The Future of Insights: Putting Customers’ Creative Minds to Work

Everyone in business today recognizes that consumers have more options than ever to create the products, services, and experiences they want – with or without the help of big brands. Customer disloyalty is rising; and by collaborating through social and digital technology – the emerging sharing economy – people are bypassing traditional manufacturing and distribution models all together.

Consumers have more power today, too, to bypass or simply elude market researchers. We struggle to engage consumers in traditional research surveys. We are frustrated by our inability to predict customer behavior accurately, which is rapidly evolving and seems infinitely diverse. We are excited by the promise and potential of big data, but we also acknowledge that insight functions don’t entirely own big data, or dictate how our organizations analyze, interpret, and act upon it.

These themes shaped much of the conversation at the Market Research Exchange conference, which I attended and presented at last week. One conference delegate summarized our presentation discussion by emphasizing that, “It’s more about them [the customer] than us these days.” Another noted, after an excellent presentation by Visa on how the company reduced a lengthy brand tracking survey to four simple questions, that the results of the short, mobile survey (which were similar, but not identical, to the long version) were not necessarily less “true.” Reality has shifted: we write emails differently on our phones than we did on PCs ten years ago; switching attention from screen to screen is the new “normal” (a presentation by Innerscope Research found that Millennials do so every 127 seconds); and consumers continue to invent ways to engage with companies on their own terms, or not at all.

Why, then, do we persist in trying to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s tools? I am specifically referring to our incremental and time-consuming efforts to broadly apply self-report survey methodology. The ultimate purpose of survey research is to predict behavior, but we actually have far more creative, efficient, and accurate ways of doing this. Through biometrics, methods derived from behavioral economics, “gamification,” and big data we can measure, manipulate, and monitor consumers to reveal their preconscious biases and emotions – and to observe their actions – in near real-time. Particularly, when it comes to testing advertising and marketing effectiveness, are surveys really the best tool for the job?

Our customers’ time and energy is a precious resource, after all. They give us their attention and help at their discretion and for their own enjoyment. It is far more respectful of consumers’ time – and their inherent creativity and intelligence – to invite them to co-create the future with us on an ongoing basis, as opposed to administering them one-off (often lengthy) surveys as a never-perfect proxy for predicting the next big breakthrough.

The good news is that we have the tools and technology today to engage consumers in much more innovative and inventive ways – ways that put their passion, energy, and creativity to work for brands.  For example, by working with a community of consumers to explore the complex and evocative qualities of scent, we helped a health and beauty client create a sub-line extension of one of their major fragrance brands. We used multiple methods to get there: community members shared videos and pictures, they wrote stories, they captured intriguing scents via mobile ethnography, and they discovered new associations through a creative mind-map activity. Engaging consumers throughout the product development process in these unique ways allowed our client to innovate faster – with consumers deeply entrenched in the process, ideation and concepting took one third of the time than it would have taken otherwise. The richness of the content and the strength of the insights gave our client the confidence to skip a round of qualifying quantitative work, and launch sales of the new fragrance exceeded forecasts.

How is big data innovating the role of consumer insights and market research? This conference-ending question, posed by Macy’s SVP, Consumer Insights and Strategy, Tim Teran, generated a great deal of lively discussion at my small table. As a group, we concluded that big data (and all the other amazing methods and technologies we are developing) will ultimately be one tool – not the only tool – in our ever-expanding insights toolbox. Consumer insights professionals can create the most value by working with customers to co-create new products, services, and experiences. And they can use that customer knowledge to inform and inspire action across the business.

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