By Tom Ewing
A is for Atlanta, host to this year’s IIeX North America, at the well-appointed Georgia Tech conference facility. IIeX is unlike any other conference – to the point where founder Lenny Murphy claims that it isn’t one, and you almost believe it. It’s a frenzied experience, with well over a hundred different presentations on four different tracks. To try and lasso this festival of content with a narrative, or even themes, wouldn’t do it justice. So I’m trying the alphabetical route to capture the sheer random fullness of the event.
B is for Brand Tracking. Which is broken, according to several speakers. The great engine of continuous research is in need of a severe overhaul – no argument there. Multiple talks offered their prescriptions for change. Jeff Reynolds of LRW looked forward to a disruption in tracking that would slash labor costs by 70% and allow both reinvestment in storytelling and analysis and significant cost savings. For Reynolds, the sweet spot lies somewhere between traditional tracking and social media listening. Larry Friedman of TNS used his final presentation of a 35-year career to go further – brand tracking is simply too slow, and needs to be demolished entirely. His preferred replacement? Something genuinely predictive based on social and search data.
C is for Collaboration. You can’t go far at an IIeX event without hearing about change and disruption. But these buzzwords mask a more subtle reality – lots of yesterday’s disruptor companies have matured and are now stretching themselves by collaboration. Sometimes these alliances can be a bit overstuffed with methods, but there was a good example from Revelation and Affectiva teaming up to give a nuanced read on ads for guys. As well as complementary insights, the collaboration had more immediate effect. One man went ballistic in the online community criticising a commercial – the kind of thing clients notice. But Affectiva’s webcam footage showed he’d never even seen the ad, being stuck under his desk at the time, looking for a dropped phone!
D is for Diversity. In a markedly hostile era of public and social speech, diversity can help bring people together by opening eyes up to different experiences of a shared problem like unemployment or parenting. That was the claim of Dr. Froswa’ Booker-Drew of World Vision, who shared her own experiences and dropped a little social science about the need to create “bridging” social capital (between different groups) not just “bonding” capital (within them). With modern marketing so bent on flattering our existing identities through targeting, this seems a valuable lesson – and a sadly tall order. With only 30% female speakers, IIeX has a diversity challenge of its own to tackle – though in other ways it truly excelled in presenting a range of global voices and varied backgrounds.
E is for Ethnography. A couple of years ago the spotlight was firmly on quant – getting to grips with big data, and crunching social sentiment. But the pendulum is swinging back, as qualitative and tech strike up a happy relationship thanks to the many tools that can capture the texture of how we live our lives and use brands. I saw several good case studies that included ethnographic work – Insites and Breyers showed how they’d captured the ritual of ice cream purchase and use, and Kelsey Saulsbury of Hallmark was positively gleeful about the insights her C_Space mobile ethnography had unearthed. Within qual work, ethnography seems particularly good for identifying distinctive assets – the meaningless, but vital, hooks a brand can own, like the smell of Play-Doh or Breyers’ black packaging.
F is for Facebook. Gone are the days when earnest discussions of “likes” would dominate marketing events. Now Facebook is just part of the background, but it’s still a goldmine of social data. The humble personality tests that infest it can find out more about you than even your mother knows, according to psychometrician Vess Popov of Cambridge University. Such deduction produces seven times greater ROI than normal targeting, Popov’s team claim, and is more discreet too. (Though the example given – deducing whether Hispanic men in their 40s are looking for same-sex relationshops, declared or otherwise – felt like an ethical minefield!)
G is for GRIT. IIeX is the home of the GRIT Report, and this year underlined how much it’s become industry currency. Every bag had a copy, and almost every presentation seemed to mention it, with presenters boasting onstage of their placings in the coveted Innovation rankings. As the Industry begins to care less about size and more about agility and momentum, Grit has become the 21st century version of the Honomichl rankings.
H is for Hacking. Hacking was introduced by Rolfe Swinton of Reality Mine as something research could do with a lot more of – a spirit of playful experimentation and discovery. Hear hear! Though during Swinton’s talk I felt the phrase had broken these boundaries a bit. Academic researchers publishing a paper don’t “hack” their data. They just analyse it, like the rest of us. Sexed-up vocab aside, Swinton is right – big projects nowadays are often improvised, problem-centric and need a lot of fusion of different sources. A bit of hackerish playfulness is surely a help.
I is for Implicit. Two or three years ago, the idea of System 1 needed painstaking explanation. Now, it’s taken for granted. That’s a good thing for those of us who believe the fast, intuitive side of our thinking calls the shots. But a new problem arises. How do you translate that into meaningful, scalable data? Implicit measurement looks set to hold the key. The ability to track unconscious reactions, and relate them to real behaviour, is set to be very valuable. Sentient Decision Science showed one way: their implicit methods combined with more traditional data to more accurately reflect views online of this year’s Super Bowl ads.
J is for June. In Atlanta. It was hot. And humid. Really humid. The choice of a rooftop venue for the event drinks certainly dealt with any lightweights. But help was at hand – no write-up would be complete without acknowledgement of the generous provision of water, soda and edibles by Georgia Tech Conference Center. And – even better – the wonderful ice lollies laid on by King of Pops. Who needs starchy official dinners when you have Mojito, Raspberry Lime and Salted Chocolate popsicles? Amidst the content frenzy, IIeX is always a place to hang out and have fun.
K is for Known Knowns. Research has always walked a tightrope between confirmation and revelation. At conferences, fresh and surprising insights used to be prized, and the counter-intuitive (but real) result was proof of research’s value. At this year’s IIeX the startling truths I learned included: bourbon is often consumed with Coke; mobile app users want notifications to be useful; and young people like the idea they’ll be promoted a lot. These findings had something in common: they’d all been derived from exciting new methods, or new combinations of methods. You might say this is the risk a tech-centred conference runs, but it’s hardly unique to IIeX. There’s a temptation to focus on the method and not worry too much if the results are interesting. But we should remember that tech is most exciting when it tells us what we don’t already know!
L is for Listening. Nobody doubts how important listening is to a modern brand, and social listening programs are part of almost every marketing manager’s toolkit. The next step, according to startup Ditto Labs, is visual listening. Ditto – whose presentation was one of my favourites of the event – mine photos on Twitter, Tumblr and other sources for brands. People are visual communicators more and more, and Ditto are well placed to extend listening into the world of the image. They focused on how brands cluster together in images. For instance, take all the people with Coca-Cola in their visual feeds – what other brands crop up? Some answers were obvious, some weren’t – the software detected clusters of linked brands, shedding a valuable light on networks of consumption. It seemed to me the results mostly backed up the Robert Ehrenberg school of marketing science: that “loyalty” as a marker of brand strength is severely overrated, and people are mostly quite promiscuous in their brand choice. But they also showed the power of sponsorship and celebrity endorsements to get brands’ distinctive visual assets seen and captured on image. This was the best kind of IIeX presentation – important new tech that’s delivering intriguing results already.
M is for Mobile Survey Score. Remember when every year seemed to be the “year of mobile”? Well, the decade of mobile happened, and research is trying to catch up. Experiments with mobile abound, but not all of them have the user’s interests at heart. Surveys in particular are still tough to implement on mobile, and as we all know, bad surveys mean bad data. Does the future lie in apps, passive data, and so on? Maybe, but meanwhile our respondents want to answer our surveys on mobile – and soaring mobile response levels show they’ll do it whether we’ve designed them that way or not. That was the gist of Research Now’s presentation on the Mobile Survey Score, an excellent initiative that grades every survey for user-friendliness. Want to get a high mark? Junk the grids, for a start.
N is for New. Let’s face it, you go to IIeX not just to get a feel for where the industry is, but where it’s going to be next. Central to every IIeX is the competition for new start-ups, pitching their innovative ideas to an eager audience. This year’s winner, Fetch Rewards, has a typically modest aim: to completely disrupt the world of sales data by taking power away from stores and their till rolls and giving it back to the consumer. Let Fetch know what you’ve bought, and get rewards. Panel clashes meant I missed the contest, but congratulations to Fetch and their ambition – and I look forward to hearing how they manage at a future conference.
O is for Online Communities. My first ever conference presentation was about online communities, back when they were the hottest topic going, so I couldn’t resist a panel asking “Are They Still Innovative?” Andrew Leary of Ipsos GMX didn’t quite convince me they were, but he persuaded me that they were cheap, flexible, and seen to be useful. All of which are probably more valuable than innovation in the long run. The event was studded with demonstrations of their use, by the big names in the community space like InSites and C_Space (formerly Communispace). Online Communities are one of the big success stories of “new market research”, and it’s good to see there’s still so much room for them at a future-focused event.
P is for Panelists. Lurking within the 2014 GRIT Consumer Participation In Research report are some uncomfortable truths about online panellists, presented at IIeX by Grant Miller of RIWI. The report looked at “fresh” participants – those who don’t take many surveys – and “frequent” ones – those who do. There were big differences, particularly when it came to the rest of their online activity. It turns out the brave new consumer world of online shopping, enthusiastic social engagement with brands, and post-TV entertainment might be magnified by who joins our panels. Oh, and they’re also a little more socially liberal on some issues. Not surprising when you think about it, but still sobering. It suggests we’re at risk of over-hyping the pace of consumer change. Our job is to represent consumers as they are, not as we’d like them to be. Kudos to GRIT for commissioning this important research.
Q is for Quick. On the modern research event bingo card, a special place exists for the “Faster, Better Cheaper” triangle – and the claim that now we can have all three. Maybe, maybe not. What’s certain is that the “faster” end is making great strides, and the flagship brands of ‘agile research’, like Gutcheck and ZappiStore, were out in force at IIeX. To be useful, as TNS’ Kris Hull put it, research has to move at the tempo of business, and ‘agile research’ is forcing the pace. Agile is one of those buzzwords, like ‘lean’, ‘disruptive’ and ‘growth hacking’, which has filtered down through multiple layers of tech, marketing and innovation discourse before finding its way to research. Ironically, we’re actually rather late to the ‘agile’ idea. But better late than never.
R is for Religion. IIeX attracts evangelists for change, and there was a religious cast to some of the more fevered presentations, like the passionate “Innovate Or Die” by Shane Skillen of Hotspex. Innovation has its credo – change; it has its familiar parables – like Kodak and Instagram; and it has dire warnings for those doubters who give less than 100%. It also has a saint – Steve Jobs, whose example was the inspiration for one of the most seductive presentations of the event, by Dr Mark Goulston. His secret to innovation – back-of-a-beermat simple though it is – came on the back of some softly-spoken storytelling about not just Jobs but Goulston’s own past life as a therapist and suicide counsellor. (The secret in question? “Whoa! Wow. Hmmm… Yes.” OK, you really had to be there. Or buy the book.)
S is for Sales Pitches. IIeX is a commercial event, and it’s always had a place for talented companies and paying sponsors pitching their wares. But there were also rumblings of discontent at some of the more blatant sales pitching happening, unannounced, in the middle of the main tracks. Ironically, the problem isn’t even the pitches – it’s the content-stuffed nature of the event. If you’re wasting time watching an advertorial, you’re missing at least three other things! As founder Lenny Murphy says, IIeX is still learning – and I’d stress there’s still more content than in two other events its size. So, an appeal to presenters and sponsors – if you’re on the stage, don’t just tell us about yourselves. These days we tear into commercial brands who only broadcast sales messages – why should we be any different?
T is for Taking Stock. We are several years into a supposed research revolution, and as honest researchers, we realise it’s time to take stock of what’s working. There were state-of-the-nation presentations on online communities, behaviour change, and agile research. And from TNS’ Kris Hull came an excellent talk asking, quite simply, why hasn’t the change really taken off yet? His answers lay in the industry’s failure to really grasp partnership with clients. As he pointed out, there’s not even a shared language. When clients hear “innovation”, they think “faster and cheaper”. When agencies say it, they mean “upfront investment”.
U is for Uber. From 2008 to around 2011, the most cited company at research conferences was Facebook. From 2012 to 2014, it’s been Google, thanks to their Consumer Surveys product and projects like Glass. This year, the most mentioned tech firm was transportation company Uber. Its bold business model, customer-centric approach and most of all its sky-high growth were all praised. In an age of disruption, Uber’s assault on industry norms serves as a beacon. If there’s an Uber in research, we heard, it’s probably Zappistore, a previous IIeX innovation winner whose low-cost, high-automation research has seen enviable growth rates. How long will the Uber admiration last? Just as the conference ended, news came through of a legal ruling that might mean Uber drivers are classed as employees after all, with all the expenses and benefits that entailsd. So perhaps there’s another Uber lesson for research, this time in its relationship with the people it relies on: treat ‘em right, or else be made to.
V is for Vanishing Point. IIeX started with a pair of great keynotes – Kristin Luck setting the scene with words on the pace of change and the need for agility (that word again!) and then J Walker Smith of The Futures Company talking about spotting opportunities within change. Smith’s talk was about the “Vanishing Point” – by looking for things that are going away, rather than things that are coming in, we get a much more accurate read on change. His example was the rise in single living – the source of much hand-wringing from commentators who see it as a rising trend gnawing at the bonds of society, blah blah blah. Not so, said Smith. What’s actually happening isn’t that single living is rising, but that early marriage is going away. People are marrying later, which creates a bubble of young single-ness, but the single living ‘trend’ has a ceiling. By understanding things that way round, new opportunities present themselves. This was probably the single most useful idea of IIeX for me: don’t look at the new coming in, you’ll just get it wrong. Look at the old going away.
W is for Why. It’s the question at the heart of research: why? But is it the right one? A few presentations, BrainJuicer’s among them – preferred to ask “How?”. Whether “How” applies to research – how do we use this? – or to people – “How are they buying, choosing and doing things?” – the question puts the emphasis on action, not on introspection. Why leads to post-rationalisation. How leads to change. Of course, Why? Isn’t going away. The dose of introspection research can provide is too unique and too valuable for that. But it works best when allied to How.
X is for Xtras. (Sorry!) IIeX is many things – a conference, a trade fair, but also a research carnival, and what’s a carnival without its sideshows? This year we had the traditional virtual reality booth from LRW – which continues to bring the wow factor – but also a photobooth and the inaugural “IIeX Games”. This was a gamified way of getting people to visit as many of the exhibitors and take in as much content as possible – you scanned in QR codes and racked up points. Special mention also to Dataga.me Labs and their complete choose your own adventure book, given away in the event bag. As a sometime writer of marketing goodies, I was in awe of their effort!
Y is for Young People. There was, of course, plenty of mention of the M-Word. No, not mobile. The other one. If you’d installed the excellent browser extension that replaces “millennials” with “snake people” then congratulations! Your IIeX Twitter experience would have been a very entertaining one. But – especially as they grow older and the mystique wears off a bit – research on millennials often just turns into plain old research, bad or good. Scotchgard presented a fine qualitative case study which started off as a quest for millennial approval but ended up with a full-scale exploration of what the furniture protection brand means. It seemed to me like they started off chasing a segment, and ended up with a better understanding of the whole market. Which isn’t too surprising, as “millennials” turn out to be just “people” after all.
Z is for Zero. If, as Robert C. Moran informed us on Wednesday, society is becoming a “rateocracy” in which everything will be scored by everyone, then a mark of zero can really mess you up. Luckily, IIeX scores rather more than that. (To nick the rating scale of music site Pitchfork, I’d give it 8.5 – Best New Event). The best thing about IIeX is the sheer density of it – new talks every twenty minutes across four tracks. You might have got to the end of this and recognised almost nothing I’ve written about, and that’s the beauty of this sprawling, overheated, delightful monster of an event. Well done to all the presenters, organisers, and staff.