User-centred. Customer-focussed. Empathetic. These phrases have been buzzing around the world of design and business for the last few years. They are typically tied to innovation approaches, used by consultants and experts to sell through customer experience improvements and product development projects.
“There is no expert of tomorrow. Only an expert of yesterday.”
- Jack Ma, Alibaba Co-Founder
These customer-first strategies are all means to an end: understanding what a consumer needs and wants. If we can get inside the customer’s head, we can shape our product, service or experience to fit their desires. Rather than relying on a ‘build it and they will come’ approach, brands are instead focussed on finding consumer insights that can inform what they build.
In a recent report on customer insights that surveyed 400 leaders in billion-dollar international firms, Forbes found that 81% of marketing, research and CX executives analyze customer data and use it to guide strategic and tactical actions all the time, or most of the time. So how do brands amass data and find these insights?
How Brands Have (Historically) Found Consumer Insights
Over the last 100 years, consumer insight gathering has evolved significantly. The 1920s saw strangers approaching people on the street to assess ad recall (what YouTube does every now and again, but facilitated by some Charlie Chaplin-type).
Qualitative approaches grew up next to their quantitative partners, with Ernest Dichter and his contemporaries popularizing the focus group in the post-war 40s and 50s. The 1960s and 70s saw the “soft data” of these groups replaced by the first (comparatively) tech-enabled research tools: telephone surveys.
Anthropological research practices were applied to consumer research in the 1980s, and modern behavioural psychology found its way into focus groups as well. The phone-based research panel evolved into the internet age, and the advent of social media meant that millions of public conversations could be scraped for insights using social listening software.
As the number of tools used to gather insights has mushroomed and the tools themselves have evolved, the amount of data available to researchers, marketers and designers has also ballooned. A glut of data can be a curse if you are not asking the right questions, or if the data gathering has been done without a clear business objective in mind. It is important to have both the right technology and strategy in place to help you ask the right questions, and manage the answers.
Modern Consumer Insight Gathering
Finding the insights your team needs to make important product or marketing decisions requires focus in a world of data and distractions. We will discuss three types of tools that consumer insights specialists are using to find focus.
The branded social community space is evolving. Building and launching dedicated communities to improve brand engagement, gather user-generated content, or divert customer service questions has been in practice for a decade. However, using community for always-on insights from a focussed and segment-able group is a relatively new practice.
Modern community software allows brands to use games, activities and discussions to build in-depth user profiles that can translate into personas and/or target audiences. Members participate on an engaging platform where they can be creative, see their ideas come to life, build relationships, learn, and earn rewards. Bite-size polls and quick questions are designed to be completed in seconds, not minutes like classic surveys. Interesting activities prompt community members to explain WHY they do things, and this is key.
Read More: The Art of Insights - Download the Ebook
When researchers dissect purchase data or review survey responses, the motivators that drive action are often unclear. Communities act as a pathway to these qualitative answers. Engaging content and joint objectives bring members back to the community on a regular basis, giving researchers the opportunity to serve members (or specific subsets of the membership) challenges, polls, discussion questions and other means of insight gathering.
The most successful online communities are focussed on niche interests, and the membership is often self-selecting. These are the die-hards, the fanatics, the experts. As a result, online communities are rarely, if ever, a source for statistically significant quantitative data. And that is okay. Many tools exist outside of communities to help brands access information about the general public.
Where communities add value is when a brand wants to understand their customers (and prospective customers) and wants a channel to those people that they can control. They are useful when organizations want an online space where they have the power to segment their members and research each group using in-depth reporting capabilities. They are powerful when a brand wants to task a small group with a business challenge, facilitate conversations among small groups, or ask hyper-targeted discussion questions.
Modern community platforms recognize that having all of the functionality we outlined above without a mobile-first interface is fool-hardy, at best. Thankfully, many of the leaders in this space have built their communities to be fully responsive, tying into our next key trend.
2. Mobile Devices
Let’s focus on the devices sitting in your hand, your pocket, your purse, or the desk in front of you. We will not spend time talking about the growing global prevalence of smartphones. This is not fresh thinking. But using mobile devices to gain consumer insights is much fresher.
Our phones travel with us all day, everyday, and they present the opportunity to capture context-rich information in ways that were not possible even a few years ago. Device makers and many apps are tracking rich usage data and geographical information, but few are utilizing this portal to gather spur-of-the-moment, contextual input and feedback.
Mobile devices represent one of the most democratic means to gather feedback that the world has ever known. Smartphones are more affordable than personal computers, and they can be used anywhere. The addition of wifi to public spaces around the world means that free or affordable internet connection is no longer a barrier to reaching consumers when they are on the go.
Ethnographic research, the recording and analysis of a culture or a people group, has typically been conducted by anthropologists and sociologists through time-intensive participant observation. Mobile devices allow consumer insights professionals to stitch together wonderfully high-resolution profiles of participant’s language, behaviour, interactions, preferences and more.
Participants can upload pictures, videos, voice memos, drawings, and text descriptions as they weave through their lives. Researchers can design insight-gathering activities for participants to complete during specific times of day, in certain locations, or during regular or pre-defined activities. The environment in which research is conducted can impact the quality of the data that comes out of it, and mobile research technology means that the environment where participants can be accessed becomes basically anywhere in the world that there is an internet connection.
Mobile research tools still have a long way to go before they are able to take advantage of all of the capabilities within our smartphones. In many cases, user interfaces have a long way to go before participants actually enjoy contributing to research. The task for mobile research platforms is to keep participants engaged and active, and our engaging community activities and conversational content serve this purpose. As our platform evolves, we add more mobile-first research tools in order to stay on the cutting edge of this trend.
As augmented reality and virtual reality trends towards ubiquity, it is likely that mobile insights gathering will use these tools to further enrich the information brands have to work with.
Shopping in a store will inevitably be aided by AR, and tools could ask shoppers questions about their purchase decisions the moment after purchases are made. Shoppers could access a community of specialists and ask them questions about certain products or tasks, and voice and video analytics could provide brands with deep insights into motivators and deal-breakers.
3. Artificial Intelligence
The amount of data readily available to brands is nearly limitless. Making meaning from this data is an arduous task when done manually, but tools are becoming available that use artificial intelligence and machine learning to do the job of analysis. The days of manual transcription are ending, and this opens the door to rich insights gathering at scale.
Tools like SurveyMonkey and Typeform are already beginning to integrate AI-generated sentiment analysis into open text survey responses, the first hint at the future of text analysis. Soon, software will be able to analyze text contributions within insights communities and derive deeper meaning beyond simple sentiment. Community managers will receive automated summaries generated from hundreds or thousands of comments, survey responses, and activity entries.
Google and Amazon both have video analysis tools on the market that can identify objects, assess actions, track movement, and more. Smart annotation is also being built into most video platforms, and used together these technologies will allow machines to analyze a video’s visual and audio content and create reports.
Text and video analysis will allow machines to not only generate quality research results from platforms like insights communities, but also to personalize the content recommendations and activities within those platforms. AI-based personalization could mean community members would be added to exclusive groups with other members that have complementary skill sets, preferences, or behaviours, and together these individuals could participate in discussions, activities, challenges and more with great people they are likely to enjoy participating with.
Today, making meaning out of rich media is still largely a human job, but as the capabilities of modern tools expand and new players enter the fray, that is sure to change. AI will make the experience and outcomes of insight gathering better for researchers, as well as for those being researched.
The desire by marketers to understand their target customers has driven innovation and marketing decisions for a hundred years. The last decade has seen a surge in new research and analysis tools, and the pace of change continues to ratchet up.
Advancements in engagement and insights communities will play a key role in developing deep consumer insights. Mobile technology will unlock new possibilities to meet users wherever they are. Artificial Intelligence will mean that gathering rich media for research purposes will not mandate huge teams of analysts, just smart software.
The future is bright for insights professionals, and we are excited to continue to push the envelope, offering exciting and effective alternatives to stale research practices. As these three major trends play out, we will stay on the leading edge. Each release brings new features and new research powers.
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