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Agile Research: Mindset or Method?

Lean startup principles originally centered on the concept of a minimum viable product – a proof of concept. Applying market research validated learning with an eye toward marketing automation, however, represents a new and novel application of lean business practices.



By Ryan Barry

According to Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, lean thinking answers the following question: “What is the least amount of resources I can devote to this question in order to validate my core hypothesis?”

Lean startup principles originally centered on the concept of a minimum viable product – a proof of concept. Applying market research validated learning with an eye toward marketing automation, however, represents a new and novel application of lean business practices. The core tenet is as simple as it is powerful – build-measure-learn. For marketing, insight, and innovations departments, these principles can be used to arrive at minimum viable insights.


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Testing is not a four-letter word

One all-too-common approach in insights departments is to go through the development process and test only a handful of preferred versions before launch, or not even to test because traditional research tools are too slow. Meanwhile, you may have turned your back on a truly resonant idea, like Apple nearly did with their iconic iPod silhouette campaign.

It’s not surprising that when we visit with Fortune 500 companies the mere mention of the word ‘test’ is taboo, like wearing Puma sneakers to a meeting at adidas. We, the market research industry, have ourselves to blame. Testing historically has been done as a blind pass or fail. Good students know exactly what they will get on the test as soon as they hand it in because they have done the work. In reality, over 70% of new CPG products fail within the first year and a majority of the advertisements on TV fail to break through the noise because we have not been studying. If we bring the consumer to our board tables and into our marketing and creative departments early and often we will know with statistical confidence that we will pass the test because we have done our homework.

In the case of creative, especially, it makes economic sense to move testing up-funnel. Products like Millward Brown’s LinkNow let you pay for validated learning regarding your core assumptions around creative so you make informed decisions as to which ideas to bet on:

  • Does it make economic sense to earmark the same or greater spend only for the final cut stage of your creative development process?
  • What if all of the iterations you’re considering fail to resonate with audiences?
  • What if a discarded, outside-of-the-box idea held unrealized potential?

Evaluating multiple ideas early and often will give you a better chance of identifying the execution that truly resonates with your target consumer.

Minimum Viable Insight

The true value of constant, iterative analysis is the improved executions you will generate. At each iteration, you derive the minimum viable insight that allows you to move the creative, innovation, or new product through to its next iteration, until you arrive at the ideal execution.

This is why the agile mindset is so key. You need to know when to be lean, when to say that an insight is good enough, and also when to dive deep to get at the core of understanding the impact your execution will have on your business. Cost savings in research, media, and development spend are ancillary The true value in your business adopting the agile research mindset comes from inviting the consumer into the process throughout, and knowing that what you do will not just move the needle with them, but blow it up!

What should a good ad look like?

We’ve all seen groupthink. Maybe it’s too many notes from the studio in the runup to a big budget movie. Maybe it’s an overly polished line in a politician’s stump speech. Or maybe it’s a new product launch that debuts to crickets on the market, a Crystal Pepsi for the digital age.

In each scenario, the shared misstep occurred long before the market spoke. Not testing early and often hamstrings your business, leaving it without certain ideas that might have better resonated with your core audience. Had you tested from the start, along the way you would have focused your spend on the creative that had passed some hurdle of quality, rather than trying to reshape irrelevant creative through focus group feedback.

In other words, you would already have proved the business case in support of each proposed piece of creative, or new product. Your market research spend therefore would be more efficient, and your subsequent learning would allow you to iterate on and improve already-relevant creative.

Would you rather spend $27,000 for the in-depth testing of just a handful of final cuts, and some number of man hours pulling together your findings into a polished, digestible presentation only to find out that you don’t have a single good option in the bunch? Or would you rather spend some significantly smaller sum to gauge many ideas at an earlier stage of development, so that you identify those ideas that most strongly resonate with your customers’ expectations? We might as well ask if you’d rather start on third base.

The Power of Iteration

The steps you take are clearly defined in any validated learning process.

You start with the exploration phase, centered on customer interviews and surveys. Exploration generates broad insight into the market’s expectations for and reactions to your various creative.

From exploration you progress to the pitch – asking a potential customer for something in exchange for you solving a specific problem they have.

The final step in your evaluation is the concierge service – you deliver your pitch with as little overhead as possible, to as few customers as possible, until they’re giddy with your product.

Each element – exploration, pitch, and concierge – is integral to true validated learning. Each step must be undertaken in order. Each step increases the total cost of your market research and creative development. And each step is best suited to a particular stage of your creative development process.

Analyzing your creative throughout the development process will protect you against catastrophic failure on the scale of New Coke, M. Night Shyamalan movies, and Homer Simpson-designed luxury automobiles. That’s how agile research breaks down barriers to doing market research.


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You’ll have proved, ahead of the investment of scaling up to deliver your idea to a broad audience, that your idea is a winner. It will be like taking an open-book final exam – meanwhile, your competition doesn’t even know there’s a test today.

At its core, any business decision is about achieving the greatest possible return for the least amount of risk and with the smallest possible investment. Think back to your days at university – sure, there were classes where you were able to roll in and ace a test. But how much more confident did you feel in those other instances, when you’d diligently reviewed your notes, read the textbook, and gone to the study sessions?

The goal for a modern creative department or agile marketing team, then, must be to collect information on how their output is perceived from as many potential customers as possible, as quickly and for as little money as possible.

What would such “holy grail” look like? It would be a standardized survey that can be implemented quickly, with results available in hours, not weeks. If you would like to find out if such a holy grail exists, or if you just want to continue the debate and discussion further, feel free to email me at [email protected]

Ryan Barry is the Senior Vice President for ZappiStore North America. He recently completed his term as President of the New England MRA and his passion about the market research is its ability to drive real business impact. Outside of his market research life, he runs a dog walking business with his wife Gillian.

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