The impact of digital transformation on market research remains an ongoing focus for global conferences, webinars, and publications. Agencies are challenged to do more research and handle more projects with quicker turnaround and at lower cost. Implementing automation is seen as one way of coping (AI is the latest buzzword). The focus is on efficiency but what gets less attention is the aspect of market research tangibility—bringing things and insights to life and ensuring actionability, making market research more effective. Generating a powerful insight is and will always be core, but increasingly there is a recognition that an insight without an action plan is not very valuable.
In concept development we have worked with different co-creation methods over many years, including story-telling, story-changing, creative exercises, role-playing, war games, scenario building and more. But, over the past 2-3 years, what has increased is the focus on insights activation—we are increasingly asked to turn insights into more tangible outputs; getting involved in bringing potential new product ideas to life. This can be on a product, packaging, or naming level. It involves the use of simple drawings, more professional illustrations, initial dummies, or first-stage prototypes.
A Vibrant, Inspiring City with a Start-up Mindset
Our location in Berlin is a driving force behind our ability to take insights into action. The cultural backdrop to this is relevant. Berlin is one of Europe’s hottest cities for start-ups, increasingly rivalling London. The vibrant German capital is home to a huge pool of international expertise and has good geographic access to talent from Central and Eastern Europe. Rents are comparatively cheap, co-working spaces are abundant, and the lifestyle is relaxed. There’s also a good mix of incubators and accelerators.
The city has become a magnet, a popular breeding ground for creative people who want to change the world. Skinny jeans and dark glasses abound. Creative working places have sprung up offering low-cost access to the specialised kit needed to create individualised prototypes and models—3D machines, laser cuts, sewing machines, and more. Working in the midst of this environment inevitably rubs off on our research approaches—very few entrepreneurs or start-ups have an appetite for lengthy or perfect analysis phases. Speed is a constant factor, especially on developing a minimum functioning prototype and launch. Doing comes first, then the learning.
This has led us to design certain research projects accordingly.
Taking Ownership of Insights
Agility is a core principle, design thinking approaches are often built in—but critically, the projects should have tangible outputs. To that end, we work directly with our customers to turn insights into reality. It may seem strange—why would clients accept insight-generators becoming insights-evaluators? To date, the benefits have outweighed the downsides. Less gets lost in the translation process, and as trained social scientists we are considerably more balanced and objective in evaluation processes than a creative might be. Market research folk also get to own the insight—with potential to shift up the value chain.
It does of course mean rolling up our research sleeves, getting our hands dirty in the follow-through phase—shifting from insights to ideas to initial prototypes, using scribbles, drawings, and 3D printers.
Here are three examples of this type of new approach.
- From shiny insights to robust prototypes
A jewelry manufacturer recently approached us to help them define an offering for a particular customer segment. They realized this might involve expanding their existing range and asked us to help design an innovation process accordingly.We designed a 5-stage process that ran over two weeks, beginning with a collaborative workshop. Using existing company knowledge, and mining segmentation data, we created a series of personas that were brought to life in creative role-playing exercises. This helped give the client a very vivid sense of potential new category needs. Armed with these agile insights, we led a creative ideation session aided by scribblers, visualizers, and assorted creatives. For each persona type we had identified, first-stage jewelry models were developed using pliable materials. A classical gallery walk helped identify popular products, with suggestions for improvement noted.
Following this was a trip to one of the creative studios and 3D printers, where, with external support and guidance, we turned a range of new jewelry ideas into first-stage prototypes which could be picked up, handled, turned around, placed on a neck, a wrist, or an earlobe. Finally, we took a selection of the new product roughs into a quant-qual evaluation for a first-stage validation.
By going further than we would normally go in an innovation project, we helped our client move further towards the next stage of their innovation approval process, and the critical go/no-go decision.
As you can see, qualitative research morphed into something considerably more robust.
- Turning insights into poetry
The second example is from the area of social research and is work we conducted recently for a European NGO, Pulse of Europe. This movement started in Germany in 2016 against a backdrop of polarizing opinion, increasing nationalist sentiment, Brexit, and a schism between Eastern and Western European countries. Vocally pro-Europe, its aims were to encourage citizens across Europe to speak out publicly in favor of a pan-European identity. Demonst-rations were organized every Sunday afternoon, initially in German cities, subsequently spreading throughout Europe, with each event touching on a different aspect of being European.We got involved not just as insight specialists, but as a group of people who agreed with the cause and wanted to add our own voices and make our insights heard.
As a first stage, we executed traditional qualitative research combined with deskwork to identify the most salient motifs driving Euro-skepticism, with a view to structuring potential counter-communication strategies. The strands we identified were a mixture of the fears, bewilderment and uncertainty arising in a rapidly changing environment: social envy, the refugee crisis, loss of national culture, foreign domination, bureaucracy in Brussels, the rise of nationalism, right-wing parties and, of course, Brexit.
Stage two was poetry time—although we didn’t go in knowing this would be the output! We agreed with the Pulse of Europe organizers that we would bring some—or all—of the insights to life, in whatever form, with the hope that these outputs could become part of their communications program. We invited everyone in the agency to brainstorm over several days on communication ideas that could counter the various concerns we had encountered. It was a remarkable process—asking researchers to think about the next step and use their creative abilities.
One of the strongest ideas emerged in the area of equal opportunities. A fabulous working student tapped into her personal experiences and jotted down an idea for a poetry slam. The narrative involved two student graduates, one in Spain, one in Germany, both recently qualified engineers with excellent academic grades. The German graduate found a job relatively quickly, whilst the Spanish graduate struggled despite writing a huge quantity of applications in his local marketplace.
The idea of turning this narrative into a poetry slam sparked our collective imagination. We also felt that it would overcome potential budgetary hurdles. The NGO approved the idea, and it was performed in the center of Berlin in front of crowds of people in late 2017. The session was recorded, posted on YouTube and other social media channels, and of course achieved a reach that far exceeded our traditional MR postings. It was followed up by a similar session a few weeks later in Frankfurt, with a different topic and a different poetry slammer. Our key learning: there are diverse creative talents within the ranks of most research agencies. Many of them are not on everyday view. By tapping into collective passions, personal and professional, we can bring insights to life very convincingly. And we have societal impact that is arguably more direct than that of an insight. No disrespect intended, of course.
- Researching like a start-up—and re-defining category perceptions.
The third example is from work we did recently for a furniture start-up company that was looking to innovate differently, break out of the way they viewed their market—becoming more consumer-centric, but with tight turnaround times, and a limited budget.We created a very compact design-led innovation process, involving a creative workshop inspired by mobile pre-tasks and ethnographic interviews. We employed visual brainstorming techniques, experimenting with the concept of personas. This helped the client re-imagine her audiences, and during the subsequent ideation process and systematic iterations, our firm helped deliver a conceptually revealing, genuinely new idea that expanded the nature of the furniture category.
Our learning: rather than cover off everything, being analytically exhaustive, the team succeeded by concentrating on essentials, and remaining pragmatic rather than being idealistic or overly analytical.
One central conclusion from all three projects is that researchers need to be part of the team that moves insights on, and takes them a stage further. Further take-aways involve a re-positioning of research:
- Ditch the separation of analysis from execution. The advantages of a joined-up executional approach outweigh potential concerns over lack of objectivity. This is a paradigm shift, but a necessary one in a world of do-think rather than think-do.
- Adopt a more insights-activation approach to projects, with appropriate up-front budgeting for in-house or external visualizers, 3D facilities that might need to be booked, or collaborative stakeholder activation workshops.
- Build on our researcher skills of listening and understanding—as we gather insights, think automatically about the potential execution.
Research agencies often have a myriad of creative skills that we don’t broadly exploit—community managers, visualizers, bloggers, for example. It’s time to change that, so that we fully exploit our potential in a doing-world.