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Business Intelligence and Analytics: Outshining Insights?

I do think that BI, shopper insights and web analytics are in line to outshine Consumer Insights. It’s understandable in a world of ROI, measurement, operational excellence.

Business intelligence


By Edward Appleton

Are Business Intelligence and Analytics Outshining Insights?

It’s a question that has been going through my mind for a while. The apparent insights-shift over the past few years to the “harder” behavioural area of shopper data, sales data, web data seems to be redefining what Insights Management is fundamentally about. Are Shopper/ BI/ Analytics taking centre stage?

If yes, the rationale is simple: the “harder” sales/share/forecasting disciplines – Analytics in the broadest sense –  deliver operationally impactful findings, immediately and measurably useful to sales strategy and execution.

Consumer insights can – in contrast – appear fluffier, longer-term, with nice-to-have data-points.

But is “Analytics” where the core of Insights really belongs – at the coal-face of operational excellence? Isn’t the transformational power that insights can unleash better positioned at Board Level, where strategy decisions are made?

Without wishing to sound overly idealistic or naive, I’d argue that we’re witnessing Insights being repositioned, with potentially wide ranging consequences. Here’s my take.

1. Measurement replaces Imagination and Foresight

The ROI of shopper data is easily measured – relatively straightforward data mining can easily highlight areas of under- or over performance, and then a drill-down to pack sizes, flavours, whatever leads to operational actionability.

The same is true in a different way for web analytics – clicks are clicks, but more on in that in a second.

Shopper insights improves efficiency – with sales management a strong internal customer.

The downside is that insights easily becomes a reactive force – sales calls, Insights jumps – with capacity used by tactical analyses, and little time or remit to think more broadly or pro-actively.

It’s a challenge – and within a world characterised by downward pressure on budgets, it’s one I don’t see changing fast.

2. Web Analytics – Marketing or Insights Tool?

How often have you sat through a presentation where web analytics are presented as hugely, immensely successful – millions of hits here, massive growth there, best-ever there. Sometimes presented by the Agency responsible for web execution.

It’s often euphoric stuff – and welcomed by a marketing mindset looking for success stories. It can be mistaken for, or presented as, solid evidence.

Challenging this narrative for competitive web benchmarks, checking to see if different KPIs have shifted at the same time as a given web campaign – this call is the remit of the Insights department, which has no interest in a success-biased outcome.

Speaking up here is partly a skill-sets issue, requiring a certain confidence in the language of the web, an understanding of web measurement tools. It’s a challenge the Insights function, digitally-native or otherwise, needs to rise to.

3. Trends, Culture and Innovation Research are as Important as Analytics

Some areas critical to established or strongly growing brands are not captured by traditional KPIs or analytics, predictive or otherwise. They are “softer”, before-the-curve stuff.

Examples: the trend-setting groups, reacting first to an emerging Zeitgeist; successful start-ups that only have local distribution but are a hit in their area. The new business payment model that is spreading wildly in a different geography. On the radar screen?

These sort of activities are easily-sacrificable in budget-reduction phases as not business-critical. Understandable in a sense – but there are clear dangers in present-focus bias in times where businesses both crumble and grow faster than ever before in history.

Securing budgets for foresights activities can be best addressed by sensitising key stakeholders to the value with a mix of arguments – competitive examples, case studies, hypothesis building, anecdotal evidence.

So back to my original question – yes, I do think that BI, shopper insights and web analytics are in line to outshine Consumer Insights. It’s understandable in a world of ROI, measurement, operational excellence.

I’d counter-argue that a balanced Insights angle needs to be at least as forward thinking as it is operationally effective. The Consumer Insights function needs to value hypothesis-driven thinking, accepting the more qualitative as admissible evidence, the forward-thinking as valid, trend monitoring as powerful.

The rationale is simple: to ensure that a business can spotlight and react to potentially interesting or disruptive patterns before they become a stronger force.

If Insights departments become machines narrowly servicing operational efficiency, sooner or later the function will be repositioned in the value chain.

Curious, as ever, as to others’ views.

Please share...

8 responses to “Business Intelligence and Analytics: Outshining Insights?

  1. Hi Edward

    Good points to raise. I think some of the answers lie in understanding how a company defines it’s planning horizons for it’s business, and the decisions and processes.

    Digital and analytics’s data tends not to be strategic and are about short term campaign level responses and performance. This is where the “business” happens and results are more measurable( well quantified at least). To some extent at this time horizon human interpretation and imagination is the last thing you need. It is the domain of automation.

    Foresight does not rely on data so much as there are no facts about the future. It;s abut being explicit about assumptions of how the market will work and shift and what this means for the company. The problem here is picking out the relevant information to pay attention to…and relate it to the businesses longer term goals. Some companies just do not make time for this, of cannot get beyond the collection of interesting information and opinions. There is little siftware and synthesis tools out there to help do the heavy lifting (The may be an idicator of the direction things could go).

    I agree the balance has been shifting to the short term, probably driven by need to produce short term results. At some point though businesses need to raise there heads and look forward. My worry is will the skills to do this available, as to do properly it needs time – something business these days is not willing to give it?

    Hope you are well


  2. Edward/Martin, very timely conversation. Shaping Tomorrow were among the first to begin collecting Insights (raw scan hits) but yesterday at our system development meeting we made an easy to do but big decision to demote these on our site in favour of our new flagship ‘ automated future indiicators’ system. Insights will now sit behind the Indicators as evidence and not be seen in their own right. They are now totally automated save a small piece of back-end editing time and since we are collecting 200 per day its impossible for anyone to read them For us, this is moving us up the value chain from data and information to knowledge and wisdom which we have now succeded indoing using AI.
    Insights as we we knew them are now dead except to generate higher level knowledge so i agree with Edward’s assertiion and can see this process accelerating across all trending work.

  3. HI Edward and Martin:

    Very interesting topic! Listening to clients it would seem that business intelligence and analytics are the focus of most decision processes because they are real time and quantifiable. The interesting thing is that by solving the short term, a lot of businesses are now beginning to focus on more long term strategy. The prevailing thought would be that with the ability to monitor critical activities we can solve bigger problems, kind of like triage in the emergency room where you stabilize the patient and then decide how to treat the condition.

    I think it is almost a given that companies will resolve to limit insights within a more qualitative function but that is not a bad thing (unless you are a quant vendor). Consumers have always been a diverse lot and not we are just beginning to understand how diverse. Many assumptions of “like” thinking are now being proven wrong and perhaps the real answers lie in understanding core values and how lifestyle changes (good and bad) introduce new relationships and opportunities for the use of new products and services. It seems more like we are reaching a point where reality is painting a picture of diversity in many lights and in doing so creating many new opportunities.

  4. Martin, Ellen, thanks both for your comments

    @Martin – I share your concern about companies’ being reluctant to invest adequately in the longer term, but to a certain extent can share that attitude. Gazing into the future is often a highly dubious business, with actual sight so limited that the outputs can be of limited value. My expereince is that very senior and experienced managers tend to take it upon themselves to predict the future, based on their knowledge of an industry and the competitive/customer situation – this can be fine if the wisdom of one is fab, but slightly less so if that one person turns out to be wrong.

    @ellen – your point about accepting diversity and change is an interesting one, as it throws up immediately the challenges on traditional supply chains to deliver or execute. Legacy operations are often inflexible, and supply chain goals often simply driven by cost reduction rather than speed-to-market (horrible generalisation, so I salute people who can help amplify this). Maybe we’re getting there with stuff like DIFY solutions, 3 D printers, facial recognition technology (in the area of marketing comms at least). The danger I see for research is that our vision – and dare I say it – language can come across as a tad woolly, idealistic, and far-from-the-madding-crowd jostling of the front line that is sales and operations. As such, our credentials to be true advisors need boosting.

  5. @Martin – I agree that MR is often out of sync with what an organization believes/knows to be true. While the information is most often correct, at least to the response base and responses, it has many levels of bias. In the days before other measurements were readily available, it carried more weight because it was “more” accurate than guessing and to be honest, people of all types were more interested in being surveyed.

    Today, opinions, accolades and bad experiences are on display 24/7 and there is certainly no shortage of people with ideas. What is really needed is a way to harness and distill that information for use as a baseline. Rolling sat/loyalty is on display, perhaps in content more like an IVR but it’s there. With cameras rolling continuously by both consumer and surveillance, there is really no reason to ask a lot of questions. It’s no wonder that consumers are perplexed by a need for surveys when, for them, the answers are at their fingertips. If I want to know where to shop, what stores to avoid and whether a product is worth buying, I can find that information with a few seconds.

    I can identify trends, styles, colors that are “in” and limit my shopping to those parameters if I am in a mass market mode (and I do). More importantly, shoppers have much more confidence in their preferences these days. For better or worse, consumers can find like minded people via the Internet and can share their solutions and ideas. That pretty much destroys the concept of demographic podding as least with regard to similar purchases.

    The real juxtaposition though is companies want to sell products and services and consumers want to buy products and services but marketers have evolved into a business service that wants to replace mass marketing measurements with mass thought measurements. It’s removed from the root goal and because it’s not consistent (people change) the data is often not informative to the cause. It’s about the money. It’s always about the money in business. That means MR value is in understanding how products and services fit into the picture, not how to change the picture. MR can provide value and have equity if they are willing to be a part of the solution but it’s not likely they or any other technique will be relied on solely in the future.

  6. “Checking to see if different KPIs have shifted at the same time as a given web campaign”

    This methodology should be applied to more than just web analytics. Over time goals change, focus gets shifted. It’s important to understand that your KPIs aren’t always set in stone, and that there are sometimes outliers that will have an impact not only on data, but on overall business success.

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