The future role of consumer insights: How to lead your team to success

Ryan Barry, President

Technology continues to advance and AI capabilities are evolving on a daily basis. Combine this with budget constraints and the need for businesses to gain a competitive advantage and it’s clear that now is a great time to ensure your team is riding the wave of change to shift and elevate the role of insights within your organization.

I’ve met with many incredible insights leaders who are leaning into these changes and leading their teams to success now and in the future. In this article, I’ll share my biggest takeaways from those conversations. 

Consumer centricity as a competitive advantage

The future of consumer insights starts with a key principle: The role of insights teams isn’t to own the consumer, it’s to enable consumer centricity across the whole organization

That means your team’s role isn’t to single-handedly run all the research in the business or to control access to consumer data. It’s to help and empower people across the organization use meaningful consumer insights where and when they need them, so they make the best, consumer-oriented decisions. 

Your team can provide the competitive advantage of today: True consumer centricity

Insights teams of the past: Managing projects

I’ve heard from countless insights leaders over the years who have complained that their teams are spending too much time acting as project managers: writing briefs, reading RFPs, choosing between vendors and building deck after deck to share the insights with the organization. Decks which most often were used as a pass/fail at the end of a long development process and often couldn’t be acted upon constructively.    

This isn’t an effective use of an insights manager’s time. It doesn’t make the most of their incredible curiosity, strategic vision and analytical thinking skills — and it limits the impact of consumer centricity within the organization. Plus, these are not activities that will ensure your team’s success in the future. 

There is an opportunity now to change what your team does to drive success across the whole organization. That’s important, because there are a few factors that tell us this type of role might not exist in just a few years: 

  1. Automated market research platforms (like Zappi) have existed for the last decade, and are increasingly being adopted by even the largest and least agile organizations. These platforms automate much of the project management tasks.

  2. Artificial intelligence is poised to take over even more of the insights manager’s job. AI has the ability to craft surveys in seconds, interpret data, tell a concise story, and more. 

  3. Cost pressures are affecting insights headcount and budgets. Companies are asking insights teams to do more with less. If insights teams remain the sole owners of market research, they will be the bottleneck that prohibits the organization from making consumer-centric decisions.

That’s why we need to envision a different future for insights. 

Insights teams of the future: Informing strategy

The future role of the insights function involves setting the business up to access consumer insights when they need them — not owning the data and running all research themselves. In a future where any non-expert can make use of AI and automated technology to run basic research projects, your team (in its current form) is no longer needed. 

But their curiosity, analytical mindset and objective consumer-centric skills are still important and, with a change in their day to day roles, they will be able to flourish and have greater impact than ever.

Here are the big changes I’ve seen some of the most progressive organizations making right now to set their teams and organizations up for the future: 

1. Democratizing data and empowering others to run research

Democratized consumer data is the future of truly consumer-centric organizations.

Democratization can cover two general areas: 1) The ability for the entire organization to access all the consumer research that exists and 2) the ability for non-researchers to run their own research

All your consumer research must now exist digitally in a way that is accessible by the whole organization time and time again. If it’s hard to find or access consumer insights, your organization isn’t set up to be consumer centric. If it’s significantly easier to make a gut-based decision than it is to track down a consumer data point, that’s what your organization is likely to do. 

But it’s not just access to data that matters, it’s reconsidering the role of insights in running new research. 

Simple, well-defined and often repeated types of market research (like copy testing or concept testing) are what insights teams can empower others to run systematically and correctly in the future. 

Technology already exists (and will continue to get more sophisticated) to allow non-experts to run this type of research. Guardrails can be set up to standardize processes and allow non-experts to run consistent and correct research, and AI will be used more and more for the analysis and interpretation of the data so there’s no risk of marketers misinterpreting data, taking the wrong decisions or letting their biases affect their view of the results.

There is a key role for the insights team in this democratization process, but it’s more about enabling others to run successful research than it is about conducting the research themselves. Research expertise is required to: 

  • Select the research providers, which includes vetting the research quality and methodological rigor these providers bring to the table, as well as how quick and easy they are for non-researchers to use and interpret results from.

  • Set up smart defaults that give marketers appropriate guardrails (such as the audiences they can select, brand lists and consistent questions they must use across projects to measure the brand strategy). This provides rigor and minimizes effort and time.

  • Sell the change internally and train marketers on how to effectively use new technology. In my experience, marketing teams are excited by the opportunity to get consumer-centric insights so they can iterate on ideas quickly and create ads and products that grow the brand and their reputation. But it does take the right internal rollout to make it a reality.

I’ve seen many leaders who are heading in this direction, but one organization I’m particularly impressed by is Pernod Ricard — they’ve proven that democratization is achievable and leads to success.

What we needed to do was transform the perception of the role of insights from a doer that provides support, to a strategic partner to the different key stakeholders. And for that, we first needed for the local insights team to be able to focus their time on more strategic projects and not be drowning with very recurrent simple tasks.

Jennifer Picard, Head of Centre of Excellence for Mix Optimization at Pernod Ricard

This democratization process is critical because when the marketing team can be self-sufficient in appropriate areas, the insights team will be free to do more of the higher value work that does need research expertise and can’t be done by marketing — as I’ll explain in the next two sections.

2. Helping the business “know what it knows” 

When your insights team isn’t bogged down in the same projects over and over, it can take more ownership over the collective consumer knowledge of the business and help your organization “know what it knows.”

Your insights team is uniquely positioned to look across large volumes of data to pull aggregate learnings that can make the whole organization smarter. A single ad test will help the team create a better version of that ad, but it won’t help the business learn anything bigger. But data on 30+ ads? That can give the business a much broader view on what’s working and what isn’t in your advertising. Is your advertising improving year over year? Do celebrity endorsements work for you? What are the key elements in the best of the best ads? These are questions your team can answer. 

Rather than focusing on improving individual ads or innovations, your team can focus on helping the organization produce better advertising and innovation across the board.

Being able to measure the effectiveness of your creative if you do it at a single project level. That gives you one level of insight. The real value in raising the creative bar is when you begin to get to that meta insight, when you connect the dots, when you see a body of work and you can really ladder up and see what is the lightning in the bottle.

Jane Wakely, Global CMO at PepsiCo

This idea of helping the organization “know what it knows” is a huge unlock for brands. Large global organizations with long histories have generated so much knowledge and data over the years, but it’s often not easy to uncover or interpret. It can result in a lot of wasted time and money as people across your organization relearn the same things over and over again. 

I always call it getting a head start. It's going to make your outcome better. No one's going to care that you got to a great outcome because you used what people did previously and it wasn't all new to the world thinking. No one cares. They just care about the outcome. Give yourself the head start.

Matt Cahill, Senior Director, Consumer Insights Activation at McDonald's

The successful and impactful insights team of the future will sit above this data asset to surface answers the business doesn’t know it has and share these insights at key moments 

3. Using your research expertise in ways AI can’t replace

Finally, while AI and automation can allow non-experts to take over some research responsibilities, there will always be a role for more strategic thinking in insights. Open-ended exploratory studies, ethnographies and other qualitative market research, for example, will certainly be run by the insights team.  

And your business will always encounter big questions it’s not sure how to answer, and your team’s knowledge of research methodologies and how to unearth consumer understanding will still be critical. 

One interesting example of this I’ve seen is from Clorox. Clorox has adopted an agile resourcing approach: Rather than have subject-matter research experts in each category and each market, Clorox has them sit centrally. They move in an agile manner throughout the organization to where they can add the most value by informing the highest value decisions. 

Let Oksana Sobol, Insights Lead at The Clorox Company, explain:

We are likely headed toward a future where local insights teams are smaller, and this approach of agile allocation to work on the highest-value research can help make that work. 

How to achieve this future role of insights

This future may seem far off from where your team is today, but that’s ok. While AI is advancing rapidly, it will still take time for your entire world to change. It’s a good first step to just be thinking about what the future looks like and how you’ll lead your team to success in the next few years. 

Some things you can start to do now include: 

  1. Encourage your team to aim big. It can be uncomfortable to let go of work they’ve always owned and take on new roles. But your vision can help them see the opportunity of a bigger, more strategic role that is indispensable to the business. Encourage your team to dream big about where they can add value in your organization.

  2. Audit everything. Take a look at your existing team structure, KPIs, processes, research providers — everything. Think about what you need to achieve your new future vision for the team so you know what needs to be replaced, changed, removed, etc. 

  3. Find partners that will help you democratize. Not every partner will have what your organization needs. The right system will have the data quality and methodologies to satisfy your insights team, the ease of use to satisfy your marketing team, and the guardrails to make research effortless, meaningful and actionable. 

  4. Work toward democratization. It may take some time to achieve the fully democratized future I described in this article, so it’s worth it to start today. There is no single right way to go about it and it will depend on the needs of your organization.

Final thoughts

The future of insights will look very different to how it looks today. I see a huge opportunity for insights teams to become yet more valuable in the future as consumer centricity remains an imperative for businesses — and even becomes a competitive advantage. 

Insights teams that have been led to lean into new technology and focus on getting relevant consumer insights into the right hands at the right time will be the ones who succeed. 

To recap, here are the main points to remember: 

  • Many of the tasks that insights teams own today can already be or will soon be replaced by automated technology, AI and non-researchers.

  • You can inspire your insights team to think bigger about the value they bring to the table and position your team to deliver strategic insights while enabling the organization to run research or access consumer insights when they need them. 

  • The future is bright for insights teams, it will just take a little work to get your team on the path to future success. So start selling that vision, motivating your team and getting the pieces in place for the future today. 

If you’re interested in staying on top of insights trends and future-focused insights leaders, subscribe to my podcast Inside Insights.

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