Unpacking the Path to “Back to Normal”… Eleven Months and Still Counting

Unpacking the Path to “Back to Normal” …Eleven Months and Still Counting

Flying back from the cancelled PAC 12 basketball tournament, last March there were two significant thoughts on my mind.  First, I was angry and concerned that pandemic driven shutdowns had dealt our core verticals of sports and travel a broadside hit that would leave them reeling.  Secondly, there was a desire to develop a continuous and forward looking consumer pulsing effort that could inform decision making by garnering a deeper dive into what it would take to get people “back to normal.”  What I didn’t anticipate was the duration of this effort and the journey that it has created, taking our firm into the inner sanctums of major Washington D.C. trade organizations and policy makers, and reinforcing two fundamental requirements for effective market research.  

We are now nineteen waves and 11 months into our Back to Normal Barometer study, and I continue to learn new things, daily, about both the collective American mindset and the important role and responsibility of our profession in both designing effective research programs and then communicating their findings succinctly, accurately and effectively for time constrained audiences.

To the former, designing and deploying omnibus tracking studies are a careful balancing act between satisfying the real time insights needs of your subscribers/clients and managing the survey experience for respondents.  It is the ultimate combination of art and science that challenges a researcher to create and evolve a survey instrument that allows for objective response, while also understanding the utility that needs to be derived by Beltway insiders who rely on leveraging these insights into policy recommendations and lobbying message points.  

For years, I’ve joked about the metaphor that draws parallels between how client use of market research is akin to how a drunk uses a lamp post…for both support and illumination.  That has been one of the unique challenges of how we’ve evolved and continue to reinvent elements of the Back to Normal Barometer.  The project has been a thought leadership bulwark that has garnered our firm significant media attention by uncovering the often overlooked reality of “Two Americas,” a dichotomous and sometimes sensational set of interpretations and perspectives of what is going on around us, not easily accepted by those on the other side of a particular argument.  

The initiative has also further fueled one of the major impetuses that drove me into this business in the first place….that is a search for unadulterated truth, no matter how unsettling or askance from one’s own perspective that might be.  The ability to separate any personal or client biases and convictions from what a respondent is saying, remains a key driver of success for all of us, who in essence are charged with listening to and synthesizing what we hear first, so that we can play it back, effectively and objectively, later.  That communications piece is the second and equally critical component of what the Barometer has reinforced.  Taking hundreds of banner points of crosstabs and boiling them into digestible, and truthful soundbytes when you are measuring national sentiment is both a daunting responsibility and a personally compelling challenge for any consultative researcher, and there’s always more to learn.

Jon Last is the Founder and President of Sports and Leisure Research Group, a full service marketing research consultancy that supports leading brands in sports, travel and media. His professional experience includes seven years as VP Corporate Marketing for Golf Digest Companies, and eight years at the PGA of America, where he oversaw marketing research, consumer marketing and retail. A frequent speaker and featured columnist for Media Post, Last holds an M.B.A. from Wharton and a B.A. from Tufts. He is a former association president of the Insights Association (MRA) and Marketing Research Institute International (MRII), currently serving as Marketing Chair for the latter.

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