Today, my guest is Shelly Bouren, Research Manager at Detroit Pistons. The Detroit Pistons are an American professional basketball team based in Detroit, Michigan.
Prior to the Detroit Pistons, Shelly worked in the financial sector for several institutions including Crestmark Bank as a Vice President, Marketing Analyst and Chrysler Financial as a Sr. Project Manager.
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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 major
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 Shelley Bouren, Research Manager at the Detroit Pistons. The Detroit Pistons are an American professional basketball team based in Detroit, Michigan. Prior to the Detroit Pistons, Shelley worked in the financial sector for several institutions, including Crestmark Bank and Chrysler Financial. Shelley, thanks very much for being on the Happy Market Research Podcast today.
Thank you, Jamin. It is such a pleasure to be here.
So Shelley, maybe you could tell us a little bit about where you grew up and how your parents have influenced your career.
So I grew up here, in Michigan. If you are generous, you could call it “the very Northern most suburb of Detroit”. It’s really a small country town, here in Michigan. We were close enough to the “city”, in air quotes, to find shopping and entertainment and stuff like that but far enough way that it was still a comfortable enough small town to grow up in. My father was a programmer, a computer programmer and systems analyst before computers were cool. So I guess the contribution he most made to my career was comfort with technology. That is, not being afraid from computers when so many of my generation coming up through high school and into college had that a little bit of nervousness about what computers brought or how easy it could be to mess something up. I had a comfort level and knowledge about that. My mom was an administrative assistant who worked very hard in setting an example for us of putting family first. So she helped me to see how to be a hard worker but not at the expense of the family and the flexibility that you needed to support them.
Did you find your literacy with computers to be helpful through your educational process as well as your entire career?
Yeah, actually, initially when I went into college I wanted to be a programmer, and I wanted to work in information systems. The university I was at told me I had to pick one or the other. They did not fit together as easily as I wanted them to. So I just kind of shelved that and went into advertising and marketing instead. But always with that, like I mentioned, the comfort with technology and then, as I went back in to get my Master’s recently in business analytics, it was the melding of those worlds had finally happened. So it was using the information systems and the programming together, so it kind of, my career came full circle. But it started with that early comfort level.
Yes, totally. And in fact, now we see technology just being ubiquitous in every job function. It seems that the higher you get, the more familiar you have to be with things like dashboards and PowerPoint, and other things. It is just basic table stakes nowadays relative to when I started my career twenty years ago… I would say that… technology… when I first started my career, I was comfortable in coding and Basic and back early days, C++. That always felt like it gave me an edge because it was more like the fear factor of technology had been removed as opposed to there is actually something that I could do that it would be different or unique.
Well, I know that because I came in with that technological comfort level… one of the biggest benefits that came from that was my peers were always afraid to touch this button or that button because something was going to blow up or you did not counter the blue screen of that. I had more knowledge about what it really took to break things so I was not so afraid to try things. And I think that has led to a confidence and a curiosity throughout my career where there is got to be more to learn, there is got to be more to try if you are not afraid to mess things up. I know that one big narrative now is the not having a fear of failure in taking risks because that’s where you grow, and I think that is where that fits for me.
Yes, that’s an interesting topic. I did not think of it exactly in this way before but it’s almost like you remove the “I don’t know how” excuse from the arsenal of things that holds you back from doing something. The reality is that being able to create something in code, even if it is as simple as printing “hello, world”, it empowers you in a unique way so that you have the confidence to, I think, branch out and try new stuff and then understand that the underpinnings of the new sectors –like between financial services and market research, you can start understanding the systems that support both of those and the overall commonality between them as well as leverage the differences between. I know it’s a far reach but I really do think installing the command line or the creation of software is a really good way to help build confidence at the individual level.
It really is. Any time you can put something in and know whether it is going to work or not work right away. That was one of the things that I loved about technology is it’s either right or it’s wrong. It’s either going to work or it’s not. And you just have to dig into the details and figure out why it’s not working, and fix it.
Totally. It’s an accelerated version of starting a company or starting anything new in life because you are able to quickly iterate, discover your problem and then move on from there. So I would like to talk a little about this major shift that I think you have gone through. You spent much of your earlier career in the financial sector, how did you wind up finding yourself in market research?
Well, initially… like anybody… Many people who start their careers in the Detroit area, they start out with something automotive. And my automotive early experience was in marketing and advertising for some of the automotive advertising agencies, and some of them were nice big full-service agencies where I got a lot of experience in project managing traditional advertising and reproduction and even dabbled a little bit in construction design and the logistics of putting on training events on a large scale. What was great about that for me is it really supported flexibility in the gig economy, and through the connections you make throughout your career, opportunities opened up. That allowed me to put my family first for that period of my life. Really, the requirements that I had for taking a position in that timeframe was that it be flexible and allowed me to do that “family first” focus, and that it would use my degree and help me to build my resume, even in this time when I was not a 100% full-time worker. And through that you kind of follow where the connections lead you. So I have made it from automotive advertising into automotive financial services into commercial lender at Crestmark, where I was the Vice President in Marketing. So that was the career evolution up to that point. Once I was at Crestmark, I started taking on more responsibility, and it led to more hours and less flexibility. And when I stepped back and realized that I am now in a full-time job, and my requirements for the job now that it’ss taking full-time are a little different than they were before, so I wanted to make sure that it allowed me to grow and some things that I was really passionate about and interested in and so I started looking around and thinking what did that mean for me. And at Crestmark, once of the things that I was able to dabble in a little bit on was Google Analytics. You realize when you are in marketing and advertising there is really little that is really measureable. A lot of decisions are made on gut instincts and “I think this looks good, and it’s probably going to reach the people we wanted to reach” but not really measureable KPIs. So Google Analytics kind of opened my eyes to this new world of being able to pinpoint how many people are seeing this, who is reaching and some of the audience demographics around that. I also stepped back and looked at other organizations and how they do things, and one of I have always been a huge fan of Disney, for example. And of the things I love about the Disney experience is that you go, I take my family and we go and we have a good time. And things run smoothly. And we home with a great experience. And we go however it is and we get there again in a later trip, and it is even smoother and even more fun and they found the snags along the way that you did not even realize were there but they found them and they fixed them, and so your next trip is even better. I wanted to find a way to live in that space: the finding, gathering the information to find the issues and then being able to communicate the issues and fix them. So the combination of the two of those led me to getting comfortable with data, and going to get my Master’s in Data Analytics, not knowing where that was going to take me but knowing that it might satisfy both of those curiosities. And hopefully something would open up. Through the time I was getting my degree, I met through a mutual contact the Vice President of Data Analytics here at the Pistons. Through building that relationship I found out that they were thinking of re-opening a research position that had been closed for probably about a year due to someone leaving and not being replaced. And I decided to give that a try
Super interesting! So you literally just stepped out and invested in yourself to learn Data Analytics prior to having that job lined up.
Yeah, and it was a really intensive one-year-degree program where my husband was a single father for most of the year because I was at work at my previous role, going from there to class, going from there to go home to do homework till the middle of the night, getting up the next day to go to work because my employer at that time was not aware or supportive of the degree I was getting because I was really working towards that degree to be able to find new opportunities. I did not know what that new opportunity was going to be but we all kind of did it to help me get through that.
So what has been one of your largest challenges for someone that is relatively new to the market research space?
Coming into this world with not much knowledge of what market research actually was, my challenge was learning. Because the role had been vacant, there was not a lot of information left behind for me to pick up and move forward and learn from the previous person in this role. So sitting in my office, there was not anybody who I could walk across the room or across the department and say: “Hey, can you tell me how this should be done?” There was a lot of trial and error and just research on my own part that kind of made me comfortable with the fact that I was in the right place because the research, to learn research, was fun – read all the white papers I could get my hands on, listen to podcasts, watch webinars and try to fill in the blanks of knowledge. So that is what my challenge was, and how I tried to mitigate it.
I really think that this is an interesting point. Do you remember the first research project you did? Was it an online survey? Or was it focus groups?
It was an online survey.
We have a DIY survey portal here so a lot of the things that I am still currently working on, I inherited from a research plan they had that walks through some surveys that are conducted through the NBA that many teams participate in, that we project manage them here at the team level to distribute them through our e-marketing team to our fans, mostly people we already have in our database. So part of my first experience for doing the project management on some of those to dig into third-party data providers that we have, like Scarborough Research, to do demographic-type research to support our corporate partnerships team to find which partners would be the best fit for us based on the demographics of our fan base. And that was fun because that was more of a technology thing, right? That was a tool that you could use to do things with technology. So figuring out how to do that and how to use our DIY survey portal… those were like our new toys for me. It was really fun to dig in. And I think I have squeezed as much functionality out of those tools as anybody possibly could through my learning, just digging into the little corners of the functionality to see what it does, how we could use it here, how this fits with what we are already doing and enhance what we are already doing.
I get so excited around the actual operational consideration of research, which makes me weird. The block and tackling of the consumer insight, how you gather that information in a useful way and then analyze it for really fast business decisions. For me, it’s really exciting stuff. You found that your velocity or speed to get to the insights has been improving over time or has it hit a ceiling?
I think the velocity is increasing, and I think that as it is more well accepted and more received throughout the organization, they are realizing what research can bring to help with business decisions, and I am being able to be more and more busy with requests. The research plan that I inherited when I started was, like I said, a serious of projects that were encouraged by the NBA as well as some profile updates that we did through Scarborough Research and some other information that we obtained through our CRM data. It was a full calendar throughout the year but nothing really tied it together. So one of the things that I was really excited to do when I got here was to pull it together in a cohesive way so we could figure out what questions we were answering with the research. So I just recently developed what I call “my own brochure”. I put together a customer insights process that is the umbrella for all of the research that we are doing and answering about six questions with these twenty something projects that we do. So we are figuring out who our customers are, both our fans and are our partners –corporate partners, through some of the research projects that we do. We are looking at how are we reaching them, and with that I get access to TV and radio ratings and social media measures, what their experience is here, what do they think of us. We do some brand health studies, some post-event surveys, fan loyalty tracker that we send to our members to take the temperature of what they are thinking of us. Do our sponsorships benefit them? So we do some studies specifically around how our sponsors are benefiting from reaching our fans, with the exposure that they are getting, they value they are getting, the actual data value they are getting back from that sponsorship and then recapping for them at the end of the year as well as reaching out to our fans and saying: “What do you think of these sponsors?” “Are you benefiting from the Pistons having sponsorships?” And then, “how can we grow?” So how can I support the ticket sales team even with prospecting surveys or campaign support and working with the marketing and communications group to the effectiveness of some of their communication? And I have also gotten involved with “So what is our culture?” that is the last question that I have got in my brochure. I have gotten involved with the employee survey annually and then poll surveys we put together throughout the year to take the temperature as we make changes internally. So to be able to pull all of that together has only created, I think, more interest in what research and insights can be provided by our group.
Okay, that is super powerful! I mean, creating this really clear view of the brand through the eyes of the customer leveraging market research is such a hole in one! And piggybacking on what you said before, as you educate the executive staff on how market research can be employed for better decision making, I am remembering my conversation with Lori Iventosch of GoDaddy. She said: “The executive is going to make a decision anyway. I sure as hell better deliver the insights so it is the right one!”
Yeah, it’s been great that as we go into some business planning even for next season, I have been invited to participate in more of those discussions as they are really looking to have some data-driven decisions about how to approach our season ticket members who we would like to help them stay in the membership or how to reach new people to have them come join the team as single-game buyers or season ticket numbers
The scorecard, I am going to call it that because you are in sports, that you have got for the brand… When you think about feeding back the data to sponsors and customers, where you talked about recapping and what were the benefits, did they find them useful, etc., have you seen an improved lift or improved buy-in from those sponsors? And I am actually thinking of something you referenced early on, your experience at Disney. You know, how you would go their campus and have a really nice time, and then you would come back and it is even better somehow, right? The little hiccups or what have you had been solved that you did not even recognize, which of course, reinforces that brand. Have you seen that kind of behavior manifest itself?
Yes, our sponsors have definitely seen a benefit and a lift from being involved with the Pistons. I work with the account team, the partnership team to identify which sponsors to focus on for each season. That information gets reported back many times to the partner, and I have gotten to be part of those conversations and to share the information myself, which was another learning growing experience that I really enjoy to share not only the industry wide statistics that says “here is how you are going to benefit from being part of a sponsorship” but also the specifics our fans are telling us in this specific study that they are more likely to engage with your brand because you are associated with the team.
So about what proportion of your research work is done internally versus through partners externally?
With my learning curve in market research, I have been kind of selfish with a lot of the things that we do. If there was not already a partnership in place to conduct the study, I really tried to, at this point since I am a market research department of one, do it myself so that I can get comfortable with the technology, the reasons behind the research instead of just jumping in to having the partners support me in it. So a lot of the NBA studies that we do were already on the books. We work with tight partners on those, and those are building great relationships with those vendors, and it’s been really enjoyable for me. But as business questions come up internally, I always take a stab at it first, and I know that as the need for internal research grows, I will eventually run out of knowledge and time to do it all myself but at this point, I really enjoy learning and trying and doing and finding the insights. It’s great that my newness to this world is not a secret. So I came in with a lot of background in business and a degree in analytics, but research was something I was learning. So it’s been great that if a business question comes up, I have been given the freedom to learn the common methodologies, figure out if my tools are capable of doing that, and then conduct the study myself, and provide the information at the management or executive level to help answer those questions. And I have not had to dedicate so much time to the learning that has stalled the decision making. I think that having to go outside and teach a vendor what our problem was and what we were looking to get out of it, the timeframe would have probably been similar.
I was just speaking with Stacy Walker, at Adobe, and she was talking to me after the interview about sort of the same issue. For her, it is more useful having somebody internally managing the research just because they are already up to speed on the actual implication, and if they are the ones executing against the research, they can better understand the story-telling aspects, or apply the story-telling to the stakeholders internally for a faster adoption of the insights. There are clear efficiency gains by having, by doing the research internally, and I am seeing more brands look to move staff from external vendors to internal vendors just because it helps control and improve velocity, which means they are adopting tools to get work done faster or whatever. Do you have a research mentor, somebody you have cultivated a relationship with? Or you ask them for recommendations whether it is on methodologies or vendors?
Not at this point, no. That is one of the things I have been trying to build. But I am finding that most people when they look at someone in my stage in their career, they expect them to already have some good experience in research. The narrative I see around mentoring these days, and looking to find one, is people at this stage in their career think: We have been in market research a long time, and there is a lot changes happening so we are going to look to support these new kids that are coming out of school with these new degrees that are being offered at the universities in market research and mentor them on the new technology so they can use that knowledge and the new technology and new ideas but gain some of our experience. So it has been hard for me, and I do not know if it is because I am not generally a comfortable question asker, to connect with somebody who is a good resource. In the last month, I have been doing much better at it, I found some great resources through some of the conferences I have been at so I am building that network now. But typically I have done all of my research online through the white papers and webinars, and podcasts, and I have gotten some digital mentors like you and some other people in the field that I have been following, like Kristen Luck and Ray Poynter, and others that every time that name comes up I feel like “that’s really good information, and I should pay attention and try to learn from that”. So that’s mostly how my learning has gone, mentor-wise.
What shows did you attend in 2018?
The big one I was able to get away and go to was the Corporate Researchers Conference for the Insights Association and then locally, the Detroit Chapter and Market Research Association had a market research arm that has smaller meetings as well, and I was able to attend a few of them as well, and make some great contacts there.
Yes, local chapters are goldmine. I think they are often times overlooked by researchers, especially young researchers. I tell you what, it is such a great place meet up-and-coming researchers as well as seasoned vets who can help answer questions even that I have. I often times use it as a reference point when things come up.
Yeah, it’s great. One of the things that I have found is often difficult is that this role is not always called the same thing, right?, in different organizations. So as you are looking for someone to help with research, you do not know who to reach out to, who to look up in Linked in. I think that my role is not necessarily unique, even on the NBA team, because they all participate in research but I do not know that many of them have one point person to support the ticket sales and the guest experience operations group and marketing and communications, and everybody all under one umbrella. So even within the NBA, I am not really sure who to reach out to in another team even for advice.
Right. Makes sense. There is a local company here in central California called Ruiz Foods. Their head of research… She is a… It is a one woman shop in this case but it is a billion dollar company, right? So it is a really large company, and she spends a lot of money on research. I put “a lot” in quotation marks because it is all relative but she is the one that is actually executing the projects, and she will use vendors for specialty things like turf analysis or a conjoint study or whatever, but generally speaking, she is the one conducting the research and very successfully as well. And it is empowering this brand, like I said; it is growing significantly, double digits, and massive! And it is interesting to me that you do have that consolidation into a single-person team, whereas most companies that are that large would have potentially multiple people fulfilling that function.
Right. Or the being able to have access to all of it. So when a conversation happens in the guest experience space, I am aware of a study that was done over in the marketing group on the brand health to see how we are perceived so that I can pull that information together and help both parties. One of the things that I did early on when I was here was realize that most of our research was happening among people who were already in our database, already buying tickets from us. Without knowing what I was really thinking, what the panels really consisted of, I reached out to people who already are season ticket members, people who are single-game buyers, people who received our newsletter and then were social media followers, and I said: “Hey! Would you guys agree to participate in research at an ongoing basis as needed?” And I got a significant amount of people who raised their hand and said: “Yeah!” But it is different with a sports team because people just want to be part of it, right? And want to be able to have input and feel connected to the team. Being able to read all the different groups in the organization, if someone had a quick turnaround need, I can send that question out to what we call our “Pistons fan farm”, get the feedback they respond right away through a what you could call ”panel” that I manage.
Do you have a specific technology that you employ to handle this custom panel?
Within our DIY survey platform, I found some functionality that helps manage the panel. And it records that information and with the surveys that I conduct through there we send out through our e-marketing platform.
What is one gap that you see in the market that you wish either market research technology or a service provider would solve?
There are so many vendors doing such great things out there. I do not know that I would be able to specifically identify a gap because I am still learning what is needed, the pieces of the puzzle that I do not already have answers to. But I do think some of the solutions could be there could be a standard communication about what problems they are hoping to solve in the organization. It is not a technology question as much as it is a communication question. Because I do have a lot people calling me many times offering their services to me but I am not really sure how they fit as a solution to my problem.
Yeah, Got it. That makes sense. It is almost like the lack of social validation is not quite there in some early stage companies. And of course, the actual application to your problems. That is where I think that market research really needs to be good at listening, employing our core IP, which is exactly listening, consuming that consumer view point and understanding what is intended, what the application is. That would help us a lot in formulating exactly how are we applicable? How can we solve the add value for the specific end user?
So we have a couple of people that have posed questions on LinkedIn when I posted a few moments ago about my interview with you. Is it all right if I read a couple of them
All right, so the first one is from Mario: “How are the Detroit Pistons adjusting their marketing strategies given the rapidly changing demographic make-up of Detroit?”
We have even a greater change in demographic not only in that Detroit is going through a fantastic renaissance right now, becoming an exciting place to go and live much more than it has been over the previous decade. So along with the fact that it is changing and growing, and it is becoming more probably, as a residence base, more millennial, we also moved our team, right? So we used to play out in the Northern suburbs of Detroit and with the last year, this is our second season playing in downtown Detroit. So we have had to make some adjustments as far as who we have in our season ticket base. Because we have got some fans who have not followed us down there because they are not able to move. I think it is a 45 minute longer drive for people who are coming from the Northern suburb area. But also being able to reach new people downtown who were not willing to make the drive out. So it has been a great change for us in that we have been able to pick up a lot of excitement, and be a part of what has being going on down there. Our marketing and advertising really centers around the excitement of being at a game and the excitement of following the team. It is interesting I find in sports where you have a fan base, and your fan base is going to be your fan base, and they really want to come and enjoy the team but we are also coming out in the new arena to communicate the benefit and the excitement of the state of art arena we are now playing in.
Awesome. And this question is from Erin Walten: “I am curious if your team was involved at all in measuring Drummond’s free throw statistics in practice or personal workouts? He has gone from 35% to over 60% in just two to three years.”
It has been an amazing improvement and it has been fun to watch. But my research is more on the business of basketball instead of the actual athlete on the team. But we in Detroit have appreciated Andre’s free throws improvement.
Ha! That’s awesome! My guest today has been Shelley Bouren, Research Manager at the Detroit Pistons. Shelley, thanks very much for being on the Happy Market Research Podcast!
Thank you so much for having me, Jamin.
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