Think + Do » an exploration of mission-driven marketing and design
Since I assemble project teams depending on a client’s unique needs, I have the good fortune of working with a wide variety of talented people. This is the third in a series of interviews with collaborators I have enjoyed working with over the years.
Julie Monson is a market researcher and strategic planner with more than 25 years of experience guiding the development of communication strategies, brand positioning, and message development for agencies, businesses, and non-profit organizations. From candid qualitative chats to rigorous quantitative inquiries, she tackle assignments that help teams understand what makes their users tick. Inevitably, these insights inspire intelligent strategies, grow businesses, and solve thorny problems.
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I think most careers don’t neatly fit into the imaginations of young minds. What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I can still picture my 7th grade paper on this subject – decorated to the hilt with colorful fabric swatches given my aspiration was Interior Design. There was something about playing with art and color that fascinated me. I think my teen-aged self figured I could dabble in the creative even though I couldn’t actually draw or paint well at all.
What did you study in college?
I attended a liberal arts college the first two years, and loved my psych, sociology, philosophy, and religion classes the most. But I was pretty sure I wanted a well-rounded business degree rather than the heavy-handed economics program being served up – so I made a move to the Carlson School to wrap up the final two years of undergrad. It wasn’t until the final quarter of my senior year that I took a class in marketing research – and finally had a glimpse of the work I wanted to pursue.
And what was your first job after graduation?
My first job after graduation was really a cobbled-together series of internships on the research vendor side. Ultimately, those experiences set me up well for the entry-level consumer insights role I landed, and loved, at Land O’Lakes.
How did those experiences point you toward what you’re doing now?
Midstream, I didn’t realize I was heading toward a freelance consulting role. I went from vendor to corporate to ad agency, which isn’t a typical path. But regardless of the framework, I was always responsible for bringing target audience insights to bear on business decision-making. Experiencing the role from each of those unique vantage points, in turn, made it easier than I ever imagined to relate to the various clients I would serve as a consultant – because I had walked in many of their shoes.
Was there an “aha” moment when you thought “This is what I want to do!”
When I was an agency account planner, I had toddlers and a spouse who traveled as extensively as I did, and I figured there had to be a better way to do meaningful work and still keep all the balls in the air. The ‘aha’ was realizing it was actually possible. It made me feel like somehow I’d beat the system.
On top of that, consumer insights is a blast. I’m forever having interesting conversations with ordinary and extraordinary humans, about ordinary and extraordinary stuff. Honestly, it’s the stuff that life is made of.
What do like best about working independently?
It’s not just how and when I work, though admittedly that’s a pretty nice perk. Working independently gives me the freedom to dig deep for answers, take tangents where it makes sense, examine what I really believe and come to my own conclusions.
Don’t get me wrong – collaborating always brings energy and perspective to the work I do, and I relish the opportunity to learn from smart people whenever I can. But the thing I most value about working independently is taking a deep breath and rising to the challenge when there’s no one else to turn to. It’s exhilarating, it’s scary, and it’s affirming, all at once.
From a client’s perspective, what is the most valuable thing you bring to the table?
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My goal is to coax out simple human truths as naturally as I can – so job one is to gain participants’ trust. Some of that comes through experience and skill, but being empathetic, curious, and genuinely interested in what participants offer leads to meaningful insights for clients.
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How about from the perspective of a research participant?
Participants tell me all the time that they’re surprised how much fun they’ve had. At the heart of it, people want to matter, and it starts with being heard and understood. They spark to someone who really listens, and cares enough to find out what’s in their heads and hearts – and why.
What is the least understood or least appreciated part of your job?
It might be that if you’re doing it well, it looks like a walk in the park. It’s just conversation, right? Below the surface, a great facilitator is marching double-time to make discovery feel so natural for participants that they’re not aware there’s a jam-packed agenda, and a prescribed time in which to address the client’s needs.
How has the pandemic changed how you do your job?
The most obvious change is the way the pandemic accelerated research technologies that were already in place. Online interviews and focus groups have been around for years – but many facilitators, myself included, believe there’s no replacement for the in-person dynamic to really build rapport.
We all did enough Zoom happy hours in 2020 to know that socially, online is just not the same. But consumers are used to it now, and obviously it’s pretty convenient to conduct sessions across time zones and geographies.
Do you think those changes will remain when the pandemic is in our rearview mirror?
No question, remote research methodologies are here to stay, for cost and efficiency reasons – which matters a lot. But many clients say that what’s missing is the level of team collaboration and focus they felt when on-site or in context with participants. Some clients say that things feel less personal and less real from a distance.
The pendulum will swing back some, and we’ll surely be doing more in-person work in the future. The good news is that for organizations who never considered it previously, online research was effectively legitimized through the pandemic, and technologies were improved to meet demand. Online will remain a fantastic option, even as ethnographic, in-context, and facility-based work are buoyed by the recovery.