As the third day of the Insights Association NEXT conference draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on the impact the event has had. It’s clear that in this post-COVID world, where it’s easy to feel disconnected and disparate, NEXT was an important moment for the industry to connect. Not just to learn, but to have fun, come together and really set the agenda for what the future of the industry should look like.

On this third day, I was encouraged by the number of presenters taking a moment to recognise, call out and rally support for the Black Lives Matter movement – as momentum and support continues to grow. I think it signals that the insights industry, does care deeply about the wider social issues in our society. But more importantly, it was a poignant reminder that we are all human. While we may have gathered as our professional selves, it was refreshing to see more human and personal sides of presenters, organisers and attendees shine through.

And that unique humanness would reveal itself to be a recurring theme throughout the day. Whether it was the biases that prevent us from making rational decisions, or visions of the future that combine the strengths of both human and artificial intelligence – it all came back to better understanding our complex, irrational and contradictory selves.

Persuasion and the (Un)Importance of Facts

It was Lee Carter’s morning keynote that set the tone for what followed. As President of Maslansky + Partners, Lee delivered a thought-provoking presentation that questioned how much facts themselves matter. If we’re losing trust in authority as a society; if we’re change resistant; if we look for facts that simply support our existing world-view – does it matter more how we persuade rather than what we say?

Armed with a compelling nine-step model for persuasion, Lee spoke about the importance of vision, empathy, being realistic, mastering a single narrative and more. The ubiquity of these skills and steps that really got to the bottom of some of the insight industry’s toughest challenges. Are we really doing all we can to persuade stakeholders effectively? What about customers and consumers; is insight feeding the right messages to marketing? There was already a lot to digest, and still more to come before the networking break.

Innovation Everywhere

The next two sessions provided two very different, but equally fascinating case studies of how innovation is making difference. Kimberly-Clark and Reach3 Insights discussed how the emerging field of conversational research is helping the brand dive deeper into the why behind customer actions. While, structurally, this may seem similar to a traditional survey – the idea of a delivery mechanism that mirrors a mobile chat app certainly seems to have the potential to have a big impact.

This was quickly followed by Colgate-Palmolive and Metrix Lab showcasing an AI-based approach to advert pre-testing. Two things stood out in particular about this session. The first is the (somewhat scary) potential for research to be run without any participants – as the solution compared adverts on various scales amongst previous scores in a database. The second comes back to our recurring theme of the day – that AI is not the total solution. In fact, AI seems to augment human intelligence, coding approximately 70% of the submitted adverts; speeding up but not replacing the manual process.

After the networking break, we were treated to four more detailed case studies. Up first was Course5 Intelligence and Microsoft, with another use case for AI technology. In this example, we learned how artificial intelligence can really drill down into the impact of creative choices at different stages of the marketing funnel and identify how specific elements impact performance for quick, actionable feedback.

Next, Mondelēz and Nailbiter broke from AI to discuss another popular technology – video. Throughout this case study, we learnt how the CPG firm was able get to the bottom of consumer behaviour around in-supermarket snack purchases through in-the-moment video and smart analysis. The cool takeaway moment from this presentation was seeing how this translated into real action and improvements in store placement to better match consumer expectations.

The penultimate presentation of the day from Mars Wrigley and Curion provided fascinating insight into how different research settings can impact feedback, responses and emotional state. The partners investigated consumer reactions to a chocolate snack in different settings – including a controlled environment, immersive space, in a natural context and at a research conference. It was fascinating to see how these different environments impacted consumers and hear what this meant for a brand with a product that can be consumed in so many varying circumstances.

To close out the conference (before the prize announcements), we heard from LinkedIn and Thematic. In this case study, we learnt about the importance of open-ended questions as a part of the brand’s NPS program – but also the challenges this creates at scale. Again, we were treated to an innovative (and honest) display of how technology, in this case automated coding, can be used to enhance and speed up research; leaving researchers more time to focus on what matters most.

A Showcase of Real Action

To summarise the day as a whole would be difficult. But what it most certainly felt like was a showcase of the real action and impact that research is making. Whether that’s through innovation, or tried-and-proven methodologies. It wasn’t just a day of learning, it was inspiring too. And I hope everybody left with as many new ideas as I did.

Finally, I have to give a shoutout to the Insights Association for a well-run, well-timed and smooth virtual conference experience. I especially appreciated the afternoon EDT schedule, which meant European, East and West Coast friends all had the opportunity to join. While I hope that next year, we’ll all be able to meet in-person again – it’s comforting to know that even if that’s not possible, NEXT will still be an event to look forward to.