Connection & Communication: Principles of Insight Activation

Insight activation is a crucial challenge for all insight professionals. In this stage, the insights from the research experience should be communicated effectively and put to good use by the project stakeholders — but this is not always what happens.

There are a number of obstacles insight teams and stakeholders face in this part of market research that hinders their ability to carry out the insights activation stage efficiently. From the limited knowledge and experience of stakeholders, and that of researchers of the stakeholders’ business contexts, to the lack of innovation, tools and technology paving the way for effective insights activation, there is a lot of insight professionals can learn from each other’s regular experiences.

This is where our latest roundtable comes into play. On 30th September 2021, FlexMR’s Research Director, Maria Twigge, hosted the roundtable event, that was attended by eight insight experts:

We would like to take this chance to thank everyone who attended our first in-person roundtable of 2021. Each attendee had a great unique perspective and experience to bring to the table, enriching the discussion and hopefully taking away new ideas to innovate their insights activation strategies in the future.

What Does it Mean to Activate Insight?

Activating insight is different for most insight professionals based on their own individual experiences. For the lucky few, insight activation is as easy as talking to stakeholders, who then are motivated by their own priorities to act on the insights given; but for most of the insights industry, we battle with stakeholders for a place in the conversation to help inform decisions with hard-earned insights because of common perceptions, lack of understanding, and an over-reliance on gut-feelings.

Maria started the roundtable event by putting the question on the table: what does it mean to activate insight?

The answers returned were predictably varied, but with a few interesting common denominators. For one attendee, insight activation can mean many things, such as learning new things, moving forward with strategies or tactics, sometimes just a confirmation that the business would do well to maintain the current course and other times stakeholders are going back to the drawing board. While the results of insights activation can be varied, all these things have one thing in common — action.

Insights activation is a crucial stage of the market research experience — how can insight teams make sure the insights they generate have the best chance of activation?

For another roundtable participant, the activation stage is experienced differently depending on the stakeholder or team they’re talking to, and the channel they’re working on. Throughout the conversation, they try to make the impact ad message of insights as tangible and simple as possible, so most stakeholders can take the insights and instantly know exactly what they need to do with them.

All attendees agreed that market research has a place beyond simply confirming stakeholders’ gut feelings, however, that is still a big part of what a few of them do — and when they do confirm those gut feelings, stakeholders potentially listen more to the research and insights. A couple of attendees mentioned that they get a bit more pushback when the research they conduct actually contradicts what stakeholders thought they knew for certain about a topic, strategy, or trend, and they start to try and pick holes in the research conducted.

This sparks the question, do we always need to find new learnings from insights, or can there be moments where we’re simply making sure stakeholders have the right idea and the right plan in place already?

And then: does this change how we frame market research?

A good number of the attendees agreed that this does in fact change how we need to frame market research, and some of them already do. Their insight teams spend a lot of time working through and understanding what stakeholder business problems are, what stakeholders want to know, and what they will do differently when faced with the results of research. But once the insights are out of our hands and into the hands of stakeholders, insight teams can’t just leave them to it after the debrief. If insight teams did leave it here, then all we would be doing is just increasing knowledge in the business (which is a good thing) but not making sure the business is taking action as they say they would.

So, depending on the proactive nature of your stakeholders, their ability to act on what’s given or lack thereof, insight activation means extending the role of an insight manager beyond simple providers of insight to make sure the insights are used even after the research experience has ‘ended’.

Stakeholder Pre-conceptions, Motivations and Action

With stakeholder perception of market research, there is a certain pressure on researchers to find something new every time they conduct research, otherwise, a couple of attendees mentioned that their stakeholders start to question the value of research if it’s just confirming what they think.

This also happens with one particular engagement tactic where they ask stakeholders for their hypotheses at the start of the project and then see if they’re right or not — this is a great tactic to keep stakeholders interested, but can also lead to the wrong perception of research simply confirming what stakeholders already know or can guess.

A couple of the attendees pointed out that this is where insight teams start to struggle with stakeholder engagement and insights activation, as they’re focusing on trying to justify the value of research, why it’s necessary to generate insights, why researchers have asked that particular question and spent money on this topic. Insight teams are caught up in that battle of justification rather than trying to effectively communicate the insights they have.

This battle is brought to a whole new level of difficulty when insight teams deal with stakeholders who don’t open their minds up to research and are even anti-research as another attendee pointed out; because of this, many insight teams end up working for those stakeholders who are the most receptive to research rather than all stakeholders in a business.

For a good number of stakeholders, their understanding and perceptions of what research actually is and can do for businesses are fundamentally wrong. As such, the more collaborative research engagement practices seem daunting as one attendee added because stakeholders usually just want the results without the effort — but collaboration can be a great way to promote the value of insights and research, and actively prompt them to think about how this resource (research and the voice of the customer) can be useful.

The ‘gut feeling’ decision-making stakeholders are most known for is still more prevalent than we’d like to admit. One attendee brought up the fact that it can be easy for stakeholders to think that they’re in the know already, that they know better especially when it comes to insights that impact their team directly, and thus this perpetuates the departmental silos that trap important insights and information.

Every decision made within each team has a consequence for the organisation, so it’s worth reminding stakeholders within a team to take a step back and look at the bigger picture as a whole. This reminder of their role and impact in the organisation can be an educational experience for senior stakeholders, and help the insight team gain traction in their more regular decision-making processes by getting them to care about all insights and customer base.

A couple of attendees said they have realised that risk is a big motivator for their stakeholders, particularly in the insights activation stage making stakeholders aware of the risks of not acting well on the insights generated is a great tactic to get them more engaged. Risks such as facing financial, social, or operational consequences have proven to be an effective motivator to request more research and to act on the insights generated in a way that drives positive change or refines the viable options available to stakeholders at that moment in time.

For example, if stakeholders don’t do anything with the research and insights what damage will that do to the business and its reputation. Everyone wants authentic dialogue with businesses, and the customers have taken the time to open the conversation on their end, telling us exactly what it is they want and experience, if they don’t feel the stakeholders are communicating well in reply, then that could have considerable consequences for the organisation.

While better communication between stakeholders teams would be a great boon for the insights team and would promote successful insights activation, Maria then asked our attendees: would multi-stakeholder research projects help better connect stakeholders teams?

The general consensus was that, while it could theoretically aid connection, conversation, and collaboration, there is messiness that would come from trying to answer more than one clear question within that particular research project. There are a few angles that would need to be addressed that it wouldn’t be beneficial to run this as a regular research project.

One overarching consensus was that insight teams shouldn’t end the research experience at the debrief. Stakeholders don’t seem to learn from or remember insights as much as is needed, and thus to keep the insights alive, insight teams need to pop back up, again and again, to make sure the insight has the best chance of activation.

As such, it’s fast becoming an insight professional’s prerogative to follow up on stakeholders after the debrief to reinstate the value of those insights, check to make sure that they’re acted upon and grab some feedback on what exactly was done out of the actions discussed in the debrief itself. This isn’t necessarily all for the benefit of the stakeholder organisation, but also because insight teams can absorb that feedback and the results of those actions into other research projects across the business to make them more accurate and more likely to contribute relevant insights without repetition.

The Role of an Insight Professional

Where does our role as insight professionals begin and end?

This is one of the bigger questions the attendees debated in this roundtable. With the insight activation stage of research being the most crucial for success, but also the stage we have the least control over, what can and should insight teams do to exert influence over this stage to make sure insights are understood, valued, and acted on?

In-house insight teams have an advantage in this instance. Stakeholders within an organisation all have their own priorities, their own interests that take up time, effort, and space inside their mind, so bringing insights to the table in the midst of all that can be tough. In-house teams build up an innate knowledge of those priorities over time and can automatically use that to their advantage.

How far should insight managers go to make sure their insights are acted upon? Eight prominent insight professionals share their thoughts and expertise on how to successfully manage insight activation.

As insight professionals, it is our duty to make sure insights are generated and delivered, but the question discussed by our attendees was: how far should insight managers go to make sure their insights are acted upon?

There isn’t really a direct answer to this question. While some insight teams will go as far as they’re able, sometimes the effort isn’t rewarded as we’d like, and worth comes into question.

The role of an insight team is multi-faceted. While a large part of our brand is to generate and deliver insights, there is a depth to our role that most stakeholders don’t see. Insight teams are the direct bridge between the customer and the stakeholders, we bring the voice of the customer into the boardroom and then feedback the results back to customer-respondents. Instigating this two-way conversation, sometimes even bringing the parties together to discuss strategies, products, ideas, communications, etc. directly, is a huge part of our role.

In this roundtable, it was admitted that stakeholders get lost in their own strategies, priorities, budgets and planning, and then forget to factor in the voice of the customer. It is a researchers responsibility to represent the customer base in as many meetings as possible, restating key insights to make sure that they are heard, remembered and not disregarded in favour of gut instinct.

When stakeholders do listen, they sometimes listen to the customer more than they listen to their own business development (BD) team. One attendee recollected a time when a stakeholders’ BD team noted down a few issues that stakeholders didn’t take too seriously, but then were shocked when they heard the same issues pop up in the customer research. In such cases, bringing the voice of the customer into the boardroom, into team meetings, and even organisation-wide meetings is exceedingly beneficial and compelling.

Despite this, a few of the attendees mentioned that they knew there was a difference between what the customer wants and what stakeholders are capable of, and it’s in an insight team’s best interests to ask those questions to establish exactly what stakeholders are prepared to do from the very beginning of the research experience. Setting expectations right from the start of the experience will help stakeholders understand what research will happen, how it will happen, what the insights will likely be and what they will need to do to put them to good use.

All of the attendees agreed that a good half of an insight professional’s role in a research project is figuring out how to best present and narrate insights. Typically, we’re good at constructing recommendations from analysis, but some insight professionals aren’t effective storytelling communicators, which is vital for getting stakeholders to act as well as understand. Insight managers should construct an emotional narrative, not too comedic or heavy, but it’s good to value the moments of levity or gravity that makes stakeholders sit up and pay attention again.

Insight Activation Tricks and Tactics

After the whole group discussion, Maria created three break out groups where they would discuss their own experiences with insight activation techniques sparked by our infographic as a prompt. Specifically, Maria asked which tactics they used that they believe are successful, which hadn’t been quite as well-received, and if there were any they’d like to use in the future.

The first group called three tactics they liked the best from that infographic:

  • Embedding Insight Advocates into stakeholder teams to make sure that insights are always part of the conversation.
  • Using verbatim video clips from the research experience to directly connect stakeholders to customers.
  • Involving stakeholders in the research experience from the very start.

From the insight activation techniques they’ve already implemented/experimented with, one of the first groups said they believe they’ve already developed a good internal brand and a regular research update schedule. In fact, they implement specific event series (quarterly) to help raise the profile and communication of insights even further.

Another said that they are currently developing an insight library but make sure that it always leads back to the insight team so stakeholders don’t have the chance to misunderstand any research projects or insights — but they’re currently facing a need for people to keep it up to date and some stakeholders don’t use it as much as they should.

Regular reporting activity in one central insights channel has freed up capacity in another attendee’s research team because stakeholders have to go get the insights themselves; the insight team can then use this central reporting repository to view which stakeholders have accessed it recently to actively look for research and insights.

The second group called attention to their favourite three insight activation techniques on the infographic:

  • Create a universally accessible data warehouse to store and look up research projects and insights.
  • Make data playful and interactive to boost stakeholder engagement.
  • Formalise a strategy and set of tactics to engage the internal audience.

The first of their group stated that they already had a data warehouse in their organisation, but the insights team put so much information onto it that it’s difficult to know what exactly they want to see. There are stakeholders who do use it every day, but then there are also stakeholders who used it for the first couple of days and then reverted back to asking the insights team for all the information they could find in the warehouse.

Formalising a strategy and tactics was a clear favourite in this particular group. In order to formulate a strategy filled with impactful tactics, it’s vital to understand what the vision is and then understand the actions insight teams need to take in order to realise that vision.

Another stated that while statistical data is a good starting point, if insight teams turn a spreadsheet into a visual, then people less versed in statistical analysis are able to understand quicker and easier. There is also a chance for that emotional connection to form between the stakeholders and customers if the data is presented in the right way. One of the ways suggested was to learn from journalistic storytelling; news stories tend to be purpose-led so the story doesn’t get lost in a sea of statistics and facts, and also sparks action.

The final team decided they liked these three insight activation techniques:

  • Using dedicated insight bots or channels to regularly distribute insights
  • Involving stakeholders in the research experience from the very start.
  • Using a knowledge management platform to manage data and insights

Using dedicated insight bots or channels on internal organisation-wide communications platforms (such as slack, teams, etc.) to distribute bite-sized insights is an intriguing concept. Then the conversation to what other channels might be used to communicate insights, which resulted in the discussion of open mic insight sessions (the verbal version of newsletter) as a more informal and frequent platform, and the creation of a staff panel like an internal forum so they could express their opinions on the research.

With vast experience in their field, read how insight teams from F1, Rank Group, B&CE, and more make sure their insights are heard by stakeholders and actioned for the best chance of success.

This prompted a discussion on whether email would become irrelevant in insight communication. Emails were generally seen as more formal in this discussion, and instant messages as more informal and conversational, but the insight channels on instant messenger platforms could drive more value as people opt in. Instant messaging also forces insight professionals to be a bit more creative in their wording as it might need to be more succinct or anecdotal to be impactful, however, this would be boosted by the ability to easily send verbatim video clips from research projects.

Lastly, one attendee already has a knowledge management portal in play within their organisation, similar to a data warehouse, but drawing different information from different places, CX, research, online brand/reputation management data, etc. Each team and local area is able to have their own individual view of information (localised insights and departmental-specific insights, for example) that resonate with them.

This article was originally published on the FlexMR Insight Blog and can be accessed here.

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