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5 Uncomfortable Truths about the Insights Industry

The insights industry is a wonderful place to be right now — innovation in new methods, expanding horizons and more influence in boardrooms. Overall, businesses realise that it is imperative that their decisions are informed by consumer insight.

The onset of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence are two areas that bring great opportunity for our industry; new avenues and methods to explore, new influence in boardrooms, and ultimately, more insights. Discussions about agile insight, getting quicker feedback and putting insights into the hands of decision makers quickly, also give us great cause for excitement. In both cases, we are witnessing a new age of information that helps democratise data and means consumers influence the shape and future of businesses.

We are witnessing a new age of information which democratises data and allows consumers to influence the future of businesses, but the insights industry still has a way to go.

So, where is the catch? I would argue that there are five areas where more transparency will enable us to take full advantage of these great opportunities. If we don’t confront these five truths then I believe they will inhibit our growth as an industry.

1. We’re in danger of promoting data over insight

I can’t escape the uncomfortable feeling that the industry is in danger of forgetting its purpose: insight. With so much talk about speed and ‘real-time insight’ and automation, we are in danger of promoting data at the expense of insight.

Real-time insight is, in fact, impossible. Real-time data, however, absolutely is possible, but we must never confuse data as being the same as insight. If we do confuse it, then we will undermine our value and our role in organisations; we won’t be an ‘insight’ industry, but will instead be a ‘data’ industry. Data on its own isn’t insight.

More recently, people talk about automation and artificial intelligence and these too have a danger in them. Finding short cuts to a process is a good idea, but you cannot automate the insight; you can automate a finding or a result. I am an advocate of insight becoming more agile and faster, and I also advocate that there are many technologies that enable us to speed the processes up and help us in our work; but let’s be clear, insight is not the same as data and for insight to exist, someone (or something) has to take that data and gives it meaning or turn it into a decision or an action.

2. Survey samples are no longer random nor quality

Sampling quality has changed over the last two decades. This is a result of technology altering the way consumers want to interact with surveys, and the move to more convenient, cheaper and faster online surveys. Without telephones, call centres and random diallers, we all rely on access panels to supply participants.

The result is that they are neither truly random nor necessarily representative of the population; they answer scores, even hundreds of surveys every month. Participants are often recruited into these panels on the promise of being able to earn money from home and frequently join several panels at once. There are many technology advances that help minimise the worst of these problems, but often research buyers are unaware of the potential issues and pitfalls.

3. Quick turnaround does have an impact on quality

This is an uncomfortable truth for us all to talk about: in our rush to inform businesses at ever-faster rates, speed can — and does — vastly undermine quality. We don’t like to say this, because we fear being seen as slow or a barrier to making decisions quickly. But the reality is that a bad decision is worse for us all. I am just as guilty as others in trying to speed up delivery, and it is right that we find technologies that help us do this, but I also believe that the push for absolute speed isn’t necessarily a good thing.

If you structure your research into iterations then findings are put into use faster and brands get closer to consumers, because this allows insight to be curated over time. We all have to be ready to call out bad uses of data and be ready to caveat where speed may inhibit quality.

4. Contrary to belief, insight isn’t always the goal

This is hard for anyone to swallow but sometimes execs commission consumer insight to prove an argument or a course of action was the right one. Sometimes we focus so much on the need to find an insight that we lose sight that sometimes the objective actually isn’t to find an insight at all! End users are not always looking for advice or a recommendation and the uncomfortable truth; often left unsaid is that organisational politics is a big driver in commissioning work, not a purist need for some form of ‘truth’, but the cold need to confirm a decision, back-up a position or inform a pre-calculated strategy. All of these are no less valuable to an organisation, but insight is not always the driver for growth.

Most uncomfortable truths all point towards the fact that the industry is evolving yet again, which cannot be seen as anything but more opportunities for market research.

5. Reports don’t always add value

This is a hard one for me to say, as I was taught that the report is everything; that the whole reason for being was the insight and value-add contained in the report. Two decades ago, we used to be proud to advise that the report would take two weeks, because we would crunch the numbers, sift the evidence and weight up the arguments before revealing the conclusions. Today, though, I believe the uncomfortable truth that no one ever admits is that 50% of the cost of custom market research is in the creation and delivery of a report. That is a high sum, and in many cases might the end user be better not taking the report and instead commissioning the more insight projects instead? Is it better to inform more decisions?

The uncomfortable truth for a lot of people — in both agency-side roles or in client-side roles — is that often the C-suite execs and middle managers in a business know the dynamics of their industry, their products, competitors and markets better than some of the people writing the reports, so a more effective model of insight generation might be to work with the end user so they understand the data and how to take an informed decision from it, rather than giving them a conclusion or ‘result’.

Facing Up to Uncomfortable Truths

Most uncomfortable truths all point towards the fact that the industry is evolving yet again, which cannot be seen as anything but more opportunities for market research. And those truths that don’t point towards evolution, signal a weakness in our industry that we can strengthen with much-needed change. Facing up to these uncomfortable truths will only lead to more innovation, and that starts by talking about them out loud.

The original version of this article appeared on the FlexMR Insight Blog and can be accessed here.

We empower brands to inform every decision at the speed of business by delivering on-demand insight and enterprise grade research technology.

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