went to basic training and military police school for… I want to say it was for around 19 weeks; it was pretty long – 18 weeks.  Graduated with honors and then was deployed to Kuwait and Iraq. So, I actually had a track scholarship to Ferris State, but I wasn’t able to compete because I was pulled from school to go and deploy.  And I ended up being gone for 22 months. And during that time period, I earned three combat patches. So that means that I was a woman who was in a combat zone for more than 90 days with three separate, larger units.  So, once you serve with a certain battalion or company, depending on how and who you are attached to, you know, as a National Guard unit, if you’re serving in a war zone for 90 days, you get to wear their combat patch on your uniform, showing that you’ve served that time.  So we served quite a bit of time. Part of what I did while I was over there was some customs work, so making sure that tanks and equipment coming back to the U.S. didn’t have anything dangerous in it. We did a lot of outprocessing of soldiers. And then our mission switched to be combat support, and so we were actually combat security for convoys traveling from Kuwait to Iraq.  So like if a convey… typically, a convoy would leave and you’d be gone for seven days, so it’d take you 3 to 4 days to get to your location. You’re guarding these large trucks full of supplies to make sure that they get to different bases okay. So you’d go on a week-long rotational mission. And if they were attacked during that time, we would suppress the attack and make sure that these supplies got to the location they were supposed to be at.  So that’s typically… That’s what I did for 22 months. I’m very thankful for the challenges faced at that time. You know I’ve never once in my life felt limited by anything, especially my gender. And I felt like I… as long as I worked hard and committed myself and dedicated myself to achieving my goal that I wanted to achieve, I truly have always felt like I could do anything. And I feel like that mindset is what allowed me to come back as a female combat veteran and succeed in life.  So that challenge of coming back from war made me a better person; it made me stronger; it helps me relate to people better and it helps them to understand that even though they may be facing challenges in their own life, whether it’s a disease or a divorce or anything, you can overcome any challenge if you are mentally strong and a positive thinker and focus on the good things and keep smiling and just continue to move forward. So, upon coming back, you know I worked full-time, I went to school full-time, and worked my way from an Associate’s degree all the way to my Master’s and completed my M.B.A. with quite a good G.P.A. and was able to apply to a job here at Michigan State University.  I started as a dual operations supervisor and then moved over to the role that I’m at now, which is Master of Science in Marketing and Research Program Director. I absolutely love it. I get to work with students every day and mentor them and help them understand that they can overcome any challenge, that they can do anything that they set their mind to. And I help them take that step by step, you know, not only in their resume, their interviewing skills, how they present themselves, and really give them an advantage in the job market so that they can have the very best start to their life.


That’s fantastic.  I don’t know did you get a chance to tune into our interview with Research Now SSI’s Melanie Courtwright?     


I had not had a chance to look at that one yet, but I definitely am going to listen.  


She was the first female to get a perfect award – and I’m going to completely botch the rest of the reference but – in the Army’s marksmanship competition.  It’s highly competitive. You’ve got 100 shots. She got all 100 at varying distances, etc., etc., – all with an iron sight too. So, anyway, it’s interesting listening to the corollary between how gender is not a limiter.  In fact, our limiters are primarily those things that are centric to how we think about things and the situations that we are in.


Absolutely.  And that’s very impressive.  Yes, we used the iron sights as well.  Props to that woman. I’ll definitely listen to her podcast because that’s highly impressive.  I can’t say that I’ve done the same. As far as being an expert, I was most proficient with grenades [laughter from Jamin] and the nine millimeter; I was expert right- and left-handed.  But still, she’s got me on the iron sights with the larger weapons, for sure.


I think she would be tipping her hat to you as well.  [Ms. Richards laughs.] There’s not a lot of universities that have Master Programs in Market Research.  Maybe you could take a little bit of time and talk to us about how you entered into that program and then became ultimately, obviously, the director of it.     


Absolutely.  Well, I just believe that marketing research is really the future of marketing.  It’s where things are going. Companies want the facts, and they want the statistics with the insights.  It’s no longer enough to just be creative. Yes, that’s a component of it, and it’s very important. But you got to have the facts with it, and you got to have the statistics with it.  So, really this program started seven years ago. I’ve been with MSU about five now, and I’ve just watched it grow. I’ve seen the market change; I’ve seen this, you know, big data revolution; and I’ve just seen the changes in technology and the big need for data.  And watching this program grow, it’s really just been incredible. So, I just believe in marketing research and I believe that it’s a great career. So I wanted to transition over here to really help lead the growth of education in marketing research. Right now we are the largest program I’m aware of that exists – education-wise in marketing research.  And it’s been humbling and exciting to watch us grow. We, actually, were just ranked number 1 in North America by EdUniversal in marketing research and number 13 overall among all Master’s and Marketing Programs, which included top MBA programs around the country. So it’s just really been an incredible experience to see the changes in marketing research in the industry and the need for it and then to also help lead it on the education side.    


Congratulations!  That’s a big deal.  


Thank you.  Yea, it’s just been very humbling and exciting.  And really, we’ve just focused on being nimble, and we have more than 70 companies who advise us on our curriculum.  And we listen to what they need. And we listen to the types of people they are looking to hire, what’s changing, what new skills do students need to know entering into the market research industry?  What do you want? As a company, who’s your ideal person? And then we also listen to students: so any feedback that they give, or classes that they want, or any other additional instruction that they feel would have helped them to be better prepared.  We’ve implemented. We implement updates nearly every semester. So, because we’re so nimble, we’ve been able to just be really efficient and change with the needs of the industry and the companies and the students. So, because of that, we’re able to build up and get this ranking.  And, really, we were focused on providing excellence to the students and companies, and the ranking just kind of happened.


Yeah, market researchers conducting marketing research is one of the most powerful combinations in the marketplace.  That’s every tool I’ve seen, every service I’ve seen in the space, the ones that are winning are the ones that are also practitioning, you know, eating their own dog food – I think is the way we say it?  And, having been part of that program myself as an adviser, I can tell you it’s exactly correct. The core of the decisions is centric to what the constituents – whether it’s the companies that are hiring and the student body – want and the feedback they’re getting.  And that’s how you guys are staying so relevant and progressing the agenda of really promoting data-driven decisions in corporate America.


Right.  If we want to give marketing research and insights a stronger voice and I know that you had mentioned that there’s not a lot of programs in market research and you’re right.   Most of the programs that are emerging are in business analytics or marketing analytics and they’re more statistics heavy, which we do cover – lots of statistics and analysis in our program but we believe that the insights are really the key to differentiating and truly understanding what that data is saying.  So we really focus on the consulting, the consumer insights, the psychology, the communications and, of course, emerging research, trends and methods to ensure our students can not only look at the statistics or data and understand it but to really be able to communicate that to a company in the most efficient manner.    


I’m on a number of college boards.  One of tension points is the market in general – whether it’s technology or systems, theory or whatever – moving faster than the rate of academia.   Our space has been particularly disrupted over the last decade: internet first, of course, a couple of decades ago; mobile later; and now a million different things from big data to blockchain, AI – you name the buzz word.  What is a fundamental change or a course that you’ve added to the curriculum in order to help address the educational requirements around your student body?


Oh, my gosh, there’s been so many.  I feel like there’s a new one every semester.  So we’ve incorporated a lot of electives into our program.  So we’ve hired professionals all around the U.S. to teach in their area of expertise.  So that could include online qualitative research, mobile research, text analytics, pricing research.  We’ve even included business development, R statistical methods. We’re looking at possibly a data visualization elective.  And I know our academic director has a whole list of other electives that he’s looking to add on. But, basically, students within our program can customize and specialize even further by choosing elective topics that they’re most interested in, and they can learn online from the best in the industry that we’ve hired.  Maybe they’re in California or New York, or we even have one that works in the British Virgin Islands. Maybe they’re located all over so students can learn from the experts really anywhere. We’ve incorporated so many different courses. A new one this August that we just had added is “New Design and Methods,” with former CEO Michael Brereton.  (He was the former CEO of Maritz Research). And now he is part of our faculty here at Michigan State. He brought in around ten different speakers that were high-level executives – some even CEO’s from around the industry – to speak to our students and talk to them about emerging topics and trends. So that’s just one of our most recent courses, but our academic director, Dr. Richard Spring, is absolutely phenomenal.  He is always looking at what can we do next, what can we add in that is an emerging topic or a method that is going on in the industry now that students need to learn. I really feel like you’re correct that most programs in academia are behind, you know, where the industry is at, but we’ve worked really, really hard to stay current. I really feel like we do as good of a job as is possible to provide the information that’s needed for now and in the future, rather than things that were of the past.


You have a unique position because in a lot of ways, as we know, history informs the future.  You’ve been able to identify things that are actually sticking versus the things that are – I’ll call them passing fads – in market research.  So, as you look forward to the next, let’s say, 3-5 years, what are you seeing as potentially disruptive, whether it’s technology or techniques or methodologies, whatever, to our space?      


Well, I think that’s a great question.  And, you know, I think I’m looking at it very similarly to many people.  You know, what’s next and what’s coming with technology or possibly AI. How do we ensure that we’re future-focused and creating a need for our jobs?  I think that everyone is thinking how is technology going to change in the future and how can I change or enhance my skills or the way that I think or the way I do research to make sure that it’s needed and not replaced by potentially a computer going forward.  And so I think we really have to think out of the box with new strategies and methods and, you know, really focus on interpreting the insights and the human component of interpreting the data and statistics, to find new ways to innovate, to work with technology, to grow and increase jobs, rather than let it be something that could feel threatening.  


So, it’s almost like a partnership that you’re talking about between technology and humans where we do the interpretation.  Storytelling? Is that a big part of the human-aided adoption of insights?


I absolutely believe so.  I think that being able to tell a story and to communicate data in a simplistic way to really any audience that makes an impact and sparks emotion is going to be key.  And I think that, instead of looking at technology in almost a worry of how is that going to impact me, you know, could that potentially take over some jobs, I think we need to look at how can we work with technology to grow and create more jobs.  How can we use what’s coming and these advantages to do things differently and more innovative to increase our productivity, increase our business, and become more efficient and provide and deliver better insights that are more impactful and more emotion… that ignite more emotion, and thinking about what we can do and coming up with new ideas.  I think the next step is what is that idea. I’m just not sure that anyone really knows 100% what the key thing is. But, if we have that mindset and we focus on looking for that solution, I believe that’s where we’ll find our answer.


So, as an educator, what do you…  I’ve been in academia or connected to it for years throughout my career.  One of my big learnings is that I’m probably going to get only one major thing out of a class, right?  And then that rolls up to inform my behaviors or views or whatever. What are you seeing as one of the key skills that new researchers, that is, people who are entering into the job market, need to have in their tool kit to be successful today?


Well, definitely being an efficient and impactful storyteller is huge.  That’s what I hear a lot of recruiters and companies asking for, is they want someone who can tell a story from data that sparks emotion in people.  People buy based on emotion; people are moved by emotion, and positive emotion, and deep emotion. So being able to spark that in an audience or a panel or even with a product, that is going to be a key differentiator.  I think there’s going to be a lot of skills needed for the future. One, students really need to focus on their GPA’s. They need to get good grades in school. They need to be analytical. So, they want to focus on learning softwares, there are many out there.  Several could include SPSS, SPSS Modeler, perhaps SASS, if they want to go in more into some data mining, R or Python. There is even Google Analytics. But learning different softwares and being proficient will be quite helpful. They also need to have an interactive personality, they need to be able to engage people, they need to be able to understand how people think and have that human element along with a curious mindset to kind of deep dive not only into data but on the qualitative side as well.  So I really think that there is a lot of pressure for students to do well but, as long as they focus on achieving and stay confident in their skills and abilities and keep learning and pushing forward to learn as many tech programs and skills as possible, they’ll be successful in our industry today and for the future.


So what is Michigan State offering right now that’s got you really excited about in this program you want to tell our listeners?  


Gosh, well, we offer our program in a twelve-month format or twenty-month format.  Yes, we have students who are newly graduated and going out into the market. Some of those students are even advanced, dual-enrolled, which means they’re completing their Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at the same time.  I am very excited we’re able to offer that and to help students not only leave Michigan State with a Bachelor’s degree but also with a Master’s. We’ve designed our program to where students can dual-enroll and double count actually up to eleven credits between their Master’s and Bachelor’s degrees so that they can graduate with their Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in the same year.  And we help place them as well. So not only do we help them leave Michigan State with their Master’s degree, we place them. So that’s what we do for a lot of the more newly graduated students who are dual-enrolled. And then we also have an online program. So those who are in the industry now, or perhaps wanting to transition into a marketing research role or move into a marketing research manager or leadership role, we have our online program, and they can complete that while working full-time.  It’s only five semesters (so twenty months), and we provide career services for them. So, if they’re looking to advance or move up, we help them with their resumes, we do custom job searching. We just really provide so much support for students in helping to place them, whether they’re more newly graduated or they’ve been on the workforce for ten years. So we have a format for everyone to where they can learn about marketing research and how to be part of the industry.


Do you know offhand what your placement stats are, post-graduate?  


So most of our graduates… cause we track the placement for the full-time students because our online students most of them are already working full-time.  So, we had… right now we’re placing our cohort who graduated in… I’m sorry, who started our program in January of 2018. So our most recent placement statistics would be from the fall of last year, and we were 87% placed even before the students graduated, and 100% within like 30 days.    


Holy crap!  That’s amazing!        


Yeah, there’s a lot of jobs out there.  And this cohort that we’re placing right now – they’re in their last semester – so they’re probably about 60% placed.  So we’ll probably have them about the same: probably close to 80 – 85 – 87% placed before they graduate in December. And we’ve had a lot of big companies that we’ve really never seen before, hiring these students and the salaries are quite competitive.  So they’re very happy: it’s the highest average salary we’ve ever seen for market research. So the demand is growing, the industry is growing, it’s just a really exciting time to be part of this industry. And of course, with our ranking, we’re excited to see the growth, and we’re humbled as well.  So, to be names number 1 in North America for us is just exciting because we’re able to help continue growing and to assist these students in entering the industry and making an impact for the future and helping to take marketing research into the future and finding those new methods of providing quantitative and qualitative research so that market research continues to grow over the years.


There’s been a number of different podcasts where I’ve talked about this view of market research and that is, for the last two decades that I’ve been in space, it’s almost always felt like we’re at the kids’ table inside of the brands, and we have to wait for permission to be able to move up into the C-suite and provide information.  But for the first time over the last – it’s improving almost month over month – I feel like market research is literally at the adult table and has a significant voice. At the same time, there are a lot of other voices at that table, but this is our time to succeed. And it’s great hearing about the success that you’re having with (1) educating and in (2) placing your students successfully to help impact brands so that they are data-driven.  Well done!


Thank you.  Yeah, I agree with you.  It’s been very exciting. We actually just held one of our larger career fairs this past week, last week.  And basically, every company who came was there to hire market researchers. In the past, it has not always been the case where it’s been business-analytics heavy, but that’s not really what we’re seeing.  We’re seeing the companies come out for market researchers, which, you’re right, is very exciting. We’re seeing the excitement in the industry. I completely agree that we’re definitely at the big table now.


One of the fun things that’s happened with Happy Market Research…  Of course, you think about who your initial customer is and you create a persona, and for me it was insights professionals.  What I didn’t realize is that there would be a large subset of prospective insights professionals that would be tuning in. And so, because of that, we’ve actually gotten a lot more traction ahead of insights in major brands wanting to be on the show.  They’re seeing it as a mechanism for legion, really sort of the top of the funnel for their H.R. hiring. It’s been neat to see how… In a lot of ways, we’re facilitating a different conversation than I had initially had set out to, but it is adding that value across the spectrum.   


That’s wonderful.  I’m just so glad to hear that.  It’s so exciting. I second that.  That’s definitely what we’re seeing as well as far as corporate involvement.  


My guest today has been Jessica Richards, the Program Director for the Marketing Research Program at Michigan State University.  Jessica, thank you very much for being on the Happy Market Podcast today.


Great, thank you, Jamin.  I was honored. I appreciate it.  Thank you very much.


Next time on Happy Market Research, I have a very special guest, Gabby Villa.  There is a local high school called Petiño School of Entrepreneurship here in my hometown, Fresno.  It specializes in serving a highly minority-based community and teaching them how to conceive of and actually start a business from scratch to revenue.  This lady is a senior in high school. She has started a business; it is getting off the ground. We dive into her journey as well as how she’s using insights to create positive outcomes for her team.  I hope you’ll tune in.