Research and insight: endeavour to see how the customer sees

Five insight experts tell Lucy Handley their high points from last year and their plans for this – including coping with a budget squeeze – and the skill to getting better results from research

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Marketing Week (MW): What was the most interesting thing you did with research and insight in 2011?

Simon Pollock (SP): We used both a shopper lab [mock supermarket] and packaging research agency The Big Picture to get a better understanding of developments in packaging.

Using a shopper lab allows us to create a real-life environment and get respondents to review the product. One of the simplest things we learned was about our messaging hierarchy on pack. For example, one of our brands has a series of sub-ranges but consumers didn’t even notice – they thought of it as one product range rather than multiple product ranges, even though the products are functionally quite different.

Previous research told us [the design was] alright and people could see the differences [in product range] when prompted. But this particular research highlighted an issue that we think has been holding the brand back.

We’d been doing packaging research in the same way for 10 or 15 years and it just took a small change [to make this difference].

Danny Russell (DR): We started using a new methodology for our brand and communications tracking, which has enabled a far quicker turnaround of findings. This in turn has eased stress while allowing business decisions – sometimes to reduce investment, other times to double it – to be made on the basis of data and not anecdotes.

We use traditional tracking across all our brands and content – including Sky, Sky+HD, drama Boardwalk Empire and sitcom Spy.

Tony Fitzgerald (TF): Bupa has customers in roughly 190 markets around the world, so there is a challenge in terms of getting the right information to the right people at the right time. Last year saw a big change in the way we do business: we’re increasingly sharing insight and best practice with all our colleagues around the world. We made good progress last year, using our own social networking platform.

“Neuroscience helped us understand the optimal time within a story for the ad message”

MW: How do you think brands can make better use of research?

Jane Frost (JF): If brands are not good at research and not innovating around their customers, they are asking for trouble. Not enough marketers are using research to create the evidence that will improve their reputation in the boardroom.

TF: Ground your decisions in insight, and introduce it early in the process. Bupa has positioned insight at the heart of its ‘way of marketing’. My earlier career is littered with rushed projects, commissioned too late to be of real use to anyone.

It’s really important that people treat research less like a box-ticking exercise (literally). It’s astonishing that this still happens, and is more than a little disrespectful to the respondents, as well as ultimately futile.

DR: It is incumbent upon the research and insight world to ensure that the research they produce is so powerful that brands would be incompetent not to use it. That then puts the emphasis on us to change and not someone else.

Neil Carden (NC): To get more out of research, brands need to figure out earlier what the key decisions are and how research can inform them. That doesn’t mean slowing things down, just doing a bit more hard thinking up front.

In the past, I’ve seen a lot of time, money and effort wasted on briefs that don’t get to the heart of the decision that needs to be made. Pace of research is important, but haste leads to waste and ultimately undermines credibility.

We have recently done a great piece of work with agency Quadrangle, talking to thousands of consumers so we can understand what people want from us.

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MW: How easy or difficult do you think it will be to find the budget to hire people in 2012, and why?

NC: Hiring should always be difficult; hiring people who can deliver insight that impacts business performance is more so. A good insight function knows exactly how much value it has delivered and so can forecast how much more value it could deliver with the same or more resources. Unfortunately, it’s not always that easy in practice.

TF: The team is currently trying to recruit a competitor analyst to fill an existing position, but [available] headcount is unlikely to change beyond that. Any increase in headcount has to be justified – these days more than ever.

JF: Jobfinder, which is the UK’s largest research recruitment site, has had an increase in postings of over 30% in the past 6 months. The pressure on government budgets will not help but, anecdotally, I see more insight experts being deployed in wider roles these days.

SP: We have been finding it very difficult to hire people in the past year and I don’t expect it to get any easier. We are looking for commercial expertise as well as research knowledge, for people who have a high level of curiosity and are willing to experiment to get better answers.

That is quite a difficult combination of skills to find. We are looking everywhere, including outside the industry and to people that have an analytical brain and change management experience.

MW: What’s your view of online panels?

JF: Panels are like any other technique – good if they are used appropriately and to a high quality. They are not an easy option and need as much thought and clarity of brief as any other research method – and it is just as important to use competent professional suppliers. Personally, I would never use them in isolation but only as part of a wider evidence base.

TF: It’s hard to imagine how we could manage the volume of research that’s required, along with ever-increasing pressure on timings, without access to online panels. How representative they are remains a problem, while low-quality response and ‘professional’ respondents throw up their own questions. Weigh these issues against speed, cost and the ability to target specific groups easily and you soon reach the fairly pragmatic conclusion that they’re a useful tool.

NC: I’ve made extensive use of online panels at The Co-op and have moved from initial scepticism to being an enthusiastic adopter. As long as they deliver robust and accurate insight for the decision at hand, they’re a cost-effective and fast tool. But they can be quite addictive and sometimes online panels are not the most appropriate tool for the job. In some circumstances, there’s no substitute for face-to-face conversations.

“We’d been doing research in the same way for years and it took a small change [to make a difference]”

MW: Have you used neuroscience techniques – measuring brain reactions – in research?

DR: Yes, and I like it. Everyone in research will admit that people don’t always do as they say – but then they undertake research in which they believe virtually everything that people say! Neuroscience can cut through that [by revealing unconscious reactions]. Our problem has been that most of the companies undertaking it are science-focused rather than commercial, so we have struggled to get a cost-effective solution in place to date, but that will change.

NC: I haven’t used neuroscience. In general, I’m happy to use new tools and techniques, but I’m not in a hurry to do so. I prefer to let others get the kinks out of them first. And, of course, there would need to be a compelling reason why neuroscience would deliver more value to the business than other tools.

TF: Yes, it’s something to keep an eye on as the technology becomes more tried and tested and the price falls.

JF: I haven’t used it personally, but I am excited by the creative possibilities thrown up by the result of crashing together scientific ideas and established research techniques.

SP: We did a lot in 2010 but not so much recently. The best value that we have had from neuroscience is understanding the ‘brand takeout’, ensuring that our branding is delivered in the most impactful way.

Advertising is a unique combination of entertainment and stories that engage people but also deliver strong brand messages. Neuroscience has helped us understand the most optimal time within a story for that message.

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It’s not just about shoehorning the brand message in at the start or a certain place in the ad, it is about making it integral to the story. We were able to rework ads to create a memorable branding moment without compromising the story.

We analysed control samples, looking at brain responses from different advertising. What we were really looking for was long-term memory encoding [so people remember messages over time] and the moment when that happens.

MW: What new techniques do you plan to use in 2012?

TF: Behavioural economics is throwing up lots of interesting ideas and techniques. We’ve used it on the periphery to date, but I would be interested in exploring additional opportunities for us to apply this in our work.

JF: I hope to witness quite a flowering of new techniques over the next few years as more creative, scientific and data opportunities open up and the impact of gamification [using some techniques from gaming in research] will become more evident.

NC: I’m hoping to continue to develop some previous work integrating semiotics into proposition development. My real passion is for bringing together research data with behavioural and transactional data to get a truly nuanced view of what matters to the customer.

I try to be as efficient and effective as possible in using our members’ money. That doesn’t mean that we can’t take risks, however. But it does mean that I have an aversion to shiny new things unless they’ve been proven to deliver.

MW: How do you use social media? What about mobile?

TF: We currently have social media monitoring in place in a number of markets. It’s enabled both proactive and reactive management of issues as they have arisen. Mobile is an increasingly important channel. While we haven’t used it as a means to research, we have researched what we deliver via mobile – including our apps.

SP: Our biggest area of experimentation is mobile and using handsets to access targets that we wouldn’t necessarily be able to get via panels and using real-time collection. We also use mobile in new product launches, putting an incentive of some kind inside that product.

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We are using social networks for research. We can make changes and tweaks as we go, so by the end of the research, we get to a place that is much more compelling than we have done in the past. Traditionally, we’d have done a round of qualitative research, got the feedback, made changes and perhaps done three or four rounds.

JF: Since August 2008, we have steadily amassed almost 10,000 followers on Twitter, creating a community of shared interest among whom we can promote our content, source ideas and gain feedback for future articles.

Unlike many websites, we follow the individuals and companies that follow us, provided they state in their biography that they are researchers. This enables Twitter to become a tool for two-way dialogue between the organisation’s magazine or website and the reader, not just a ‘broadcast’ channel. In the next year, we are planning to expand its role on our MRS and Research Live websites.

NC: We use social media and mobile to engage with our customers and members and I expect to see a lot more of this in 2012. Social media and new channels offer intriguing possibilities for how we can deliver on our values and bring the benefits of being part of the Co-operative to our customers and members.

DR: We track [what is being said in] social media and report it weekly using a fairly sophisticated quantitative methodology. It’s cheap, operates in real time and can be hugely engrossing. However, it has to be very carefully contextualised. We have had situations where, according to social media, the world is about to end, yet our actual commercial metrics didn’t even move.

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