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Jul 10, 2002
Interview

Tips from Visa USA's Market Research Expert Michael Marx

SUMMARY: As Visa USA's VP Research Services, Michael Marx shares market research, competitive intelligence and consumer trends data with financial institutions issuing Visa-branded cards and major merchants accepting Visa payments. We contacted him to ask how Visa USA gathers its research, and what the Company has learned about the growing women's financial services marketplace in particular.
As Visa USA's VP Research Services, Michael Marx shares market research, competitive intelligence and consumer trends data with financial institutions issuing Visa-branded cards and major merchants accepting Visa payments.

We contacted him to ask how Visa USA gathers its research, and what the Company has learned about the growing women's financial services marketplace in particular.


QUESTION: How often does Visa conduct cardholder research programs, and what methodologies have proved to be the most insightful?

MARX: Over the course of a year, we probably conduct around 300.

We monitor the marketplace from both a broad perspective and a narrow tactical perspective. There are many tracking studies done over the phone, we do a fair amount of face-to-face at the malls or when we need depth on an issue, and we do focus groups; we'll do these one on one and triad (three at a time). Also, our largest study is a panel study, tracing consumer behaviors via mail through consumers who agree to complete a diary.

We also do a lot online, now that Internet is more representative of the U.S. population. Sometimes we recruit panelists through ads [on the Web]; they then are directed to the survey. Sometimes we work with vendors to get research done. Some of them maintain a database of panels for interviews.


QUESTION: Besides conducting research in-house, do you partner with any outside agencies to query your customer base?

MARX: We use major market research vendors like Burke and NFO. We have a lot of local focus group moderators, some of whom specialize in advanced statistical techniques. We have a large stable of vendors and consultants who help.

One thing we try to avoid is doing anything that may color or bias the research. We try to make the media we use "vanilla." We may partner with a demographically targeted organization, but we always need to be sure there is no sponsorship relationship that may bias the research.


QUESTION: Do people really answer your questions honestly? Do you have to make allowances for some fudging?

MARX: Regarding financial services, consumers don't tell the truth for the most part.

In our business, individuals will claim they pay off their bills every month. People feel very guarded about their financial decisions, so they give reasons that may or may not be true. And when we ask about the design of a card_they give an answer they think the researcher wants to hear.

One thing you learn over time is how to structure questions so you have a greater likelihood of getting an accurate answer. For example, when we want to find out if people are paying off their bills, we'll ask them to think about the card they use most often. We then ask what the balance was on their last bill after they paid it.

Another major thing is to be able to reach a representative sample of your user base. Sampling is critical. Make sure the questionnaire designed in a way that people will complete it. I can always get you results, but the integrity of a market researcher relies on getting positive results you can use.


QUESTION: What are some best practices for applying research to marketing plans or new partnerships as well as what to avoid?

MARX: One of most important things is to understand where there is not a fit. Know what does not resonate with consumers you know to be your target. Consequently, a big pitfall is when you have people that want to do something and the research contradicts their intuition.

To me it's most important to know how to analyze and deliver information that a client or superior wants to hear. Also be able to persuade the individual that you did quality work.

Another thing I learned in market research is to have integrity and diplomacy. You will deliver bad news, but do it in a way a client will want to use you again. The same applies for your own company. Our job is to be the objective lens. If we lose that, we do not serve anyone. When we have well researched information, a member company will find it credible even if they did not agree with the findings before.

It's so important to communicate it properly and source it well. And tie it together with action steps, recommendations, and tactics. You can't just communicate the data.


QUESTION: You're a featured speaker at a conference on marketing to women this summer. Has Visa been targeting women more as the Company researches and develops new programs?

MARX: There is definitely more corporate emphasis on targeting women. Just take a look at what the automotive industry is doing, trying to sell cars to women the same way they have been marketing to men for 40 years: Get the right car to attract the opposite sex.

As for us, we have data that shows, in almost all areas, the majority of purchasing decisions are made by women. In the financial-services area, 70 percent of the budgeting and bill- paying are done by the female.

More importantly, they do the homework prior to making the decision. Women are more likely to have some kind of networking decision prior to making a purchase; outside of a store, they are likely to talk to friend or family member. This has ramifications on how you market.

It's always dangerous to try and stereotype differences but, overall, there are notable differences. A [Visa] member will say that its database is more than half men. I say that while this may be true, if you send something to them, there is a good chance women will react to the same material.

Just because the name on your prospect list is male does not necessarily mean the male will make that decision.


QUESTION: What are some of the key points you've learned so far about marketing to women?

MARX: My job over the last two years was to be the "Pied Piper," looking at the world differently. We realized just how much of our business is driven by behaviors of women. We looked closely at the appeal a product or service has to them. When we do a breakdown of our research, we make sure a part of the breakdown is gender-specific. Five years ago it wasn't that way.

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