May 27, 2014

Marketing Intelligence at the Crossroads

The market research industry is a fantastic success story. Over the decades it has successfully responded to the fast moving business environment and changing customer data landscape. But it is an industry that is now at the crossroads. As an industry we need to make intelligent decisions about how we cope with the next chapter in our history. We could be entering an anything goes erawhen it comes to data and evidence. Or we could promote the need for transparency in explaining the evidenceused to advance an argument. The aim of this blog is to help shape our thinkingas a prelude to developing appropriate strategies to ensure our continued success.


The big ticket game changers

The issues that are changing the face of the marketing intelligence industry are well documented. Organisations now have multiple channels through which to engage with their customers. This means that the data we now have at our disposal to understandand interact with customers is broader, deeper, and more instantly available than ever before.  There is now an added edge to our ability to truly understand customers’ emotions.  More than ever we know how to change and influence behaviour.


The shape of things to come: it is a bit scary!

There will be no letting up inthe demand for faster, leaner and more creative solutions to problems.  This must be delivered on ever shortening timetables and on shrinking budgets – without any loss of quality!There will be major changes in the nature of the traditional client/agency relationship as clients make more use of do-it-yourself research platforms.  Meanwhile agencies must come to terms with the shift towards the commoditisation of certain types of market research that once were at a premium.

The calls for customer insight professionals within organisations to demonstrate their return on investment, and for agency professionals to highlight their added value, will not let up.   Agencies will have to adapt to an environment whichwill include working with other professionalswho are coming into the marketing intelligence ‘space’.  As an industry we need to work more closely with data scientists’, info-graphics experts, neuroscientists, behavioural economists and many others who can add to our ability to understand customers and communicate our findings.  In sum, we will need to be more creative, add more value and be prepared to work in eclectic teams.


Relax: it is still a good news story for marketing intelligence professionals

Having to operate in a massively different customer data landscape, with new ways of working, under increasing scrutiny in terms of the added value we must provide, is quite daunting. But the good news is that marketing intelligence professionals have in their DNA the core skills that lie at the heart of what successful evidence based business decision-making requires.

What a youngcustomer insight professional typically picks up in undertaking marketing intelligence projects in the first few years of their career is something that may cost someone else many thousands of dollars to acquire via an MBA at an expensive Business School. What marketing intelligence professionals quickly acquire is the ability to synthesise data from different sources, see the big picture and be lean and creative in the way they solve problems, and get their message over in a compelling narrative.

David Ogilvy spoke about the power ofdata rich creative thinking. This conceptualisation is a helpful way of summarising the potency of the skillset of an experienced marketing intelligence professional. They can see the wood for the trees, take the outside-in view, make the complex simple and frame the decision choices. They are able to pinpoint strategic foresights and act as catalysts for change to ensure their organisation is constantly seeking outand responding to new opportunities. People who can do this are never going to be out of a job!


But it could all still go horribly wrong if we let things drift

We must respond to the fact that we are at a crossroads! If things go wrong we could find ourselves living in a world where the craft of understanding how to build robust, evidence based arguments is lost in a sea of spin, sound bites and half-truths. Remember what JFK said ‘The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest – but the myth -persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic’.

But if we get it right we can create a scenariowhere evidence matters – to borrow from the UK Market Research Society’s strapline.  But we do, as an industry, need to take action and get this crossroads decision right, rather than sit back and simply hope for the best. There are three elements to the strategy we need to adopt. We need to believe more in the power of our skillset. We need to communicate the market research craft in a more conceptual way.  And finally,to cultivate the next generation of customer insight professionals, we need a radical rethink about defining the new market research curriculum.  Let’s briefly look at each in turn.


We need a stronger belief in our capabilities and a clearer sense of our own identity and purpose

As an industry we need to be a bit bigger. We need to go largerwith the statements we make about ourselves. So it is away from presenting data to creating tangible customer experiences. It is going beyond being champions of insightto being catalysts for change. It is not about purveyingsilos of knowledgebut aboutmultidisciplinary data collaboration and landing our message. It is about going beyond customer knowledgetowards influencing thinking and kick-starting fundamental change. But for all of this to happen we need to have greater self-belief.  Thus a key condition of success is encouraging market researchers to recognise that they are now admissible evidence. They need to be encouraged to have a clear sense of purpose on each project.  They need to be clear on what is at stake for their client (and them).  They must be confident in the stance they are taking and always have a point of view. They should not put doubt and hesitancy into the decision-making process but be forthright in framing the decision choicesand driving the business agenda.


We need to identify and make these transparent and accessiblethe key concepts that drive the robustness of evidence

If we are going to be successful in demanding transparency from those who use data to advance evidence based decisions, we need to rethink exactly how we are going to do this. For example, in encouraging a media pundit to be more rigorous in evaluating a survey based point, we cannot expect our inquisitor to have read Kish’s seminal work on Survey Sampling. So we need to identify the critical concepts and work harder to make them accessible to a lay audience. We cannot expect the world to make sense of textbook accounts of how we collectand make sense of public opinion.  Transparency needs to revolve around explaining the key principles in a more conceptual way.

This may sound rather grand. But DeBono reminds us that ‘Some people are uncomfortable with concepts – they think they are academic and abstract. Such people prefer concrete, hands-on action. They do not realise that the purpose of concepts is to breed concrete recommendations for action.

Let’s provide a quick example of the importance of getting to a concept that underpins understanding.  Those who have used gamificationtechniquesin questionnaires to help improve response rates and engagement are to be congratulated. But there is a danger of too much pragmatism overriding what we know about the concept of contextin shaping the way individuals respond toquestions. Thus the question ‘If you were on death row what would you order as your last meal?’maybe fun to answer and push up response rates. But it is the wrong context if what we are really after is ‘What is your favourite meal?’


Let’s create an engaging narrative, using more user-friendly language, for New market research

We need to work through the ‘classic’ market research curriculum and identify the key concepts and principles that a lay audience need to be aware of in evaluating the strength of evidence. Tim Harford is doing a great job with his More or Less programme on BBC Radio 4. We need more approaches like this. There is a delicate balance between being accused of dumbing down the methodological gold standardand successfully communicating powerful concepts that make the craft of robust evidence based decision-making more transparent and accountable.  This initiative will have the added bonus of reinvigorating and enriching the language of market research.  We can move away from using statistical labels, such as standard error, towards introducing concepts such as the safety of evidence.


An overhaul of the existing market research curriculum

Here there is a vitally important role for ESOMAR and the MarketResearchSocietyto play in providing thought leadership to help create imaginative new educational and training programmes that reflect the changing marketing intelligence industry.  ESOMAR and the MRS could take the lead in identifying the key concepts from how we currently teach the fundamentals of market research, which now need to be combined with principles from new market researchand the emerginginsight management profession. If we can get universities to rework their now rather dated curricular we could create an exciting learning platform for the next generation of customer insight professionals.

I look forward to hearing your views on the way forward for the industry.

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