The skills insights professionals need to succeed in the future

Julio Franco

From embracing the era of AI to ensuring data and insights run through organizations like a stream to fuel decisions, there's a major shift in how insights teams of today function.

I’ve grown up with research all around me, and in my past life on the ground as a researcher, I’ve seen a lot of changes in the industry. Now, as Chief Customer Officer at Zappi, I spend a lot of time with insights leaders from the most innovative brands all over the world hearing about the changes they are seeing within their organizations.

Right now, you as an insights leader have an incredible opportunity to lead your team in the right direction to flourish in the new age of insights. And one of the first steps you may need to take is ensuring you have the right skills on your team (married to the right data system and tech stack of course).

So what skills should you influence your team to hone in on? And as you’re staffing your team of the future, what are the insights skills you should be looking for? These are my top six.

The future skills your insights team needs to succeed

1. Curiosity

As the world of tech and ways of working continue to change, you need team members who maintain a relentless curiosity.  

These are people whose curiosity is a part of them. The ones who have a strong desire to understand and are always open to learn more about what’s going on around them and in the minds of the consumer. 

I think of Christian Niederauer, Global Head of Insights at Colgate-Palmolive, who said it best: 

“I want people who are curious. I think every interaction, whatever it is, is an opportunity to learn. So when I do groceries —  and my wife usually hates it when I do groceries —  because I come back after two hours.

She says, ‘What were you doing? You just had to buy a bottle of milk’. I say, ‘Yeah, but then I went down that aisle, I looked at the claims, looked at the ingredients. There was a new packaging, a new display.’ So take every opportunity when you're traveling, there are new stores, just check it out, what's in there.’

– Christian Niederauer, Global Head of Insights at Colgate-Palmolive

These are people who are driven to “figure things out” in or outside the box, which means asking the right questions, even if they may seem unusual. Because sometimes, they can think of the question that really needs to be asked that no one has thought about. 

“No matter what role you are in, focus on asking the best and most outlandish questions!”

- Jessica Southard, Senior Manager of Consumer and Market Insights at Mars

Be on the lookout for a insights professionals who know it’s okay to not have all the answers, and therefore ask all the right questions.

2. Growth mindset

Going hand in hand with curiosity, you also need people on your team who have a growth mindset and thrive on change. 

I think these team members can best be described as people who always want to develop their skills, have a desire to discover and experiment, who learn from their mistakes and share these learnings with others. And because they embrace new challenges and learn new things, they are very flexible and adapt to the situations around them. 

When something new rolls around, their first reaction is not, ‘How will this impact my job?’ it’s ‘How can I get my hands on it, because I have three ideas on how to use it in my job already?’”

– Oksana Sobol, Insights Lead at The Clorox Company

The type of insights professional you want on your team is someone who not only stays up to date on new trends — like AI — but also steps up to the challenge and takes action by experimenting with the AI tools that are already out there.    

Diane Yoon, People Director of OpenAI, expressed the importance of this well: “Your job will be lost to someone who knows how to use AI before it is lost to AI.”

At the rate technology is advancing today, your researchers need to be looking towards the future and be prepared to up-level themselves and learn to work with what’s coming. And not shying away from that reality is what having a growth mindset is all about. 

🎙️ What does AI mean for the future of market research & beyond?

Check out our podcast episode on all things AI, from the implications of AI for market research to the threats and opportunities it presents for the world of tech, productivity, creativity and more.

3. Ability to influence

As of today, organizations have embraced autonomy and democratized decision-making. But in order for consumer insights to continue informing and driving decisions it too needs to be democratized. 

In the future, democratization of insights will be the norm. In this future, insights teams will not own the data or run all the consumer research themselves. Instead, they will use their research and analytical skills to look across large volumes of data (including those generated by other teams) to pull aggregate learnings and provide insights to inform the big strategic decisions that can make the whole organization smarter. 

“It just takes one person to drive change. Never underestimate the power of a single person within an organization.”

- Lauren Stafford-Webb, CMO, SoFi

This presents an amazing opportunity for your team, but it will require a shift in thinking over time. You don’t want people on your team who view themselves as the sole guardian of the consumer voice. 

You need people who see the value in influencing the rest of the organization to use and access consumer data  — ultimately letting your team do more of the higher value work that requires research expertise, as well as a natural curiosity and consumer understanding (as mentioned above). 

In other words, you need influential storytellers who are unafraid to speak the truth when it’s backed by data, and feel confident sharing these views even with those most senior in the organization. They also have to be unafraid to share that data with other areas of the business and influence the business to access and use it where they can.

“Our voice matters and that is a really important lesson that I learned very early in my career…we are advocating for others. We're not advocating for ourselves.

…You can have the best data in the world, you can have the latest technology, but when decisions are made and you're not bringing that voice forward, then we're doing them a disservice.”

- Stefania Gvillo, SVP, Chief Analytics and Insights Officer at Domino's

All this to say, in this future, there are two things I am sure of: 1) Democratization will need to happen and 2) Influence will be critical. So make sure you've got people on your team who can influence others and embrace this way of working.

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

Read our blog for more on democratization and other actions to take will help you succeed in the future of insights.

4. Empathy

“I believe technology, data and AI, are and will become a commodity quickly. And I do not believe that makes the insights department extinct, but I believe it requires them to elevate above all that and bring empathy to the matrix, bring empathy to the dataset so that the customer in their full orientation is represented in the boardroom.”

– Ryan Barry, President at Zappi

Empathy will play a huge role in the future of insights. When insights teams don’t run all the research themselves, they’ll need to help others in the organization have empathy for the consumer and help them make the right decisions from the data — generating empathy supported by data.

They also need empathy in order to appreciate the realities of a business and the constraints that the decision makers are up against. Why? Because this shows that they understand how decisions really get made. And it can also indicate that they know how to tailor communication to influence the right decisions for the company and the consumer. 

I enjoyed how Rob Volpe, Empathy Activist and CEO of Ignite 360, described this as having a “trifecta of empathy”:  

“Take that moment, have the courage to step into their shoes, see the world from their perspective, and then maybe go, ‘Oh, I get why they like that ad.’ This is the jiu jitsu, as I call it, that insights professionals have to do, particularly when you're on the client's side, and you not only have to have empathy yourself with the stakeholder, but you've got to have empathy with [the CEO] and understand what he's going through, and then you've got to do the wizardry of connecting [the CEO] to that consumer as well. So you, if you're the insights professional, have to have empathy in three different ways, and one of which does not involve you yourself.”

– Rob Volpe, Empathy Activist and CEO of Ignite 360

In fact, I think it’s worth listening to everything he had to say about why insights teams need empathy in every direction:

Basically, you need people on your team who understand where other people are coming from, whether it’s your stakeholders or your consumers. People who have a handle on what motivates and what drives each of them — including what motivates the consumer. That’s what gets business results, and that's certainly a skill your organization needs for the future.  

🎙️ How to elevate your insights with empathy

Check out our podcast episode with Rob Volpe, where he shares how insights teams can thrive by applying his five steps to empathy.

5. Ability to connect the dots

The importance of data to a researcher is undeniable. 

The best insights professionals of the future know not just how to source good data, but also how to use it effectively to tell the right consumer story. 

For example, these people are not just 'delivering insights' and leaving the room, rather, they strive to be part of the decision-making process, serving as a voice in the room at all points in development processes, creations of consumer experiences or any other decisions businesses make that impact their consumers and customers — to help make better creative and ultimately better advertising overall.

To them, it's more than just telling a story from one piece of research — it's about using lots of data from different sources to help the company understand consumers.

Fernando Kahane, Senior Marketing Director at PepsiCo's Walkers, explained the benefits of this well: 

“I think there is a real change in the way we use research. And I think it's that journey, how we move from go, no-go, to an idea where we are learning to make the best ad that we can…It's a totally transparent, open conversation, almost sitting around the table together with marketing and insights and the agency saying, how can we make this better? Not something that disappears that comes back as a formal set piece. So that, I think, is a catalyst for better creative.” 

In short, you need people on your insights team who think analytically to see the bigger picture — people who look at consumer data in a way that adds value. And the insights professionals you’re looking for know that it’s their research expertise that will help inform the right business decisions.

6. Business acumen

Lastly, you’ll need everyone on your team who can apply all the skill sets previously listed to be keeping the business top of mind. 

You want insight professionals who are willing to work to understand what’s going on both inside and outside of insights — which includes understanding the consumer, the industry, as well as the business, its realities, objectives and challenges. 

Because as you well know, in order to be seen as a real partner, and not just the research team that’s brought in on occasion, they’ll need to understand the business as a whole. 

Does your current team know what metrics your stakeholders are accountable for? Do they understand the goals of the organization? What about where the team fits in the larger scheme of things? 

If it’s not clear to them, it may be worth having a conversation to help guide them towards using a more business-oriented lens in their day-to-day. After all, the more people you have on your team who understand the business, the more they can effectively measure, track, and improve results. 

All of these things will help position your team to be better partners with your stakeholders, so you really want people on your team who can show that they can be there from the beginning to the end — not for a single project, but for every business initiative. 

So look for insights professionals who are willing to understand and be a real partner to the business, not siloed in their own world of research.

Managing stakeholders to drive insights transformation

Check out our article on how to manage stakeholders to drive insights transformation.

Guiding your team towards these future skills

In a nutshell, your team should be made up of insights professionals who maintain a relentless curiosity, thrive on change, have a profound ability to influence, are empathetic, and use consumer data effectively to impact the business in ways that are meaningful.

There's no reason to assume that if your team doesn't have these traits now, they can’t start developing them. It’s simply about taking those first few steps to start the journey of building out their skills and opportunities now with this future in mind.

And don’t be surprised if your team looks to you to guide them. As a leader, it’s important for you to be there to show them the way towards the future. I think Bianca Pryor, VP of Insights at BET, said it well when she shared: 

“I always like to say today I'm a leader from the front…I can check a mean whole count, a data map — all of that is very comfortable to me. Happy to story-tell, pitch something.

- Bianca Pryor, VP of Insights, BET

Final thoughts

From what I see as I work with successful insights teams across the globe, these are the skills that stand out to me the most when thinking about what insights teams of the future will need to succeed. Take a look at your existing team and figure out what future skills they already have. If you note any gaps, figure out any opportunities to train them and lead them to success.

And as you bring in new people, look for the ones who already have these skillsets. 

As I mentioned before, you have an incredible opportunity to guide your team to flourish in the new age of insights. Lead your teams to understand the business, lean into new technology, encourage them to be curious and empathetic, channel their analytical thinking and focus on getting relevant consumer insights into the right hands at the right time. 

You have the power to elevate your team and help them find success as we move towards the future. And how exciting is that? To have this opportunity to prepare them for the future, master these skills and shape them into the best they can be. 

If you’re interested in staying on top of insights trends and future-focused insights leaders, check out our podcast Inside Insights. 

And if you'd like to speak to me directly for advice, reach out on LinkedIn here

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.

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