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How Can We Bring Back the Edge in Market Research and Insights in a World of Turmoil?

From the start of InSites Consulting, there has been only one constant: we are continuously pushing the boundaries of market research. As one of the top 5 most innovative market research agencies in the world (GRIT), we empower people to shape the future of brands.

The world is in turmoil, politically, economically, socially, technically. While change and turmoil are universal, the difference now is that the gaps between the current and the new are extreme and opposite. This spread has not spared the marketing insights industry either.

We have moved from a business reality characterized by linearity, craftmanship and scarcity to one defined by acceleration (e.g. of decision making), automation (e.g. of services) and abundance (e.g. of data). This leads to a commoditization of marketing insights as we know it and has put the power with data technologists, data scientists and data engineers. Marketers and insight professionals have failed to keep pace. Market research has lost its edge and true insights may no longer be perceived as bringing a competitive edge for brands and executives.

Tweetaway: Have insights lost their competitive edge due to the commoditization of #mrx? by @Niels_InSites via @Greenbook #ESOMAR #stateofmr #newmr

While proponents of current evolutions will say this leads to faster and cheaper insights, critics will claim it puts quality, creativity and even innovation at risk. True, plain commoditization may lead to a loss of the skill of interpreting human behavior, big data may lead to a false sense of security that executives know everything and know it well. But the worst that can happen, however, is that critics hopelessly defend themselves and lose track of the real ball: human understanding and collaboration.

So how do we deal with and lead in turmoil, gauge underlying emotions and motivations of (dis)affected target groups and translate these into the business of research? How can we bring back the edge in market research and insights?

Tweetaway: How can we bring back the edge in #mrx in a world of turmoil by @Niels_InSites via @Greenbook #ESOMAR #stateofmr #newmr

The answer may be easier to give than to put into practice, but let’s give it a try. Overall it boils down to showing leadership and communication. Market research and insights can create an EDGE by means of adopting a strategy of Earning, Digesting, Gluing and Envisioning.

1. EARN the attention of all stakeholders through engagement. Researchers need to step into the frontline and ban long and boring surveys. We need to encourage executives to adopt snappy surveys which are not only appealing independent of the devices they are completed on but also generate better and more contextual data.

In the structural Innovation Brewhouse community we run for Heineken with over 300 interested and interesting consumers across 10 countries (the US, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Spain, Vietnam, Mexico, the UK, Poland, Brazil and France), experiments were performed with both human chat and chat bots. These modern communication tools have shown to earn the attention of consumers as a vehicle for joyfully generating good and more illustrative data. When using WhatsApp, participants were significantly more conversational and showed much higher bonding (21%). Whereas the overall conclusions (between control group and chat experiments) were largely the same, chat discussions help recommendations to be more tangible and actionable. During a study on the current usage of a new liquid format Heineken is working on and on the different use cases they saw for it in the future, participants provided up to three times more concrete real-life examples of ingredients they would like to have added to their beverages. This is very useful for R&D departments that are developing new products.

In addition, Artificially Intelligent chat bots were found to be fun and trustworthy (e.g. 9/10 average satisfaction score) and we discovered that people ‘tolerate’ more from bots. Bots led to a higher completion of the topic guides to start with. Next, we found that where humans may have disengaged, bots were excellent agents for fusing open-ended questions at scale with closed-ended questions. While bots generate more descriptive, shorter and less rich qualitative textual comments, they do generate more real-life consumer context with e.g. 40% more visuals and 30% more details on the ‘ideal product’ features in some of our studies. By the same token, it also makes moderators happy as they can focus on ‘value-added activities’ and bots amplify their intelligence.

2. DIGEST by means of streaming insights in agile ways, beyond speed only. Working in short, iterative cycles producing tiny insights in a do-learn mentality will fuel fast decision making, still leaving time for foundational studies whenever needed. To realize this as a daily business practice, it is important for insights professionals to often, if not unceasingly, communicate effectively about their work and become visible.

Bloomingdale’s recently launched Glowhaus in the US – the Millennial beauty store. The store was co-created with Millennials by means of our agile online community (Bloomindale’s Beauty Bar Square) that assisted Bloomingdale’s over 7 months, all the way up to launching the actual store and by applying the principles of KAIZEN. KAIZEN is the Japanese word for ‘continual improvement’ and is a mindset that dictates addressing large business challenges in small steps. Bloomingdale’s team was making iterative decisions on the go, while progressing to implement their strategy. Having a platform in support of such a program required a wide range of versatile mini-research studies: from shopping safari missions over ethnographies (tour of make-up bags) and video testimonials to surveys and social media research (using Instagram, YouTube) and even visits to the actual Glowhaus stores upon launch (inspiring sampling ideas and user experience tweaks).

The era of heavy foundational studies is long gone. The next big thing is a lot of small things: a river of tiny insights to solve urgent challenges as well as entail gradual learning. Glowhaus has now been launched in five locations, none of them identical. This allows for a perpetual beta mindset and improvement. A key success factor of this project has been the ability to connect the dots between all available data points. Glowhaus was awarded the WWD 2017’s Beauty Retailer of the Year.

3. GLUING different methods, data sources and teams is important for triangulation and a comprehensive understanding. If we wish to develop a solution focus, we need to start thinking of taking our participants through a series of activities and a research experience rather than methods and tools.

The American digital media and entertainment company Refinery29 wanted to obtain a deep understanding of the impact of the Refinery29 content on young women’s sales funnel. While passive measurement would be the natural answer to this, it was not a solution, for several reasons, e.g. complexity, cost and hard to execute in a fragmented media reality. In fact, it is a risk because it is very hard to find and understand specific proof points with these data. Still there was a need for a holistic picture.

Therefore, our research design focused on triangulating audience behavior and move from method to activity and journey thinking. We developed what we call a digital ethnography study in 3 parts. 1,500 participants completed a competitive readership survey and then a contextual storytelling task, i.e. telling us about a past purchase in fashion or beauty that featured one of the 4 use cases we selected, in as much detail as possible. Subsequently, 50 Refinery29 readers were selected from the survey pool to engage in a week-long ethnographical crowd interpretation exercise in which they interpreted and self-probed on their own described journeys. Connecting the dots by means of using different methods allowed us to see the Refinery29 reader through a new lens and understand that their purchases were actually a discovery first. During that discovery the trust in the Refinery29 brand and content showed to be a key contextual driver for moving people through their purchase journey.

4. ENVISION a long-term perspective of what your insights should add up to, in line with your brand’s bigger purpose. The plan for this success can be set up in several ways but building structural human connections with interesting and interested people is key. Program thinking is of utmost importance while ad-hoc approaches seem more a thing of the past.

Sony Pictures Television built a structural insight capability with InSites Consulting’s online community solution (the Consumer Consulting Square) with 2,000 UK consumers, consisting of a program of 29 studies. Such a long-term insight capability makes collecting the right consumer data second nature. It naturally creates ‘internal demand’ and while some studies are planned, many pop up by means of corporate social contagion. For example, production teams – which are of the ‘creative type’ – normally never do research but started to plan research along the way because of seeing others benefit and the speed with which things could be turned around. These studies would otherwise not have been performed and be missed opportunities for consumer-centric decision-making as the business goes forward. Such an insights capability also leads to higher proactivity and provides the business with insights that are linked directly to business-critical priorities.


For example, the Sony insight team is asked for updates on program ratings and industry news in ‘Monday morning’ meetings. These provide a dry and partial view of consumer reality. Therefore, an ongoing activity was launched on the Square that asked people to report their weekly watch & wish list and why. This group trend-watching helped provide an explanation as to ’why’ shows perform better or worse and provides a prediction of what was / is going to break through. Another example of matching the pace of the business was the Square being used to jazz up a sales pitch to be a content provider for a new to-be-set-up channel. In order to provide the Sony sales team with ammunition to enter the sales pitch, consumers were invited to come up with spontaneous associations related to the name of the new channel to be launched and to evaluate it overall. Coming into the pitch with such consumer feedback allowed the sales team to position itself as a strategic partner, to be more confident and motivated as well as to be perceived as more consumer-centric – not just sales-driven.

But not everything is fast-paced and in an age of acceleration, nothing is more exhilarating than going slowly. With populism reigning, Sony got signals that television plays a double role to help people deal with these darker times. On the one hand, dark drama like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad or House of Cards became very popular. Yet people seemed to also want light and fluffy content that makes them feel good, helps escape daily worries and allows them to unwind in the comfort of home. We validated this insight with the Square by means of a ‘slower fundamental’ piece of research which clearly confirmed the ‘Good Doctor’ being a good counterbalance for the more cynical shows already airing.


Tweetaway: #mrx can create an edge by Envisioning, Digesting, Gluing and Earning by @Niels_InSites via @Greenbook #ESOMAR #stateofmr #newmr

In short, in a world of turmoil (be it social, political or commercial), brands should create a strategic edge by putting insights and collaboration with their target groups at the heart of their business in versatile and agile ways.

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