Ramya Raman completed her MBA in Marketing Research from the Wisconsin School of Business in 2012. She has experience in marketing insights in the financial services, retail, and technology industries. After graduating from the A.C. Nielsen Center, Ramya worked for Walmart stores in Arkansas and later in the eCommerce division in the San Francisco Bay Area. She then moved to Adobe in San Jose, CA where she is now a Senior Customer Insights Manager in the Marketing & Customer Insights organization.
I noticed you’re a fellow “double badger” (you received your undergraduate and graduate degrees from UW-Madison)! What brought you back to UW for your MBA?
Actually, I planned to come back when I was doing my undergrad. It started from my undergrad marketing class where I was introduced to research. The problem-solving aspect of research really appealed to me and I wanted to go deeper on the subject. I learned that the A.C. Nielsen Center had a solid research program and there were only a few other specialized programs in the country. I knew it was for me very early and worked towards that goal. After a couple of years working at CUNA Mutual Group in Madison and gaining work experience, I decided to apply, and the rest is history!
What’s your favorite memory from your time in the MBA program?
The class trip and company trips were always so helpful. My best memory was the class trip to China. I remember being part of that and getting the cultural context as well as hands-on experience there, where we got to participate in projects. Initially I was not sure about the trip because I have dietary restrictions (I’m a vegetarian). But the planning and support we had was great and it was an awesome learning experience!
My second favorite memory was graduation. We had a separate get-together for the Marketing Research specialization. It was so emotional and we each delivered a speech. You get to meet a lot of different kinds of people through your MBA and we all went through the same ups and downs. It was a fond memory as my classmates felt like family.
When you tell people outside the industry that you work in consumer insights, do they usually know what it is?
No, usually people assume it to be marketing or sales. Out of undergrad my first job was in Corporate Communications, which was also a tough one to explain to people. People understand marketing more, so I explain that my job is to understand the customer and inform marketing strategy. On the West Coast some people think of data analytics when you say consumer insights.
Is that because of Silicon Valley?
Possibly. They either think of data analytics or UX research. I’ve noticed that many of the job openings in the Bay Area ask you to be able to do UX research or write SQL queries for a consumer insights role. Though, at Adobe, we do have separate teams for research, UX and analytics.
Do you do your research in-house or do you rely more on suppliers?
On my current team we’re mostly in a vendor-based support model, but I’m hearing on the CPG/retail side there’s more in-house research happening. It’s an interesting balance. The A.C. Nielsen Center prepared me well for the management and strategy side, but it looks like things are moving in the direction of bringing some of the research in-house. I wonder if the curriculum has changed since I was a student.
Yes, it’s been great to see how much the External Advisory Board has helped guide the curriculum – there are quite a few research methodology classes now. Additionally, we had a great Current Topics in Marketing Analytics and Insights class on supplier-client relationships the other day.
When I was a student, there was a lot of discussion around how research will change in the next few years. At the time it was all about strategy. Companies looked for how you tell a story and having you be embedded in the business. The focus was on what question you’re going to address with the research – more of a consulting mindset. I think that it is still a great model and it has been very effective on my team, but it looks like some things have changed since then in the industry.
One of the questions I had after our discussion on client-supplier relationships was “When is it the right decision to take marketing research in-house versus when is it best done by a supplier?”
The model our team uses right now at Adobe is the embedded insights partner model and we’re assigned to a category. It’s been working well – being embedded in the business means you’re listening and learning from the business day in day out, attending strategy and run-the-business meetings, understanding the problems, and as a result being able to serve your internal stakeholders better. I think you can tackle more problems if you can rely on your vendor for support. Of course, there might be situations where in-house could be quicker and cost-efficient. But mostly our team has been set up to tackle strategic problems and there is quite a bit of agenda planning and prioritization. This year we’ve been doing a quarterly research agenda sync with the business and we wouldn’t be able to do the amount of work we’re doing without vendor support.
However, even if you work with vendors – no matter how long they’ve been with you – the translating from the business problem to the research question and the insight storytelling is on you. I feel like that will never change and that is the expertise you’re offering as a customer insight professional on the client side. When you’re designing the research, the more prepared you are, the better answers you will get. This includes analysis and reporting, the more structured you are upfront including sharing your key business questions, hypotheses and analysis setup with your supplier, the better story you will be able to deliver, and in a timely manner. Without this, you might be receiving a 100-page deck from your supplier and sifting through it to find the story.
The exploratory nature of a 100-page deck reminds me of how the analytics work style is currently viewed – would you agree?
I think there is a place for data exploration depending on the project. But, more often than not, time is of the essence. The more you are hypothesis-driven, and end-goal driven, the better off you will be in answering the business questions. And the more you tie analytics with research, the better answers you get. Especially when you’re working at a place like Adobe where the data is available at the individual level – why not leverage that and tie analytics and research together. We’re still in separate teams which creates certain complexities, because we’re working on different priorities, but we’re always working towards the goal of bringing analytics and research insights together. On the research team, we now have analytics vendor support that we can leverage, which has helped.
How do you think teams will look in the future?
Overall, I would say the embedded insight partner model is not going away (depending on resources of course!). We’re simply more effective as insight leaders and thought leaders this way.
A sincere thank you goes out to Ramya for spending her time on a Saturday to discuss her career experiences with me. I am looking forward to my first internship experience in the field of marketing insights next summer to compare Ramya’s experiences with my own. I have a strong interest in both the insights and the analytics side of marketing and am glad to hear that both skillsets can work together for better business success. As I approach the second semester of my MBA, I will keep these skillsets in mind to focus on becoming a well-rounded insights professional.