2020 was definitely a year of big changes for all industries, especially research and customer understanding. It revealed the importance of seamless customer-centric experiences. It also revealed the ongoing challenges, like efficiency and flexibility of customer insights teams. And research agencies are more and more divided, standing on the crossroads between technology-enabled methods or strategic consultancy.
Last week CUBE and Esomar organised a session where several speakers talked about their perspectives on what’s happening today in the world of customer understanding and market research. Hosted by Nathan Axford, a co-founder of Beyond Reason, the virtual event focused on global shifts, the role of agencies, and how organisations are tackling customer insights.
Four speakers participated and shared their opinions:
2. Nicole Huyghe, CEO at boobook, a consulting data analytics agency with expertise in strategic marketing advice based on customer analytics
3. David VL Smith, an expert in insight training with more than 25 years of experience; and
4. Pascal Mignolet, an experienced Market Research Consultant.
The presentations followed by a lively panel discussion were centred around five key topics:
There is an overall acceptance of new technologies, such as digital qualitative, passive metering, and social listening.
“Disruption that was seeping into our industry for years, accelerated rapidly due to the pandemic. In 2020, there was a 25% decline in global turnover in our industry. The good news is that the need for customer-centricity and insights is bigger than ever. When the pandemic hit, clients and companies were forced to look into new data capturing sources, applying new digital solutions as a part of their toolkit,” explains Wim Hamaekers.
While online and offline methods are seen as a more established research methods, technology-enabled methods are used for social listening, DIY automation platforms, data analytics, social media data analytics, etc.
From 2012 to 2019, there has been a steady increase of around 14% in technology-based methods, and this trend seems to continue to grow also in 2020.
However, it’s crucial to take these digital tendencies with a grain of salt.
“While technology excels fast forward, we are overwhelmed with many basic and advanced tools. Those tools that focus on visualisation and reporting, like Tableau or PowerBI, are widely used, while the AI tools are following this trend very slowly. Still, digital tools are just a part of the puzzle,” says Nicole Huyghe.
Pascal Mignolet agrees: “I think still now that if you really want to go for a holistic or comprehensive view of your concerns, you cannot rely on technology alone. There are areas that require a full understanding and are not accessible only through technology, not in 2000 in 2001 and probably not in 2030. So there will always be a need for the traditional old school methodologies. My fear is that the industry would go entirely towards technology, ignoring the traditional approach. The traditional tools must stay up-to-date and relevant in today’s research context because they are essential for decision-making.”
Organisations are more focused on building internal expertise in customer understanding, driven by cost, time, and the abundance of inexpensive DIY tools. This trend only shows how vital customer-centricity has become.
Nicole Huyghe confirms: “Data democratisation was a common concept emerging through a lot of conversations I had with clients. This basically means that listening, and understanding customers aren’t any more exclusive topics for the customer insight team. In fact, the CMI team is spread out across different departments. That’s great news; if you want to be customer-centric, you should focus on it throughout the entire organisation.”
“Self-service is going through a revival. DIY platforms had negative connotations in the past, but now that is all changing. This is a consequence of clients wanting to move faster, but they are also enabled by technology because these self-servicing platforms are very user-friendly and easy to use,” says Wim.
“Agency role as a support for corporate insight teams lies in strategic advice based on tech-enabled solutions. There seems to be a big split between those that are focusing on the tech-enabled solutions, and those that are offering strategic advice. From the client’s perspective, they need to be know who they need as a partner. The jury is out on where the industry is heading on answering complex “why” questions,” explains David.
When talking about CMI teams inside the organizations, David believes they should act as coaches: “More and more people were using platforms, and there is a clear trend going directly from platforms to end stakeholders. Considering some people might be non-experts dabbling in research, the role of the insights team as ‘coach’ is essential here as they need to encourage agile projects while putting a certain constraints filter (methodology, structure, etc.).”
Clients are looking to connect the dots, have access to all the available information, and extract valuable data insights. To support them in this journey, there is an increased demand for specialists.
“The need for comprehensive knowledge doesn’t only revolve around traditional methods. Considering the wide array of methods and tools used, everybody can play an important role. The comprehensive view requires analysis from different angles. As we move to the future, it’s crucial to select people who can take a position in this space and specialise,” says Wim.
In David’s opinion, the individuals who will be in demand are evidence-based strategic advisors or “polymath”, as he refers to them. He defines them as experts who are comfortable with uncertainty and are able to join up the dots and see the big picture. They own forensic energy, entrepreneurial agility, conceptual thinking, disciplined creativity with a growth mindset and a consultative approach.
Truly listening to customers, being responsive, and implementing “outside-in” thinking has been a high priority for many years. The pandemic did not necessarily change this, but it did impact other business aspects.
“While talking with experts, I could identify three types of organisations in terms of what the pandemic meant to them. The first group were organisations that had an increase in sales. The second group suffered a lot. The third group were organisations where digital has become really important. All of them face different struggles and possible outcomes,” says Nicole.
“Given the pandemic, CMI teams have a crucial role to play as there is a need for strategic advice on how to manage the disruption. However, the downsides are pressures on budget and structural changes in the insights landscape,” says David.
Pascal Mignolet has a very positive outlook on the crisis: “Research is a very disruptive industry, and change has always been an intrinsic part of this industry. We have survived everything until now, so I’m confident the research industry will also overcome current challenges.”
Research and customer insights have always been a priority in many organizations. Given the pandemic, companies are compelled to apply agile methods and try new digital tools to identify customer needs and pursue strategic opportunities.
In conclusion, there is a demand for a proper strategy to tackle a complex journey from customer, data, to analysis, insights, and translating it into action. Guided by expertise and experience, agencies have an essential role to help CMI teams reach their objectives through a collaborative and educational process. And if organizations want to build their in-house department, they must be ready to set the foundations right and build the right team with the right skills.
As David Smith advises: “Master the big stuff, the ever-changing details will take care of themselves!”
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