You’re not in consumer insights to be a project manager

Ryan Barry

If you’re in a corporate consumer insights role, I’m guessing that you chose your career because you’re interested in people and what makes them tick: why they do what they do and buy what they buy. If you’d wanted to be a project manager, you’d have gone into project management.

And yet, too many corporate insights professionals find themselves stuck in a silo, managing a whole load of projects, and spending too little time helping the business to truly, deeply understand consumers.

In my role as CRO at Zappi, I get to see over 200 insights departments, and although I’ve been inspired by many innovative insights leaders and practitioners who are doing things differently, I’ve also seen a lot who are struggling to make an impact on the business and to manage their workload. I’ve learned a lot about the way the model for Consumer Insights is broken – and how to fix it. Keep reading or watch the webinar below for my tips.

What’s changed?

It should be a great time to be a consumer insights professional. The consumer calls the shots and customer centricity has never been more important. The opportunity for great insights to support business decisions is at an all-time high.

But marketing has a fast turnaround and product development is agile. Until recently, the market research industry has failed to keep pace. It’s only in the last five years that researchers and entrepreneurs have started to build digital businesses with a focus on doing great research faster and smarter than traditional agencies.

The growth of these digital market research businesses means that the industry landscape has totally changed. Where once there were full-service companies, qual specialists, and panels, now there is a wide variety of research organizations to deal with: end-to-end platforms such as Zappi, DIY platforms, consultancies, knowledge management companies, specialist CX, UX or qual agencies, and specialist methodology vendors, as well as the remaining traditional full-service agencies.

It's a complex landscape, and that makes it a pretty tough time to be a consumer insights professional. It doesn't help that the model for how many corporate insights departments operate is no longer fit for purpose, as that model comes from the pre-digital, pre-agile world. You can choose a shiny new vendor with a buzzword-heavy solution such as AI, machine learning, natural language processing, automation or always-on…. but you can’t succeed by adding a buzzword on top of a broken model.

So what’s broken about the consumer insights model?

There are a number of ways the current insights model is broken. For example, we see these challenges repeated in corporate insights departments, across all industries and geographies:

  1. The stamping department: Consumer insights teams often work in silos, with internal stakeholders in marketing, sales, and business departments viewing them not as part of the team, or even as an insights center of excellence, but as separate and disconnected. Too often, insights is an afterthought, called in only to green-light a decision that has already been made, to tick a box to get through a gateway in development, or to validate content so the marketing person doesn’t get fired. Insights professionals are viewed as “rubber stampers,” not consumer experts.

  2. Fire drills: When the insights team sits in a silo and isn’t considered until late in the process, every request ends up being an urgent request. In many cases, the marketing and sales teams are similarly overwhelmed, and don’t have time for a proper briefing, or to consider what it is they really want to know. But if you are busy running from imaginary fires, you don’t have time – or budget – to build a better process.

  3. Decks, decks, decks: How much of your time do you spend on making decks? If it’s not fixing vendor decks that have missed the mark (because you didn’t have the time to brief them), then it’s customizing insights decks for disparate internal stakeholders. There are better ways to use consumer insights to inspire your colleagues to be more creative and build your brand.

  4. Faster? Cheaper? Better? As above, the market research vendor landscape is complex and crowded, and salespeople are competing for your attention. Not only does this take up your valuable time with emails, cold calls, and content to read but, when you do agree to take a pitch, you find that everyone is promising the holy trinity – their offer is faster, cheaper, and better – and it is hard to decipher where the value is. Who should you work with? How do you cut through and build a roster of trusted advisors?

  5. Juggling politics: You want to change your ad tracking to support better creative and more effective ads, but because some of the metrics are linked to remuneration in the marketing team, you can never change them. Your CEO has a pet project that you end up wasting time on because even though you already know that your customers will hate it, based on everything you know about your customers, you don’t have the specific market research data that will convince them to put it to rest. All organizations are political, but politics shouldn’t be your job.

  6. And juggling projects: Your work is project based. While you are learning from each individual project, there is no framework to tie all of that insight together. Each time there is a requirement, you need a new project. So you’re busy writing briefs, reading RFPs, and trying to choose between vendors. That only leaves you time to innovate tactically around the edges, rather than having an impact at a macro level across all stakeholder groups and driving change in your company.

  7. What work-life balance? The upshot is that it really is tough to be in a consumer insights role. The need for more decks, more projects, and more meetings takes up your working day, and probably your evening too. Occasionally you get to do the awesome work that you came into this role for – to find out about what makes people tick, what occasions they buy your product, what else they are buying, how they live and act in their homes – but most of the time you are running to keep up.

Ok, I get it – so how do I fix my consumer insights role?

At Zappi, our vision is that the consumer insights professionals of tomorrow spend their time focusing on understanding people and taking that knowledge to help growth strategy in their business. That they become effective in managing their workload so they spend most of their time on human-inspired creativity and innovation. That the insights department isn’t always late to the party – it’s where the party’s at.So how do you get there from here? You have to get smarter. There are three key ways you can do so:

  1. Think programmatically

  2. Use modern methodologies

  3. Develop foresight

Do these three, and you will be generating new insights with every investment of your money and time. Let’s look at each of these.

Think programmatically

Instead of thinking of insights as a bunch of separate projects, we need to think programmatically. By this I mean that our role is to solve business questions, not briefs. Ask yourself: how you can build an insights ecosystem that integrates stakeholders, vendors, and other partners and collates existing insights with new solutions to answer a business question? Then ask “How do I centrally integrate this new insight so that it contributes to our continuously evolving body of knowledge?”Tips for thinking programmatically:

  1. Digitize everything. Digitize not only your surveys and research tools, but also your workflows. There is any number of tools and technologies out there that will help to make you more efficient. If you automate, delegate, and outsource wherever possible, you will reduce the burden of project management.

  2. Standardize across tools that answer business questions. Standardize across your audiences, markets, success metrics, tools, and taxonomies so that all your data is comparable – increasing its value over time. I have had clients who use a different sample frame every time they run a new project, so they are always talking to a different demographic. They end up repeating the same questions to which they already know the answers.

  3. Get close to your ecosystem. Find a few partners and get close to them. Although there is no single platform that does it all, if you have, say, ten vendors all doing concept testing, you won’t get the best out of any of them. You need suppliers who will work together in the ecosystem and will make friends with each other so they can help you to connect the dots to build up a holistic picture of consumers and the market.

  4. Know what success means. Do you know how your company measures success on all of its business questions? This can be a challenge as many companies don’t know them or insights doesn’t get access to them. However, if you can include the success metrics into the standardized insights framework you are building, you can start to be predictive and drive foresight.

  5. Let go of your Legos. You need to integrate with your stakeholder departments such as product, marketing, sales, and brand. But to do this effectively, you need to let them use some of your tools. This requires a leap of faith. What if they make a mistake? Today’s solutions have expert knowledge built in. You can set smart defaults and rules for the format and layout of stimulus material, as an example, so that the brand manager run a concept test. Then that’s one more project off your list.

Use modern methodologies

Although this process starts with digitizing, we can’t just digitize old-world black-box methodologies. These methodologies were created for a world that doesn’t exist anymore – a world that existed before the balance of power shifted from Walmart to the consumer. There are researchers who still want to do 30-minute conjoint surveys, but today’s consumer doesn’t have the attention span, so the data is worthless.Tips for using modern methodologies:

  1. Go thin: Because of the time and cost it takes to turn around a survey with old-world methodologies, it’s tempting to cram a bunch of extra questions in to try to make it serve as many purposes as possible. But in the agile world, it makes more sense to just focus on a business question. I call this “thin-slicing” the research. So if you want to find out a price point, you don’t also have to do a concept test, packaging test, discrete choice model and Max Diff all in the same survey – just answer the pricing question.

  2. Go mobile: More and more online surveys are being done on mobile. You need to use platforms and systems that support mobile and optimize your surveys so they can be taken on mobile. That means no more grids and no more 30-minute surveys. If you don’t optimize for mobile, you’ll be talking to a different demographic – the consumer who has the time and motivation to work through a long questionnaire on their computer is not the same as the one who will answer on the fly on their mobile.

  3. In context: Mobile also enables you to improve the quality of your insight by asking questions in context, such as when they are using the product, or when they are in the store making the decision. You can’t always do this – like if you are testing an early-stage idea that isn’t on the shelves at Walmart – but you can often add context into your questioning that will improve your data. For example, you can ask respondents to think about where they are when they are buying a product.

  4. Calibrate, and calibrate again: If you are stuck using old black-box ad testing methods, the way to set yourself free is to run a calibration exercise with a vendor you want to work with, using existing insight to calibrate against what you know works in the market. Then you can build your own prediction models based on your unique success metrics. With technology today you can still get meta-data benefits across different categories, such as competitors, while knowing that your unique KPIs are different. But be prepared to change once you have done that exercise. Once you have set up your ecosystem, you can ask hard questions. Is this still right, does this new insight change anything? I recently worked with a client who ran a whole variety of calibration for their ad testing, then said: “We need to recalibrate because we’ve learned some new insights.” This is the right approach, but it takes courage.

Build foresight

Once you have done the work of standardizing and putting your ecosystem in place, you can work on curating a macro point of view on your customer, your campaigns, and your brands, and start to get predictive and build foresight.Tips for building foresight:

  1. Think macro: You have all these lenses on the consumer such as your trackers, sales data, social media data, and business analytics. If you are able to curate the data from all these touchpoints, set up a connected repository of information, and think at a macro level, you might not have to run that random fire drill project because you might already know the answer. Then you can start to build foresight because you aren’t spending money learning what you already know. The first thing you'll do when somebody gives you a brief is show them how to check it against existing insight.

  2. Guardrails: You can set up guardrails to guide your creative and innovation partners – agencies as well as internal brand, product, and salespeople – using your high-level learnings. If you can tell them what you already know works, and they can channel their creativity around these known consumer themes, they won’t waste their time making the same mistakes over again (and they won't waste your time in testing things that are already shown not to work).

  3. Culture change: This isn’t just an Insights problem. Marketing doesn’t get stimulus together in time for testing. Agencies throw creative at us too late to test because they don’t want to know it won’t work. I’ve had people call me last minute on a Friday with a request to test an ad that will air on Monday. The decision is already made. The problem isn’t coming from Insights. We can be the best insights team in the world, but if the business doesn’t change their behavior too, we can all go home. One way to combat this is, as above, to partner with ad agency teams, creative partners, and vendors to integrate how they think. Inside the business, there are creative ways to drive the insights message home by, for example, sharing stories in a newsletter that you can send out to the business so you don’t always have to be in the room. If you understand the levers that motivate people in your company, such as productivity, cost reduction, or revenue growth, and you can make recommendations that deliver on those metrics, you will get buy-in.

I’m in. Where do I start?

You won’t have the time and space to think programmatically, use modern methodologies, and build foresight unless you change your mindset and stop being a project manager. Use technology to digitize, automate, and curate. Delegate or outsource wherever possible. Pay vendors to run a project or do a repeatable task. It’s not your job to make decks. It is your job to create an ecosystem, build relationships, and become a trusted insight partner so you can help drive change in the business.

And you might get a free evening once in a while too.

Keep going