The challenges insight professionals face today are significant, some new, and some we have carried with us since the very start. Investment, education, redesigning research strategies for the changing times, proving the value of insights, and more are constantly discussed in articles, podcasts, networking and conference events, and social media.
Progress to move past them is tough, but achievable if we work together. Last week, FlexMR’s Research Director, Maria Twigge, hosted a roundtable event with eight prominent insight professionals from a variety of different industries:
- Rachel Binks, Senior Consumer Insight and Experience Manager at Cancer Research UK
- Ajay Mistry, Customer Research & Insight Manager at The Rank Group
- Thomas Lenihan, Head of Insight at Marston’s
- Erika Brenner, Consumer Insight Manager, and Founder of The Outsights
- Rachel Chalke, Customer Insight Manager at Confused.com
- Jo Caley, Insight Manager at Paragon Bank
- Ross Hilliard, Head of Research & Insight at Collinson
- Andy Smith, Customer Insight Manager at NFU Mutual
- Paul Hudson, Founder and CEO of FlexMR
We’d like to say a great big thank you to all who attended the event, this roundtable was a lively informal group discussion exploring many ways of how to grow an effective insights strategy, the practical challenges each team faces in different industries, and the factors that impact their daily tasks and routines. Each path an insight professional takes in their career throughout all industries is unique, as such, each experience and perspective was a valuable asset at this event.
What Does ‘Insight Strategy’ Mean to You?
Growing an effective insight strategy is akin to baking a really good cake. There are a number of important ingredients to combine at the right time, at the right speed and with the right amount of skill in order to bake the best cake we can. It’s the same principle when designing insight strategies.
Maria introduced the first topic of discussion by asking the group what the phrase ‘insight strategy’ meant to them. Paul Hudson started the conversation by stating he first considers the planning and budgeting when thinking about an insight strategy; Ross Hilliard then added about the types of project an insight strategy could be applied to, which was predominantly product development (business opportunity spotting, product positioning, new product launch, etc.). Two very practical opening statements, followed by a long-term desire by Ajay Mistry, who explored insight strategies as a way to gain a constant drumbeat of insights, along with Rachel Binks who shared that, amongst many things insight strategies were very conducive to horizon-scanning, which helps businesses plan for the future.
Everyone had something different they associated with ‘insight strategy’, whether that was the direction they focussed on (customer-led versus stakeholder-led) or the questions you need to ask in order to understand the predominant factors that make up a strategy. One of the more predominant factors in all strategy building exercises, is understanding the level of involvement and understanding of stakeholders. With each new interpretation that enters the discussion it can be hard to nail down what everyone truly needs. Erika Brenner advised that defining each interpretation from the start and working on a shared understanding of ‘insights’ works well to keep everyone involved on the same page throughout the research design and implementation processes.
The Power of Partnerships — Empowerment and Involvement
The strength of the partnership between stakeholders and insight teams is a significant factor throughout all insight strategies and was a major theme that cropped up throughout the roundtable discussion.
These partnerships are the building blocks of great insight strategies, with the communication that comes from a great relationship there is a flow of contextual information sorely needed to create the strongest insight strategy possible.
It was discovered fairly early on in the roundtable that, what defines the relationship between stakeholders and the insight team is the level of maturity. Maturity in this sense meaning the length of time they have had within the organisation, and the level of understanding and experience of market research each side has.
One of the key roles of an insight professional that emerged out of this discussion was about how to empower stakeholders to be involved in market research, but still maintain a level of oversight over everything to make sure the insight generation and activation process goes well.
Erika explained that stakeholder involvement is important to help with insight and business strategic alignment, but there was a discussion over how much involvement was necessary. How do we decide how much involvement is going to be conducive to the research project and how much will completely derail it.
Ultimately, it really depends on the project. We need stakeholder involvement because they know what’s possible with, say, product development, something insight professionals might not have any knowledge of at all — so we can combine the practical know-how with the technical know-how to create a more aligned and relevant research project.
Next came these questions: how do we maintain enough oversight over the insight strategy to help guide it along, while stakeholders drip-feed contextual information in to make it stronger? What tools are there to help with this? Are there strategies that work better to include stakeholders at different points?
Video focus groups worked well for a number of attendees; this was the tool that stood out most as helpful in this situation. Stakeholders and insight teams were able to agree parameters beforehand, and stakeholders were able to observe and comment on the videos in real-time, which helped with decision-making timeline and pressure of insight deadlines. It also allowed stakeholders to pick up on points without having to wait for a big reveal.
It was discussed that during the pandemic we’ve got more used to using online tools for collaborative working, instead of lots of rounds of amends and reviewing, these knowledge management tools help everyone involved dive into a document all at the same time. Insight professionals were able to work with stakeholders and agencies (if needed), involving both to a necessary degree and shaving time off the deadline as a result; they still had that all-important oversight over the project, while stakeholders had an important amount of input.
However, Rachel Chalke found that some stakeholders tried to get too much bang for their buck when they’re involved, wanting a high quantity of questions over quality, and we have to remind them of the purpose of the research so we are able to get back on track. This is probably due to a lack of understanding but it ultimately means we have to be careful how much we let them get involved; would it be better to restrict them to reviewing rather than constructing the research tasks? On the other hand, does programming a survey allow stakeholders to better understand the value of insights and the skills of the insights team?
Ajay established that survey programming is bread and butter stuff to insight teams, but to a stakeholder it could be quite tricky, but once they’ve got that under their belt it would leave insight teams more time to focus on data analytics or other trickier task programming, while stakeholders took charge of simpler research. Insight professionals would be there to advise and guide, but could take this chance to focus on the projects we can actually add value too, placing ourselves as a valuable resource in another insight strategy’s value chain.
Investment, Education, and ROI
Investment is a tricky topic in the insights industry. It’s no secret that research budgets have shrunk, especially in the last year and we are constantly trying to prove the value of the research we conduct. There are a number of challenges to getting investment to market research teams both within and outside of the insights industry. But in this roundtable, there were a few different strategies outlined to how they combat these challenges.
Depending on who Erika is talking to and their level of knowledge on market research, Erika sometimes acts as a translator of data and insights. Storytelling is a key skill she uses each day to help prove the value of insights to stakeholders; her role in insights is to educate people. Explain it once really well, then trust others interpret data well after that.
There were several ways mentioned to help stop the production of unnecessary research, most of them involved using the stakeholders themselves to justify the research they were trying to request. The biggest one mentioned, was to design the research briefing documents to include some key questions: What are the expected outcomes of this research? What actions will you seek to take depending on those outcomes? What will stakeholders deliver? Most attendees stated that they wanted to know what actions the organisation can take off the back of the research when it comes to making business decisions.
This involvement of stakeholders right from the beginning will work to educate them on their actions within the research process, and help insight teams decide which projects to take forward or prioritise first. But again, this depends on the maturity of the stakeholder and insight teams. Freshly constructed insight teams struggle to prove the value of insights with the lack of knowledge and experience on both sides of the partnership.
There is tension that arises when trying to allocate a pot of resources, time, tools, to gather foresight and predict what stakeholders don’t realise they’re going to want to know throughout the year. Getting insight professionals in those regular stakeholder meetings could help minimise the impact of this tension, as when they bring up questions, we can remind them that we could find that out for them in no time if we had the budget. Representatives from the insight team back plant the seeds of ‘we can help them with that!’ and grow their reputation within the organisation.
Money for insight comes from those stakeholder meetings, whether it’s involved in the funding of each individual department or specifically funding for the insights team itself. In this discussion we found that some organisations have their own pot of funding for continuous research that they feel has a strategic value across organisation — the decision for where they allocate that funding is all up to the insight team. Insight teams are empowered to conduct research on their own, but business owners still need to invest in them, so proving the research was useful is incredibly important.
Proving the value of insight is tough no matter what industry insight professionals work in. There is an immediate desire to concretely prove the value and difference insights can make, but it is rarely that easy. Is there a way to track the financial gain? Well, it depends on the project.
Jo described how the insight team at Paragon try to prove the value of insight and build up the reputation of the insights team at the same time — producing case studies as examples of best practice. This means following up and profiling each project, encouraging stakeholder teams to feed back the actions taken, the decisions made, and the results of those actions after the fact. While there is a typically a lag between the decisions made and the results of those decisions rolling in, this technique works to encourage other stakeholders to work with them.
Ad-hoc is harder to link back to and prove ROI. What will they have done in the absence of insight? Is there a distinction between insight-led and what they would have done? That is hard to process. While it’s difficult to concretely prove the value on some research projects, the memorability of insights is one factor that can help. Memorability helps encourage the people in stakeholder teams come back to insight professionals and keep the longevity of insights.
Moving Forward — Top Tips
With combined years of experience in the insights industry, our seven participants have some words of wisdom to share to help other insight professionals improve their insights strategy.
Alignment to the business strategy ultimately helps improve insight strategies. If it’s not aligned, you’re in danger of getting lost in a lot of noise, and a lot of things that may not be critical or important to the business and the value of you as an insight team can get lost in that noise as well. So, being critically aligned to the shape and strategy of the business and ensuring that your resources are managed within those strategic projects or programmes means we can deliver the right insight for those programmes.
Getting stakeholders to justify the research is important. Also, making sure stakeholders keep insight teams in the loop of what’s happening next. Sometimes things take weeks and months to see the value, and in the planning of what happens afterwards insight teams get lost, but insight teams are a vital cog in the actions taken after the research too. To justify our part in the whole project, we need to know how the insight we provide is used at the end, what actions came of it? What have we learnt from this and what do we do with it next? This communication needs to happen so we can use that as an example across other teams so the value of what we do is seen.
Communication is definitely key. As is understanding where insights add value and being able to communicate and demonstrate the value of evidence-based decision-making. I think the more we can demonstrate this the more we can perpetuate the right behaviour and bringing insight in early and recognise the value of investing in it.
Adaptability and patience are important, especially if you’re in a fairly young or new insights team. In my role, I have to first explain to stakeholders what I can do and how I can help them, then adapt the strategies and how I’m working with them to get the most out of each encounter. I need to be very flexible on how I work with the different departments depending on their needs.
For me, what’s important is making sure we think strategically about where we add value and that will be different for different projects. Making sure we’ve got the flexibility and resources, so we’re putting people as well as money into the areas of the insight chain that really make the difference to delivering the right insight that informs our organisation. So, it’s getting that balance and making sure we deploy resources effectively.
From an insight perspective, we need to understand stakeholder agenda as much as their strategy. There is a lot of politics to navigate when competing for attention and resources, especially across departments. We need to understand what those individuals want and how that influences their strategy.
One of the big things we’re focussing on moving forward is proactivity. I know it can be a bit of a cliche, but it’s actually about how we add value to the business. If we start there with the financial link, it adds towards the prioritisation and thus it allows us to respond to tactical requests better and manage what’s inevitably going to be a finite resource [market research] better too.
The first one is to keep feeding into the planning function as much as possible, because they know the priorities across the business, what’s being spoken about that we wouldn’t necessarily be party to, about making those strategic decisions where to spend time and money, so plug into planning as much as possible. And secondly, spend time with people, helping them or showing them how to write a good research brief. If you spend the time with them once, it’s really helps them understand each section on the brief, and that means the research is easier to plan, script, and design, so it is worth that little hour one-to-one with them.
This article was originally published on the FlexMR Insights Blog and can be accessed here.