How to successfully democratize insights to become a consumer-centric organization

Ryan Barry, President

I’m going to come right out and say something that has been on my mind for the last several years: Democratization is the future of consumer insights. It’s the key to enabling organizations to be customer centric AND to elevating the impact of the consumer insights department.

My work with many industry-leading insights leaders over the years has convinced me  that this is true. But I know it’s a topic that can make insights leaders and teams a little uneasy. Insights have owned market research for decades. If they enable other parts of the organization to do that work, will they be out of a job? Will marketers “grade their own homework”? Will they make mistakes because they aren’t research experts?

Let me outline my thinking on why this is the future of insights and how you can set your team up for success now. 

The case for democratization

In the past, insights teams have owned and executed all consumer research in the organization. But the role of insights teams is shifting. There are a few forces behind that shift: 

  1. Agile 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 manual research tasks that insights teams have been responsible for in the past.

  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 — even create an ad or product concept. 

  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.

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. We need insights people to spend more of their time curating the customer, culture and business strategy to inform growth strategy. And that requires true democratization of insights.

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

Still not convinced? Read more about the case for democratization.

Common democratization concerns

I commonly hear a few concerns around democratization, so let’s go through them. 

What will happen to my team?

Insights leaders are often rightfully concerned about what will happen to their teams in this new world. Will they still play an important role in the business? How will they continue to get consumer context if they are no longer running research projects?  

To be clear, there is still a critical role for insights teams and their curiosity, analytical mindset and objective consumer-centric skills in this future. 

If your team offloads some of the simple research to non-experts, 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 about what works and what doesn’t that can make the whole organization smarter.

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. They’ll just have more time to do some of this bigger, more impactful work. 

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

At the end of the day, your team will still have the context it needs to deliver value, it will just be on a larger scale than a single copy test.

Will marketers be able to handle the research?

Your marketing colleagues probably don’t know much about market research. So you may be worried that if you let them loose on research tools, not only might they make mistakes through lack of knowledge (skewed samples, biased questions, misinterpreted results), but there may also be (unconscious) incentives for them to “game the results” to validate pet projects or existing opinions. 

Fortunately, there are tools available today that can make it easy for non-experts to run and interpret research correctly. 

Modern tools are built to answer specific research questions, and are delivered through templates on platforms that can be made accessible to all. They can be set up to limit the inputs marketers have access to and to deliver not just results, but diagnostics that give unequivocal answers — instead of raw data that can be misunderstood or misrepresented to fit an agenda.

Zappi makes it simple for non-experts to use the platform. When marketing users log in, they know exactly what they have to do. From a research standpoint, they don't have too many decisions to make by themselves so they can actually make it happen.

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

Part of the task ahead of you is to choose and set up the tools that support your marketers and set them up to do great research. 

Will marketers want to do their own research? 

Of course, all of that is meaningless unless marketers are even willing to do their own research. Each organization is different, so you may be facing more of a battle than other insights leaders in this area. 

But we have often found that when faced with the benefits, marketers typically see the value. It’s up to you and your team to sell the vision of a world where marketers don’t need to wait to get consumer feedback. They can get real data on what consumers think about their ideas so they can iterate quickly and move on to the next thing with confidence. 

Too often marketers find themselves faced with two paths when it comes to getting consumer feedback: 1) Wait a while for data while their project stalls or 2) make a decision now based on their gut so they can move faster. When they can get the answers themselves, they can make a lot more consumer-centric decisions without sacrificing speed. 

My boss asked me to be super present in all the marketing big instances, to connect with the marketing director and explain the projects. Some of them were pushing back, some of them were really enthusiastic. They asked me a lot of questions about the robustness. They were thinking that maybe the tools were just quick and dirty, not as robust as another method… So a lot of the beginning of the story was about reassuring on really strong insights methods.

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

Getting started with democratization

There are three things you need to do before letting marketers start running their own research.

1. Select the right tools

There is a wide selection of insights tools available. Start by thinking about the types of research you’ll be asking marketing to do. Simple and well-defined tests are what you’re looking to offload, not complex statistical analyses or open-ended exploratory studies.

Then pick the right tool for each use case. 

Make sure that whatever tools you pick have robust admin capabilities that let you pick defaults (more on that below) so you can control how marketers use them. 

And just as importantly, make sure your tools are easy for marketers to use. No matter how great the benefits are, you’ll be fighting a losing battle if you try to force people to adopt something that’s hard to use. It’s a good idea to include a few marketers in your selection process so they can try tools out and let you know what they think about the usability. 

Then, select and standardize your tools so everyone uses the same ones for the same purposes. For example, if you have determined everyone will use a certain tool for concept testing, make sure no other tools marketers can access allow them to test concepts. When you give them access to one tool for each use case, they won’t be able to do anything that’s unapproved. 

2. Set up smart defaults 

Pick defaults for product categories, markets, audiences and questions and bake them into your systems. If you can set them up in advance, your marketers don’t need to know anything about ratings scales or which questions to ask on a survey. 

Decide how much flexibility you want to give your marketing colleagues. For example, will they be able to add custom questions? Or can they only use the questions you’ve already approved? 

Then before you introduce anything to marketing, pilot the defaults within your insights team to make sure everything works as it should and you’re happy with the results. 

3. Train marketers to use the tools effectively

Now it’s time to train marketers and roll out the tools. How you go about this will depend on how your company is structured and what you think will make the most sense, but there will probably be some commonalities across all companies. 

In one example, global alcohol brand Pernod Ricard took it slow by rolling out a single use case at a time, starting with the ability to test final creative assets. Each marketer was trained on the overall vision and how to use the ad testing solution. Before marketers were allowed to test on their own, they had to run three tests with someone from the insights team so they could get guided practice setting up the test and interpreting the results. Once both insights and marketing felt comfortable with the process, they started rolling out more use cases following the same process.  

A global CPG brand’s approach was slightly different. The company held marketing boot camps in ten countries over a period of six months to socialize the new tools. In each bootcamp, the team ran a creative ideas session and then sent participants away to use the tools overnight. When they reconvened the next day, they shared their findings and talked about how they would make decisions from the data. After the boot camp, the marketers were allowed to test on their own.

Take a look at your organization and figure out a plan that will work for your circumstances. And be sure to talk to your marketing teams to understand their needs and involve them in the planning. Then get to work to roll everything out!

Pernod Ricard proves it’s possible to democratize insights

Get a behind-the-scenes look at how Pernod Ricard empowered marketing users to run their own creative research, freeing up the insights team to do more strategic work.

Quick democratization tips

If you want to avoid marketers still saying “can’t you just do it for me?” six months after the launch, try these approaches.

  1. Do some research: Spend some quality time with your marketing colleagues learning how they work and how they want to use insights. Look for gaps and opportunities and build what you learn into your platform. 

  2. Lead with the benefits: Sell it in. Don’t make it about the features of your shiny new platform, or about benefits for you or the organization. Make it about the benefits for them: Consumer feedback on their ideas, in the moment that feedback is needed. 

  3. Make it enjoyable: Are there ways you can gamify the process, such as offering prizes for the people who are using it the best? But beware of unintended consequences. For example, if you offer rewards for who did the most tests, you may end up with people testing unnecessarily. Think about how you can reward the behavior you want to see

  4. Keep it going: New initiatives often start well, but can trail off quickly. In the early stages, look for the power users. Do some more research — find out what they are doing, and why they are so invested in the platform — then see how you can apply your learning to increase usage amongst other marketers. This kind of initiative can take a while to really get off the ground, so don’t lose hope! Celebrate early wins and keep pushing it forward.

Final thoughts

I believe that insights teams are uniquely positioned to help their organizations become truly consumer centric, but they can’t do it if they’re running every copy test themselves. Your team can deliver the most value if they offload some of that research to the users of that research. 

That change won’t happen overnight, so it’s important to start thinking about it now.

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

Inside Insights 🎙️

Join host Ryan Barry as he gets inside the world of consumer insights by chatting with global brand leaders who share their personal journeys and give you actionable tips to get into the minds of your consumers.

Subscribe to our newsletter