Major League Baseball’s Scott Harris on surprising insights and the future of research
As part of our Market Research Visionaries series, we spoke to Major League Baseball Strategic Research Manager, Scott Harris, about working in sports, personalizing feedback methods for millions of fans, and how a video game gave him a thirst for data.
My 13-year-old self would be very happy to know that my 31-year-old self gets paid to watch baseball,” laughs Scott Harris, Strategic Research Manager for Major League Baseball (MLB).
“I do other things too, of course, but I do get to watch a lot of baseball.”
It’s not just 13-year-olds – ask any of the 71 million-plus fans who attended a MLB game last year if they want to get paid for watching baseball, and you’ll get a very similar response.
Those people are why Scott and his colleagues get to watch baseball all day — so they can make sure to help grow the game by focusing on the fan experience.
“We have millions of fans around the world who often have captivating and unique background stories about how they relate to our sport.
“It’s a really fun challenge to bring fans’ voices to the table.”
How a video game sparked an interest in experiences
If 13-year-old Scott would have been excited to know about his future vocation, just imagine telling him that hours spent playing his favorite video game, RollerCoaster Tycoon, that would get him there?
The game was all about managing an amusement park. And while most kids remember the rides they built, or how big the park grew, Scott’s abiding memory was the value of experiences.
“One of the main mechanics in the game is this thing called the ‘Guest Thoughts Menu’,” says Scott. “This is where the game will tell you if your parkgoers are angry about the queue times for rides, or whether your ATM machines are reasonably priced and so on and so forth.”
Too young to grasp the underlying economics, Scott figured out one universal truth: “The happier your guests are, the more time they spend in the park and the more money they'd spend.”
So Scott pinned the ‘Guest Thoughts Menu’ to the screen and started to whittle down one by one all the frowning faces – with new rides, price optimizations, panda costume-clad entertainers, and other ways to make their park experience more enjoyable.
“That was basically the strategy I used to win every scenario,” he says.
As guest management became more complex in subsequent iterations of the franchise, so too did the solutions. Instead of simply turning every unhappy guest into a happy one, he had to balance that with fixing breakdowns, or developing original rides for a smaller number of higher-paying guests, versus a larger pool of lower-spend guests.
Scott says that although it was video game, it was still an excellent way for him to become familiar with the role that consumer wants and needs play in prioritizing business development. And he’s still digging through the data today, albeit on a far bigger scale. He says that in some ways he’s still sitting in front of his computer playing RollerCoaster Tycoon. “But I'm significantly cooler now,” he deadpanned.
Personalizing the approach to feedback
The challenge with gathering feedback from baseball fans is that it’s such a diverse audience with people from all over the world, and of all ages.
So Scott, supported by a talented team of researchers and analysts, has worked hard to look beyond the headline findings to understand why people give feedback, and how they prefer to give it.
“Folks have interesting and unique patterns to the way that they like to offer feedback,” says Scott. “And that can be tied up in demographics, geography, how they’re using their devices, and so on.
“Here’s a simple example: we see those over 45 years of age being more likely to give high-quality open text feedback on a phone – rather than on their desktop devices.”
Older audiences preferring mobile over desktop? It might sound like it defies convention, but digging deeper, they found it stems from how they use text messaging and social media.
“We did a round of qualitative interviews as part of our standard survey follow-ups and those folks were telling us they’re becoming accustomed to long-form communication with family and friends on their mobile devices,” says Scott. “So instead of a phone call, they’re having conversations of that same length over text message. We want to create that environment in our surveys, and make them feel like they’re having a conversation with their baseball family.”
And younger audiences?
“They like emojis,” laughs Scott.
He’s not joking either – MLB often sees completion rates rise with younger demographics when they prompt for the use of emojis in their responses. But the approach is broader than these examples: MLB runs dozens of experiments a year to strike the balance between survey length, question format, answer options, and distribution methods.
“Folks will give you honest, high-quality feedback if you're willing to personalize the mechanisms for gathering feedback,” says Scott. ”What we’ve learned is we can be much more successful if we meet consumers where they are, instead of trying to get them to come to where we are.”
The current state of play
In 2020 and beyond, and what does Scott think is the future of market research?
“I hope for starters that we’ll stop using buckets like ‘market research’ versus ‘UX research,’ and so on. What you’ve really got is a wide array of methodologies, tools, and analytical techniques and I think increasingly we’re going to see folks breaking down those silos and finding interdisciplinary uses for them.”
Scott says the modern researcher will instead need to be someone who can be the guiding light on research and experimental design. “I’m encouraged by the growing emphasis on asking the right question, understanding and being transparent about the pros and cons of any one particular approach. In many ways, by the time you sit down at your computer to analyze data and write the report, the die is cast. The most consequential decisions you’ll make are in how the research program was designed, and no algorithm can save you from bad methods or poorly calibrated instruments.
“We’ll also need to be able to speak the language of these other disciplines, and how they apply methods in their own fields, whether it’s sociology, psychology, HCI, or economics.
“It's a tall order, but it’s also an exciting challenge.”
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