Way back in 2015, I wrote a short reflection on “The 5 Characteristics of a Great Researcher” that today, believe it or not, is far and away the most read article on the Insights Association website.
Lately I’ve been talking with our company member representatives and thinking a little differently, this time about the megatrends shaping their world. Turns out, no surprise, that there are many more than five variables in that mix, bulleted below. What have I missed?
1. A Golden Age
These are exciting times. Tracked many different ways, there is a rolling explosion in the volume of intelligence, analytics, tactics and strategies marketing researchers and data analysts distill to inform decisions regarding markets and marketing. Everyone it seems is hungry for insights into all manner of things, and this appetite will only grow commensurate with insight quality and clear outcomes. The better we are, the more in-demand we’ll be. It’s a race, an upward spiral, but a good one, with a bright future ahead for those so focused.
2. CMOs Are Mostly Agnostic
The foundation of any market is its customers, and the top of our food chain includes chief marketing officers (with an important shout out to strategic or market planning leaders) who pay lots for insights. They rarely care about the outsourced research process but do care a lot about the cost and efficacy of actionable insights. They want faster, cheaper, better, which is squeezing margins and sidestepping relationships. If they’re sophisticated, their hunt is for value (rarely the cheapest option), but innovation (mostly in the form of technology) is radically changing their allegiances. Want to know what’s in our future? Listen to them. Ask them who their rising partners are for insights and intelligence about their markets, customers and competitors.
3. Decentralization of Everything
In the old days, clients went to professional researchers for insights in a comparatively straight line. There was an overlay of mystery to this arrangement with researchers as high priests. Good times! Today, the insights sourcing ecosystem is vast, uncorralled, even chaotic, hyper-dynamic and exhausting. Clients do a lot of their own research, outsourcing some while constantly scanning for (and being bombarded with) new sources and approaches. This dovetails with our last variable.
4. Secondary Data
An anathema to some primary research loyalists, mother’s milk to data scientists and the new definition of infinite, the availability of data collected for purposes other than research but used alone or in coordination with primary data has fundamentally changed how insights are developed, and we haven’t fully realized that impact. Under a yellow caution flag for data quality, if you’re not actively leveraging secondary data, or have truly good reasons why you’re not doing so, you may need to accelerate your retirement planning.
5. Managing Consent
A century ago, good manners required early researchers to protect the privacy and interests of respondents (a yesterday term) by safeguarding their personally identifiable information. This later was wisely codified as a best practice. With the advent of PCs, the internet, GDPR and the new California Consumer Privacy Act (spawning coming U.S. federal laws/regulations), the not-done-yet management of consent – editing, deleting, opting in/out, etc., including all secondary data – increasingly requires substantial resources. Bigger companies win in this legal environment; smaller companies forced into specialized niches. Robust consent management as a business opportunity anyone? It’s a new world, Part I.
6. A Segment of One
It’s a new world, Part II. Research has a noble, proven history of advancing markets and marketing by segment. Along come computers with data being captured everywhere and, voila, it is now practical to accurately identify a segment of one on an industrialized scale. This personalization is of course what Google, Facebook, remarketing, adtech and martech, etc. are all about. CMOs today need insights into segments for strategic decisions, but then need to reach profiled individuals in a customer-specific world. The investigation of segments of one or many should naturally be guided by our investigatory prowess, informing and driving marketing’s targeting and activation while not ceding the opportunity to others less talented, providing real value to our internal or external clients while securing the rewards of doing so.
7. Barriers to Entry
It has not been easy for some research companies to transition from approaches once lucrative to new ones. Company culture can block change, as can sacred cows, or personal limits on creativity, versatility and objectivity. In sum, inertia is one of the most powerful forces in business. Actively forcing innovation takes hyper-sensitivity to the needs of customers and the willingness to lead revolutions. I worry about these hurdles when AI and machine learning come up, among others – barriers to entry requiring resources that not everyone is able to clear. Facing them head-on is the first step to success.
Remember that just because you do not have a needed skill set due to internal resource limitations doesn’t mean you can’t get it. Partnering needs to be the new mantra. If you don’t have it, find someone who does; collaboration must become the new normal. If you're not willing to do so, you'll stagnate unnecessarily. You can no longer know or do everything and that's ok – if you can partner.
Nobody really understands blockchain but it’s on everybody’s radar. Touted as salves to data quality and security, among other benefits, blockchain won’t block every cheater/repeater or data breach, but it may help. If it takes off, there will be winners and losers, all TBD. Best to be optimistic and keep an eye out for this next big disruption.
10. Secret Sauce Combo Meals
It is evergreen that those effectively offering a compelling value proposition to their customers are likely to flourish. What’s unique about yours? For insights leaders, the intimacy of their consultancy – adopting the role of adjunct staff not at arm’s length but with insider knowledge of their client’s business (this applies to corporate researchers, too) combined with insights expertise and resources unavailable elsewhere – has the greatest traction and permanence. Those best at it have been able to grow the most over the last decade, illustrating the financial benefits commensurate with the effective delivery of insight quality and clear outcomes. Measuring the return on insights investments can prevent you from being on the short-end of the budget stick. It can be done. Secret: The best do it! BTW, don’t delegate this task to junior people; it'll make you less relevant.
David W. Almy
*Jeffrey Resnick of Stakeholder Advisory Services contributed materially to this article. Thanks, Jeff!