For many years, market research was a recessive function. Tucked away in marketing’s backroom, its managers asked consumers what they wanted and reported the results with scrupulous objectivity.
Researchers – bookish, pernickety, introverted types – worked in the shadows of their more outgoing product and brand management colleagues.
But modern consumer insight lives by different rules.
Digital platforms bring better, faster sources of information. Data science is being used to find insights into consumer preference, intent and spend. Behavioural economics and neuroscience are helping unpick what really motivates people.
Faced with these changes, market researchers are developing new skills or being replaced.
The new breed of insight professional is having an impact far beyond the marketing department. They have a good grasp of data analytics and digital marketing as well as research. And they are creative and convincing communicators.
Wallflowers need not apply
Jessica Salmon, head of customer insight at O2, (Telefónica UK), has seen a big change in the type of people she needs for her team.
“On balance, we used to lean more towards introverted project managers and analysts. Now we have a more extrovert profile,” she says. “We need people who are engaging communicators, who can use their understanding of customers to tell great stories, and direct stakeholders to make decisions with confidence.”
She says she is also more open to hiring people with new skills, those from an innovation background, or with experience in management consulting.
Tim Opie, general manager for global insights and strategic planning at New Zealand dairy producer Fonterra agrees that his business is exposed to rapid change. He describes Fonterra as a “complex” business that operates globally, managing consumer brands such as Anchor and supplying ingredients to large global foodservice and FMCG companies.
“We are transforming the organisation’s mindset around insights, taking it from a research focus to something much more consultative and outside-in oriented. I want this team to be seen as strategic foresight consultants.”
We plan to run many more quick projects in-house, rather than outsourcing to an agency. It’s less a question of budget, it’s much more about speed.
Jessica Salmon, O2
Persuasive communication skills are high on the list for most insight leaders. “When I’m hiring new people, I look for a sales mindset first of all,” says Jake Steadman, global head of agency research at Twitter.
“Sales wasn’t really in the DNA of researchers before – but our job is about persuasion: we use data to show advertisers how they will get value from our platform. I need people who can tell and sell great stories with data.”
And these stories are no longer buried in 200-page slide decks. Insight activation is the new dynamic: driving decision-making with succinct, engaging and actionable narrative.
At online food delivery service Just Eat, research output needs to be pitched strongly into the battle for attention.
“We have to be very creative in how we communicate,” says Rufus Weston, the company’s head of insight. “We have a lot of data here, which people access with dashboards – but the data often doesn’t speak for itself. It needs help to tell its story. We recently ran an insight takeover day – we put up posters, printed flyers, played videos – to bring some of our consumer and restaurant insights to life.”
Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion
Consumer insight and data analytics teams are converging rapidly. “Our group is called business analytics,” says Rhea Fox, EU head of insight at eBay. “We have 20 or so data analysts, and seven researchers. There are differences in the way the two teams work, but the outputs are joined up. Research debriefs will always use data from the analyst team; and analyst presentations will incorporate customer insights developed in research projects. No project or recommendation would contain just one sort of data.”
Alla Nock is head of marketing research and analytics for the Australian business of consumer goods company Kimberly-Clark.
“For a few years, we have been adding to our research skills with more data analysis capabilities, for example with marketing mix modelling and pricing,” she explains.
“We recently made a new hire with deeper digital and data science skills, allowing us to integrate more tools into our insights such as CRM, social listening, Google Analytics and retail data – together with our existing consumer and shopper research.”
Katherine Feres, head of market data and insight at Paddy Power Betfair, sees similar changes. “We have much more behaviour and usage data now,” she says. “We don’t need to ask as many questions. We know what people play, how much they spend, what time of day they are active – real data based on actual behaviour, and we can infer a lot from that.
“When we combine that data with a handful of direct questions, we can get to powerful insights.”
Most progressive insight leaders take a similar line: you need to combine several sources and types of data if you want powerful commercial insight.
“We’re a very data-driven business,” says Just Eat’s Weston. “We use analytics to build a complete picture based on what our customers do and what they tell us. For example, we combine survey results with customer data on spend and order frequency to build lifetime value models.”
At PVH Corporation, the owner of fashion brands Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, director of consumer insights, Christopher Ribeiro says people can sometimes be sceptical of survey data on its own.
“In fashion, consumers can’t always tell you what they want,” he says. “So we are building a connected toolbox for behavioural data and research. What I want is an integrated data warehouse that sits on top of our CRM, our data management platform and our survey results so that analysts can ask questions on consolidated data. I see my team increasingly as data agnostic architects, mixing together the what and the why.”
But not every customer insight team finds this transition straightforward. “We actually have three insight teams: consumer, shopper and data analytics,” says a senior insight manager with a leading global toy manufacturer. “It’s not as well integrated as it could be right now, so we are trying to focus on better alignment.”
Alla Nock at Kimberly-Clark agrees that finding and integrating the right talent can be challenging.
“Most data analysts we considered for our latest vacancy had relatively little business experience or commercial maturity,” she says . “They could do the numbers, but they would have struggled to relate their work to the business and consumer issues.”
But whatever the specific route, the direction of travel is clear: research and analytics teams are quickly coming together.
Technology investment on the rise
The rise of technology means insight teams are increasingly investing in software platforms and hiring people to run them in-house, which is impacting their use of of research agencies.
“New tools and data sources have led us to rethink our team roles and workflow,” says Paddy Power Betfair’s Katherine Feres.
“We create and send surveys in my team, and we use research agencies less and less. It takes too long and costs too much, so we have brought more in-house over the last couple of years. We even hired a project manager to support this, and we were inundated with high quality applicants. More of these roles will move from agencies to brands in the future.”
Telefónica’s Jessica Salmon shares this view. “We plan to run many more quick projects in-house, rather than outsourcing to an agency. It’s less a question of budget, it’s much more about speed. We need to be ever more responsive.”
New tools and data sources have led us to rethink our team roles and workflow.
Katherine Feres, Paddy Power Betfair
At Just Eat, insight team members can even answer some questions in near real-time. “We’re trialling the use of automated research for testing ads and other ideas,” says Rufus Weston.
“We use software with templated surveys and reports. We upload the campaign creative, hundreds of consumers start giving feedback immediately, and we have a completed report within a few hours.”
More commercial impact
Leading insight teams are no longer just a marketing function: they help drive change across the whole organisation.
“The insight team is becoming the connecting thread of consumer centricity that joins innovation, R&D, business intelligence, sales, marketing and finance,” says Tim Opie of Fonterra.
Meanwhile, at eBay, Rhea Fox says the team now reports to the EMEA CFO
“We used to be part of marketing, and the regional CMO remains one of our biggest stakeholders, but we now work more across the whole matrix. Reporting to the CFO also means we bring customer insight and commercial strategy closer together.”
At Telefónica, all aspects of business planning are expected to have a foundation of customer insight.
“Our work is being embedded in much more decision making these days,” says Jessica Salmon. “Right now, for example, I am working on capex [capital expenditure] prioritisation and developing KPI frameworks – strategic planning components that would not historically have involved my team. As a business, we have recognised that we need to ground all decision making in the customer.”
To deliver on this vision, insight leaders are gaining much more C-Suite visibility.
“Consumer insight is now structurally higher up the organisation,” says the senior manager at a leading toymaker. “The global head of insight role has moved up two levels in our hierarchy over the last three years. There is a real thirst from our senior management for understanding consumers and shoppers better.”
At eBay, having a senior team helps Fox to provide value at the appropriate level. “Our research team is just seven people,” she explains. “But we all have at least 15 years’ experience in customer insight and consulting. We’re involved in the regional executive committee meetings, and we work closely with all the leaders of the EMEA business units.”
Compared with the traditional market researcher, the modern customer insight and analytics professional is barely recognisable.
The big digital disruptors have led the way in creating these new roles; but as these brands show, great customer insight is not their sole preserve.
Winning insight teams are those who build skills in storytelling, data analytics and technology. And the losers? You’ll find them in a quiet backroom somewhere, sifting through a pile of surveys.
Mike Stevens is managing director of What Next Strategy & Planning