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February 01, 2009

New Perspectives

Making Academic Research Practical for Direct Sellers

by Greg W. Marshall

No Stereotypical Academics Here

OK, I know all the stereotypes about academicians. We’re eggheads, detached from the “real word,” focused only on theory, incapable of communicating effectively to nonacademic audiences and do research for research’s sake without any thought of topical usefulness to managers. That list paints a pretty bleak picture of the possibilities for beneficial partnerships between academics and businesspeople, doesn’t it? But fortunately, at least in the business field, stakeholders of business schools are putting increasing pressure on deans and faculty to better link their research to relevant managerial questions. More and more, external funding for business research comes with an expectation that the results will be more than esoteric, creating value beyond another notch on a professor’s vita.

The good news for the direct selling industry is that for decades the Direct Selling Education Foundation (DSEF) has been way ahead of the curve, linking relevant academic research in business to important industry questions. The DSEF is considered within business academic circles to be a model organization for sponsoring managerially relevant research. Published articles and cases that have been sponsored by DSEF are numerous, and many are posted and readily accessible on the DSEF Web site ( Click on “Research”). They go back as far as 1972 and run the gamut of topics for sales and marketing.

A New DSEF Research Initiative

In late 2007, the DSEF Board of Directors, under the leadership of Board Chair Doris Christopher, began a dialogue about how to take the Foundation’s historically very successful research initiative from good to great. The potential for well-executed, managerially relevant research to benefit the field led the board to make the initiative a foundationwide priority. Fundamental questions that needed to be answered included:
What would a truly great academic research program look like?

  • What are the most relevant and important research topics for the direct selling industry?
  • How can we best stimulate academics to invest their talent and expertise into researching topics that are managerially relevant for direct sellers?

There’s no doubt that professors who have been supported by and partnered with the DSEF on research projects over the years have become strong advocates for the industry, and share their work both in publications and with students in the classroom. For the new initiative—in addition to a long and successful partnership with academics in sales and marketing—it became clear that DSEF would need to expand its focus to include other fields, such as entrepreneurship, consumer behavior, ethics and women’s leadership.

To address the board’s charge of building a world-class initiative, a DSEF Research Task Force, which includes a mix of academics from a variety of business-related fields as well as industry representatives, was formed. Members are Sarah Baker Andrus, CUTCO; Dr. Maria Canabal, Texas State University, San Marcos; Dr. Liz Davis, George Washington University; Dr. Susan Duffy, Simmons College; Robin Diamond, DSEF Program Director; Dr. Jule Gassenheimer, Rollins College; Dr. Felicia Lassk, Northeastern University; Dr. Mark Leach, Loyola Marymount University; Dr. Greg Marshall, Rollins College and Task Force Chairman; and Randi Neiner, Shaklee Corporation.

The task force began its work by interviewing several academics who have been instrumental in developing top research for the direct selling field: Dr. Jerry Albaum (University of New Mexico), Dr. Larry Chonko (University of Texas at Arlington), Dr. Diana Haytko (Missouri State University), Dr. Buddy LaForge (University of Louisville), Dr. Bob Peterson (University of Texas at Austin) and Dr. Tom Wotruba (San Diego State University, retired). It then reached out to the direct selling community to gain a sense of the issues that are foremost on the minds of industry leaders. The premise was to let the market determine the research priorities.

To this end, at the 2008 DSA Annual Meeting in Phoenix, more than 25 interviews were conducted with direct selling executives to ascertain their views about important topics and issues for the future of the industry. Analyses of the interviews resulted in a list of eight key priorities for research funding in the future, presented here in alphabetical order with example topics for each.

DSEF’s Research Priorities

  • Case Studies: Best practices, sharing information, benchmarks, failures.
  • Corporate Leadership/Management Competency: Legacy issues, succession, founder celebrity.
  • Ethics: Transparency, bad actors, consumer concerns, regulations.
  • Field Sales Issues: Recruiting, retention, training, technology use, compensation (income reality versus expectations), benefits, motivation, key success factors in the field, personal/professional growth and well-being, empowerment, control, social network versus isolation.
  • Image/Identity of the Industry: Communication, education, public awareness, consumer confidence, branding, myth versus reality (promise versus delivery), influencers, perceptions.
  • Segmentation (Consumer Market and Field Sales): Generational issues, diversity, women, needy, younger, caregivers, boomers who are “working retired.”
  • Strategy: Managing external environmental factors, growth (especially global markets), company and product life cycle issues, corporate social, responsibility-sustainability-giving back, business models, forecasting, competition.
  • Technology: Business model for future, Web, social networks, virtual worlds.

From the industry’s point of view, these eight priorities represent the most promising areas of needed knowledge that will help further the field. From the Foundation’s perspective, they are an excellent fit within DSEF’s four key initiatives that are in place to carry out its public service mission—focus on consumers, education, ethical leadership and women’s leadership. And for the foundation’s academic partners, the new research priorities provide a much-needed road map to gain funding for future work on direct selling. In all, a winning combination!

Next Steps

The new DSEF research initiative represents an exciting new program with an array of opportunities and benefits for all direct sellers. Final work is being completed now on the criteria and process for academics to apply for funding, evaluative criteria for selecting proposals for funding, dissemination/publication requirements for the research once completed, and a marketing and communication plan so the benefits of participating in the program can be effectively communicated to direct selling companies and so breakthroughs resulting from the research can be broadcast through major media channels to enhance industry image.

The program has something for everyone who values important managerial information and comprehensive data about the industry. The benefits of a DSEF Research Program for Direct Selling Association member companies are:

  • Generating impartial third-party validation and credibility of the industry and its business practices.
  • Raising awareness of this unique, modern and sophisticated industry while it serves as a model for other industries.
  • Creating actionable knowledge that is both relevant and practical.
  • Engaging the understanding of academics who are shaping the minds of future leaders in business and society.
  • Providing valuable business insights and possible breakthroughs that are newsworthy.

Only Relevant Research

Back to the original premise about the stereotypical view of the irrelevance of academic research, when it comes to DSEF’s new research initiative—forget it! From the ground up, this program has been built to ensure a return on investment, that is, that the investment the foundation makes in a project will be certain to address topics identified by the industry as relevant, and that the resulting study will be written and disseminated to the industry in a usable, managerially friendly manner. Experience shows that when these two things happen, real strides in industry practices and performance occur. Now that’s practical research! DSN


Greg W. Marshall, Ph.D., is the Charles Harwood Professor of Marketing and Strategy in the Crummer Graduate School of Business at Rollins College, Winter Park, Fla. He serves as editor of the Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, which is dedicated toward linking academic research with best practices managerial application. Marshall is a member of the Direct Selling Education Foundation Board of Directors.