Digging deep to find the right insight

We asked seven leading marketers how they use quantitative and qualitative studies and how they are responding to changes in the field.

Marketing Week: How have you used market research to inform key business developments this year?

Tim Pearson: One example is the work we did when we refreshed NME magazine this year. Our new editor had a lot of great ideas and we wanted to sense-check some of them in the planning stage. From a variety of databases we pulled together different focus groups consisting of loyal readers, former readers and occasional readers of varying ages to come into the offices and wax lyrical about all things NME and music generally. Their input helped provide a good filter which the team were able to return to the planning room and implement.

Richard Ellwood: We have used research to identify market opportunities and to address challenges from competitors. This enables us to respond with relevant marketing activity.

Andy Baker: By consistently feeding compelling, consistent and timely insight from our research programmes we have been able to shape the development of many aspects of the business from brand, advertising and sponsorship through to the development of our customer service proposition.

Tim Pearson
Tim Pearson Head of marketing for NME and Uncut magazines, IPC Media

Liz Lamb: We have used customer research to advise on campaign direction, support the development of new products and services, challenge business thinking on our channel strategy and sales model, and to ensure increased customer focus. We’ve focused on bringing our insights to life this year through vox-pops and co-creation.

Grant Warnock: Our continuous research allows us to check that our services are being delivered to a high standard and that our brand health remains strong. We have been looking into how engaging with consumers on energy issues can help us lead the way in creating low carbon solutions. As we continue our Team Green Britain behavioural change initiative, every development is shared in advance with our member panels for their feedback.

Julian Elliott: We use continuous tracking to find out how customers are feeling on various issues such as the price of energy, sustainability, the cleanliness of energy, value for money, and how our marketing and advertising is performing. These also feed into our proposition development pipeline and help shape our marketing calendar. If we find that consumers are feeling sensitive towards a specific issue we will rework our communications timing.

Carol McCreadie: The financial services industry is not particularly motivating for younger consumers and we find it difficult to engage with people under 35. We did a piece of work on young professionals and that helped us create a better strategy around this audience.
We also produced a market research programme to help us segment the ISA (Instant Savings Account) market and understand what the different sectors are and what we need to do to develop different propositions.

Richard Ellwood
Richard Ellwood Senior manager for brand and marketing research, Walt Disney Company, EMEA

MW: What new market research developments or approaches have given you access to new insights that you might not have had last year?

TP: We conducted a research piece called “Today’s Man: LIVE”, a nationally representative piece of research among 16- to 34-year-old men. This research helped solidify how important live music is to young men and especially for the NME audience. It provided completely new insights into a market which hadn’t been explored fully by market research before.

RE: We have run short surveys of tried and tested questions of key performance indicators in markets we have tended to under-research, such as the Middle East and Central Eastern Europe. What is really important is that the methodology we use is appropriate for children and encourages them to give honest responses.

AB: By adopting elements of neuroscience in our research we have been able to get a clearer insight into what can really differentiate us from our competitors. In an industry which is accepted as being relatively low engagement, getting “inside the mind” helps us identify the little things that make a difference to a customer experience.

LL: This year we’ve explored social media monitoring, online communities, co-creation, and have embraced a new approach to customer satisfaction – all of which have contributed to new, exciting insights. The most powerful and perhaps simplest approach has been to conduct our key programmes with one agency, ensuring real join-up, cross-fertilisation and a more holistic view of the customer. Our main priority and ongoing approach is about questioning our commercial impact, what we should start doing, stop doing, and how we can use our existing data better.

Andy Baker
Andy Baker Senior research manager, Aviva

GW: Often great insights come when you step back from your own category and rethink how consumers live their lives, and arrive at certain decisions. I have been using the principles of “Choice Architecture”, the notion that the way a choice is presented influences how it is made, to assess whether our research really captures the drivers of consumer behaviours. This is already beginning to yield interesting new insights.

CM: Our young professionals research piece involved six detailed groups. We had 18 people from Standard Life who worked with them in four-hour sessions, so we were jointly creating propositions and understanding their needs.

MW: What developments have you made in the use of digital market research?

TP: This year, social media has had greater prominence for us with regards to listening to and understanding our consumers. We have very active Facebook and Twitter communities, which are great for dipping into if we need to recruit people for market research or seeing reactions to announcements we make. We always take any results from this with some caution though.

RE: We’ve been making great use of things like online diaries and forums as part of qualitative studies, as well as getting groups of kids to work online on co-creative ideas. We are always looking to understand emerging ways of how consumers want to access our content.

AB: Online studies are increasingly becoming the mainstay of our quantitative research programme, with several major tracking studies and many ad-hoc projects now being run this way. This has allowed us to deliver faster and more cost-efficient results to the business and made our budget stretch further. Perhaps the most significant development is our ability to conduct more work in-house, particularly in the business-to-business space.

Liz Lamb
Liz Lamb Head of insight, Post Office

JE: Most of our large surveys are done online now. It is also a good way to research some of the new products and tools that are actually designed to be used online by customers anyway.

MW: What difficulties have you faced in terms of privacy concerns from consumers you recruit? How are you handling this?

RE: We clarify how the research is going to be reported and used. We never attribute insights at an individual level. It’s about reassurance, especially if you are talking to children.

GW: The industry has been extremely careful to follow Market Research Society (MRS) and Data Protection guidelines. As we move into new forms of online consumer research, the key is to inform consumers exactly how you will use any data collected so that they are comfortable with the whole process.

JE: The MRS is very helpful towards providing code of conduct and guidelines. We are overt about reassuring customers that data we use will be used anonymously and never for selling or to be passed on. Customers are sensitive but if it’s handled correctly it’s not a barrier.
We also talk about the benefits – we tell customers that by contributing to research they help us provide better value for money products.

MW: Are you using a brand community as a research tool? If so, how are you doing this?

RE: It’s an area we are watching closely. Our approach is to talk to a sample of consumers every quarter from our brand tracker, to identify key engagement drivers. My personal experience is that brand communities can become predisposed to brand activity and unnaturally high brand recall. What I’m interested in is taking a competent approach so the insights we get reflect reality.

AB: We are increasingly focusing on how we can harness the power of social networks as an alternative source of consumer feedback. However, so far we have taken the decision not to develop a substantial brand community as a research tool. This is down to an inability to justify the investment in time that would be required to properly manage a community over the longer term. Setting up a community is the easy bit but keeping it fresh, relevant and valuable both for the members and our business is the real challenge.

Grant Warnock
Grant Warnock Senior market research manager, EDF Energy

LL: We currently have closed groups for both customers and colleagues which have historically worked as basic panels. This year they will both expand into fully fledged communities, utilising online groups, blogs, regular polls and discussion forums to create more open forums for debate and conversation.

GW: We recently set up a closed online community to share ideas with our customers.I have been surprised by the willingness of people to engage in debate and provide suggestions for us to take on board. It’s particularly effective in reaching younger consumers who may be less likely to participate in more traditional research approaches.

JE: We have a few hundred people on our panel who are very generous in how they give their time and input. We have 27,000 employees and over 10 million customers, so we lacked a formal mechanism to filter the suggestions we received. The customer panel gives us a quick, responsive way of doing this.

CM: We set up a closed community towards the end of last year. Every two weeks we invite eight customers to meet two of our senior managers, so we invite the people from our online community to come along to that too so that we can meet our online participants face-to-face as well to really understand their challenges in the financial world. We also explore what is discussed in those meetings in greater depth in the online community.

MW: Have there been any movements in 2010 that have made you change your approach to or views on research?

TP: Because of the difficult economic times that everyone is facing we’ve found that there is more demand for research than ever before, both in understanding consumers and how their needs and purchasing habits have changed, along with more demand from agencies and clients on researching the effectiveness of ad campaigns.

Research using mobiles is an area we haven’t tapped into yet but is certainly one we are looking at. The challenge on this one is not to intrude too much into the consumer’s personal space as your mobile is a very personal device.

RE: We are looking at how technology can make us more efficient; for example, how we can conduct groups remotely or run debriefs via video conferences.

Julian Elliott
Julian Elliott Insight director, British Gas

LL: Research is moving away from interrogation towards conversation. While we can still “pull” question-wise, customers have a right to “push”, and research needs to ensure they get their say.

GW: It’s a question of constantly evolving our approach to match the fast pace of change in consumer environments. In particular the increasing involvement of consumers in online platforms, and the associated word of mouth that generates, presents a challenge, not just in collecting and assessing the data, but to scale it against the more traditional forms of consumer opinion-sharing so that its potential impactis not exaggerated.

JE: Something that is becoming increasingly important is behavioural economics and microeconomics – understanding that a pound isn’t always a pound. Giving somebody a pound is less motivating than taking a pound off a price. Understanding how customers relate to things and trade things off in their minds is becoming very useful. It’s not something mainstream research seems to have embraced but the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising is looking into it.

And it’s not research agencies that have introduced it to us, it’s we who have introduced it to them, which is probably the wrong way round.

MW: What forms of research strategies will you be investing in in 2011?

RE: Development of existing trackers to get a better feel of people’s engagement with Disney at different touchpoints. That will be done in close contact with our content development teams.

AB: Research investment in 2011 will be aligned to the major strategic activities in our business – those that add real value and impact bottom line. We will partner with fewer agencies but look to have deeper and stronger relationships which can enable them to add value beyond the simple delivery of research findings.

Carol McCreadie
Carol McCreadie Head of group insight, Standard Life

It’s also important to invest in research that informs us of future trends rather than research that just addresses the issues that are already on our doorstep.

LL: I anticipate a focus on more from less – better use of segmentation in order to truly understand our customers across all channels and markets, and integrating business-wide data sources to better understand the links between attitudes and behaviour. Ensuring the customer guides our business agenda remains a key priority and our research strategies need to be pragmatic, purposeful and focused on value.

GW: We will continue to use standard approaches to consumer insight such as focus groups and quantitative surveys but will increasingly mix these with online panels and ethnographical work. I will also continue to explore the application of behavioural economic models on to consumer data in order to ensure we are seeing the “big picture”. Every year a key research strategy arises that was not predicted when planning the year. Consumer markets never stand still, so flexibility and innovation are critical.

JE: It’s a balance of breadth and depth. We have a lot of breadth across the company, tracking experience and customer perceptions. What we need to do is some real depth work, such as longitudinal or ethnographic work. It’s obvious from customer bills how much energy they use, but it’s what is driving the behaviour that results in the quarterly bill that we haven’t got enough answers for.

MW: What do you think of market research sceptics who say that consumer surveys and focus groups produce inaccurate results and do little to inform your strategy?

RE: I think it’s a good thing for various techniques to be questioned. I have worked in research for ten years so I am aware of a lot of limitations. Traditional approaches such as focus groups, surveys and ethnography studies do live up to actual behavioural indicators, but you have to always ensure that the methodology is going to meet the objective.

GW: Great ideas are invariably based on some type of insight. A consumer-facing business cannot innovate, or truly meet the needs of its customers, without the use of consumer insight. When people talk of ineffective research they are referring to badly designed research, or even well-designed research which has been taken too literally rather than mined for what’s really important.

An experienced client-side insight team with a passion for delivering value from consumer research, backed by agency partners who understand their business and share their commitment, will not deliver poor research;and it may well be the catalyst for game-changing strategies.

JE: All forms of market research will have some kind of sample frame bias, it’s about knowing what that is and correct it where possible.

Research that is poorly thought out, poorly briefed, poorly executed and poorly debriefed, will just give you confirmation of what you already knew. If you have an understanding of the problem you are trying to crack then market research becomes a useful tool to validate or even disprove hypotheses – which is just as valuable because it stops you spending millions of pounds going down a route that is unsustainable.

Agencies need to be more honest with their clients as to whether a brief is clear. And getting the business more involved is important to know where research insights are most needed.

CM: If you have clear business and research objectives, a good idea of the people you need to recruit, and work with a great agency, then I don’t believe you will have any concerns.

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