Skip to content

Students conduct impactful market research for real clients

Tuesday, January 22 2019 11:00am

The Consumer Research Center works with companies such as Kellogg’s and Donatos to offer student fellows real-world experience.

By Meghan Morris

Ohio University’s College of Business (COB) offers many opportunities for students to gain hands-on experience, but none take on real clients quite like the Consumer Research Center (CRC).

The CRC, one of the COB’s Centers of Excellence, gives valuable consumer insights on college students to clients across different industries. Working on small teams, students tackle one project for an entire semester because they must prepare research materials, gather data, and analyze resultswhich all takes considerable time. Each project has a faculty advisor as well as a student lead fellow, however, every student plays an important role on the team.

“We want to give our students the hands-on experience they would receive working at a marketing research agency,” Jacob Hiler, director of the CRC, said.

The center had humble beginnings in 2015 starting with only six student fellows and two research projects. But operations have expanded greatly over the past four years. During the fall 2018 semester, the 27 CRC fellows tackled more than 10 projects collectively. And throughout its lifetime, the center has expanded its clientele to include some major players in food, retail, and advertising among other industries.

Kurt Kissinger, a senior studying marketing and management information systems, has finished six CRC projects. During his first year, Kissinger completed his first project. He didn’t have much experience with group work or public speaking until joining the CRC. Kissinger presented research findings for Kellogg’s in front of 100 people at the headquarters that semester.

“It really exposed me to a lot of professional experience all at once,” he said. “You have to bring your ‘A’ game to CRC to get the work done and please the clients.”

After seeing the results of a research project, some clients have showed interest in building long-term relationships with the CRC. Kellogg’s, Grange Insurance, and Dick’s Sporting Goods have received research from the center for multiple semesters. However, JPMorgan Chase has the longest-standing partnership with five projects and counting. It all depends on whether the companies have a project that could benefit from college-aged participants at the time.

Clients will sometimes go above and beyond to help student fellows figure out career ambitions. They meet the student fellows assigned to the account at the final presentation, however, some companies wish to be more hands-on during the research process.

“Clients want to help further develop students and form relationships with them,” Alexandra Mattey, student lead on Alzheimer’s Association account, said.

Increased interaction from industry professionals has definitely benefited students, even if they don’t end up at those companies. CRC alumni have landed job positions at well-knowncompanies such as Abercrombie & Fitch and Dick’s Sporting Goods and marketing research firms like 84.51°.

Entry into the fellowship program can get competitive. Prospective fellows need to have a 3.0 GPA or higher in addition to submitting an application and interviewing before a panel. At the moment, the CRC uses a “soft recruiting” process in which COB faculty send student recommendations on top of any matches the CRC faculty advisors discover through teaching.

During Kissinger’s first semester at OHIO, he joined the American Marketing Association. The club worked with CRC students for a case competition about Ice Breakers. Students used facial expression analysis to gauge the emotions of people who ate the minty candy. After aiding in that research, Kissinger knew he wanted a future in marketing research. He had become close to Alexa Fox, a former CRC faculty advisor, and applied for the CRC fellowship a few weeks later.

“She was instrumental in getting me to join the CRC and remains a mentor,” Kissinger said.

Each student team has a faculty advisor who acts as support throughout the semester. Not only do they assist with research problems, but they build close relationships with the fellows that extend beyond the shared project.

“A few mentors within the CRC changed the way that I thought about my career and life after college by giving advice I couldn’t get from someone I didn’t know very well,” Kissinger said. “Coming into the COB, market research never crossed my mind as a career path but now it’s something I can see in my future.”

Gaining real-life experience and receiving mentorship are the main goals for students who participate in a CRC project, however, clients have different objectives in mind. 

Reaching college students can be a very difficult task for professional agencies and marketing research firms. The CRC has a “built-in advantage” because OHIO’s Athens campus provides access to thousands of college students with a nearly complete change every four years. Now, clients can catch the wave of Generation Z students who are just starting college as the last of the Millennial students join the workforce.

“The preferences and the way in which these students grew up is changing the way they feel about brands and products,” Hiler said.

Clients are also attracted to the extremely low price of a CRC project. The research that students conduct for these companies can range in value from $150,000 to $300,000 because everything is done in-house. Since the CRC wants to focus on student learning instead of monetary gain, it only asks companies for donations of $5,000 to $15,000. The funds are used for student stipends, resource improvements, and anything else that’ll help the center provide more value for clients.

Through the CRC, student fellows learn basic research methods as well as uses for modern research technology. They get practice with designing, distributing, and analyzing surveys that are sent to thousands of students. After receiving survey responses, students will structure and moderate focus groups and in-depth interviews to figure out the reasons behind prevalent answers.

Teams have used newer research methods including physiological measures such as eye tracking and facial expression analysis. In a previous semester, White Castle wanted feedback on some menu board options. Roughly 120 college-aged participants agreed to be monitored while looking at the mockups. Researchers could see where participants looked the first, most, and longest.

A few CRC projects have used videography to better explain results from quantitative methods such as surveys. Students can focus on certain aspects of the research with a video. When Kissinger worked on the Kellogg’s project, his team recorded detailed accounts from real people that included music and several locations.

“Videos tell the information in a more understandable and fun way,” he said.

Kellogg’s wanted students’ opinions on living a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. Not many participants seemed interested in committing to the whole lifestyle, however, they came up with their own solution.

“Traditionally, people were either vegetarian or completely against vegetarianism,” Kissinger said. “But the millennial generation and Generation Z kind of blur the line where you have people who are open to giving up meat for a couple days.”

The CRC has partnered with many major companies but only had its first major non-profit organization last semester, Hiler said. The Alzheimer’s Association wanted a CRC project to explore a few different directions. First, it wanted to see what would make more millenials donate to the organization or participate in the organization’s events.

Mattey’s team found that a personal connection to the disease increases involvement as well as if the person participates in a club that cares about the issue. Some participants, who may or may not have any ties to Alzheimer’s, said they’d be more willing to donate if they received an email that contained a personal story of someone who receives help from the Alzheimer’s Association.

College students will donate to Kickstarter and GoFundMe but are more hesitant when it comes to major non-profit organizations.

“Millenials are concerned about where their dollars are going to when they donate to major organizations,” Mattey said. 

The Alzheimer’s Association also wanted to determine if there are any statistics relating to the disease that are powerful enough to not only catch people’s attention but move them to action. 

“Alzheimer’s Disease is the most expensive disease in America,” she said. “It cost the country about $277 billion in 2017.”

Donatos was another client who partnered with the CRC during the fall 2018 semester. Lauren Bailey, student lead on the Donatos account, said the company was interested in what college students thought about all aspects of the brand. Basically, the team’s research covered the four P’s of marketing (product, price, place, and promotion) and the two P’s of retail (presentation and personnel).

Her team discovered that not many students really thought about eating at Donatos because it isn’t very close to the university. They suggested that Donatos find small ways to promote their brand around campus considering that it can’t move location easily. Recommendations included giving out coupons and refrigerator magnets so that Donatos pizza would come to mind more often.

It’s no question that the CRC give students unparalleled experience, but it also helps them set up a future career. Kissinger said he will start at Infoverity, a leading provider of enterprise data management solutions, as a data consultant in June. During his interview with the company, he told stories of high-pressure situations in the CRC and meaningful interactions with CRC clients.

“When we presented to Kellogg’s, they said it was one of the best presentations that they’ve ever had from not only a college organization but any marketing research firm that they’ve ever worked with,” he said. “Sharing this experience and more about my work with the CRC showed to be extremely valuable to my future employer.”

The work student fellows have done for the center so far has proven the importance of studying the college-aged population. Students relish the opportunity to learn valuable skills in a high-pressure environment even if they don’t see a future career in marketing research.

“It’s not just something you turn in for class where you miss a couple points and it doesn’t matter,” Bailey said. “I’m finding valuable information for these companies.”

Find out more about the Consumer Research Center.