How new technologies are challenging the insight industry and the new considerations for their implementation

The juggernaut of new technologies for the market research industry marches on.  We are now on the cusp of new AR and VR technologies starting to be part of project practise.  They offer new ways of testing that were previously unimaginable. But are they worth getting excited about and how relevant are they really for research right now?

With the onset of online platforms, we observed a shift away from the more traditional.  There was great excitement around getting a peep into consumers’ daily lives in an accessible way for both researchers and client insight teams.  ‘Remote’ became the operating mantra for many organisations and indeed for many still is.

By contrast some insight managers decry the value of social media analysis as it only produces ‘face value’ responses without getting to the real nub of why.

Useful or just hype?

So where is the industry in the adoption curve of new technologies?  The Gartner Hype Cycle identifies how far advanced we are in terms of adopting them.  The curve has a number of phases from ‘innovation trigger’ as technologies emerge to ‘peak of inflated expectations’ where hopes for the new technologies reach their highest and often unrealistic point.

Disillusionment then sets in followed by a period of ‘scope of enlightenment’ as the value of these new technologies is recognised.  The silver bullet is as each technology reaches a ‘plateau of productivity’ where this value is finally realised.

My perspective is we are starting to enter the era of ‘plateau of productivity’ for online tools.  Online surveys got there a long time ago but for qualitative, online diaries and mobile apps have now also reached the plateau.  They have finally found their right place and role in our toolkit.

VR and AR some way behind

Last year Gartner identified Virtual Reality as reaching the enlightenment phase in 2-5 years’  time with Augmented Reality lagging behind.  It does seem this applies to the use of these two technologies for the insight industry too. Clearly they have relevance for testing physical spaces such as retail, wayfinding projects for open spaces such as galleries and testing product interiors e.g. cars.

New considerations posed for insight practitioners

However, they also pose an interesting dilemma.  Having attended an event to personally test out VR and AR products, I was suddenly aware of a new challenge – ease and familiarity of use.  I confess to not being an avid gamer, so the manual controls did present a few dexterity challenges.

The sheer 3D nature of the environment takes a while to adjust to.  At first the experience is daunting, and the developers recommend a first time use of a few minutes.  Yet then it becomes fascinating as you explore the globe and can easily travel from the port of Hamburg to the bay of San Francisco.

This highlights the need to take user familiarity into account for whatever new technology approach we are implementing.  And also isolate the ‘wow factor’ from the response to avoid an inflated read of appeal.

The industry view

A quick straw poll of a few insight and brand practitioners suggested VR is hardly being used currently.  When it is, there tends to be a ‘placebo’ test where half of the sample are taken through the more traditional stimulus material approach of physical mock ups.

Or maybe we have been using virtual reality all along with traditional stimulus?  David Gill, an eminent London art gallery owner suggested he had worked with virtual reality some time ago – by projecting slides onto his ceiling.  A different and interesting take on what is virtual!


How serious is the threat to marketing and insight if social media companies remain unregulated?

The world of social media is facing upheavals following fake news allegations and illegal sharing of data.  Currently social media companies largely self-regulate, which could lead to critical consequences around loss of trust for insight and marketing functions. Find out what the House of Commons Debating Group concluded at their recent debate: “Social Media can’t be trusted with self-regulation”.  It was a lively discussion!

Facebook was flooded with fake accounts during the US Presidential Election, which could well have impacted on the outcome. Their existence was initially denied, but subsequently great plaudits were made about them being taken down.  The Cambridge Analytica debacle was another example of where Facebook indulged in ‘anti-consumer behaviour’ for their own gain.

With these high profile fiascos fresh in our memories, the debate challenged why it has taken so long to wake up to the need for greater transparency.  In essence the behaviour of the social media companies has massive implications for consumer trust.   I believe there are two issues at stake – trust in the social media companies themselves and the trust consequences.

The dilemma for insight and marketing

The latter is crucial for customer insight and marketing functions.  If customers don’t trust social media companies, they don’t share their data.  If they don’t share their data then it is nigh on impossible to truly personalise advertising and promotions shared with them. The pool of willing ‘punters’ declines.  In short a big blow to the new opportunities the social media world has facilitated and a broken relationship between customers and social media.

Keith Weed of Unilever defined this as ‘the year of Techlash or the year of Trust.’  Social media brands need to behave more ethically, and we haven’t even touched on the issues of cyber bullying and the impact of social media on the young.

Social media companies take action

The social media companies have not been resting on their laurels however.  Twitter has taken down 6% of its accounts this first quarter.  Google has successfully developed AI to flag and identify hate content.

In our new digital world customers are also self-regulators.  Social Media after all is a channel of choice, and competition in itself works as a natural regulator of choice.  Societal behaviour also eventually dictates behavioural change as we have seen with drink driving laws. But is this enough?  And importantly is it quick enough?

It’s not enough!

There are signs consumers have had enough.  The Edelman Trust Barometer carried out towards the end of last year showed that 34% of respondents did not see social media as a force for good.  Facebook is losing accounts in droves.  I recently heard some millennials in research expressing concerns around the power of technology and whether their phones are listening to them!

In a room of many learned marketing and media professionals at this debate, very few supported self-regulation.  Even the speakers against the debate motion confessed to being able to see both sides of the argument.

It’s clear that regulation has to step in.  It’s not just about policing but instilling confidence in consumers to trust social media.  This will facilitate the rebuilding of the relationship between the two parties.  In turn this will allow insight and marketing professionals to get on with their job and consumers to benefit from that.  Ultimately the new social media relationships should be positive and full of opportunities for both sides.

Our thanks to the speakers Hugo Rifkind, The Times, Jo Causon, CEO, Institute for Customer Service, Stephen Woodford, CEO, Advertising Association and Andrew Mann, Ex-Vice President Insight and CRM, Asda whose arguments for and against the motion inspired this article.

How a sharing app is bringing back the romance of flying

We like to keep an eye on brands that use technology to change the rules and this one really inspired us.  Sharing apps seem a little jaded now with Uber and Deliveroo being loaded with negatives.  This app, by contrast, cleverly embraces technology to bring back the romance of flying … and at an accessible price.

French start up firm Wingly is using a sharing app that challenges the way we fly. If you think about it, the airline industry has changed dramatically over the years.  Low cost carriers made flying attainable for many and were welcomed as a real turning point for fliers.  Yet the upturn in passenger numbers has created a poor airport experience, not to mention an often equally woeful flying experience. Packed terminals, cramped seats,  poor or no on-board catering.  And worst of all many main carriers are feeling forced to follow suit.  As a frequent traveller for our international work this is a subject close to my heart!

Matchmaking pilots and passengers

Wingly seems set to change that.  Operational in the UK, France and Germany, this company has turned the low-cost paradigm on its head via the use of a flight sharing app. The app connects passengers with pilots to enable the former to take off on a private aircraft. You can either join the platform as a pilot or join as a passenger, creating a mutually beneficial arrangement.  In fact, the Wingly owners regard themselves as a ‘matchmaking’ platform!

Clients contact the pilot directly, meaning flights can be booked at the last minute – providing a plane is available and technical checks are all clear.  It offers the opportunity for travellers to choose select destinations that are off the beaten track and to completely personalise their own itinerary.  Some passengers fly to France for lunch for a special celebration or just take a day trip to a less well-known airport on a journey of discovery.  We think this brings the old school glamour of flying to small airfields at the drop of a hat.

No fees for pilots
This may be likened to Uber, but the platform goes way beyond that in our view. It is not about commoditising transport but bringing back exclusive travel to many passengers who would otherwise be unable to charter a private jet.  It encapsulates style at an affordable price whilst fitting nicely in the experience economy which is so in vogue.  At its heart sits the passion for flying.  Pilots fly for no fee as they share the cost and their interest in flying.  Yet if conditions are not right they are at liberty to postpone the flight – no set timetables but just a general respect for the vagaries of Mother Nature, just like flying used to be like.

We question if it may also challenge the aviation legislation at some point in the future. Flight sharing is permissible within the EU but currently banned in the States.   We wonder if this may change if the proposition becomes embedded as part of standard flying culture.  Watch this space.

Are millennials really the silver bullet?

Having recently spoken to this generation on a number of projects, we were surprised by some of the learnings they shared with us.  Our observations suggest millennials display many behaviours that we wouldn’t typically associate with this generation and show how easy it is to make assumptions based on age that don’t always hold true.

1- Brand loyalty already entrenched

As younger people are growing up faster and embracing consumables more quickly, it figures that brand loyalty maybe formed sooner than we think. There is a suggestion it can start as soon as 14 – 15 years where brands can quickly become ‘cool’ and prompt mass affiliation.

Conversely it seems some millennials feel the notion of blindly signing up to a brand is beneath them. That smacks of the younger generation whereas in their age group, brand choice is very much a part of defining yourself as an adult.

That said there is the dichotomy of claimed and actual behaviour: doubtlessly brands that are ‘in’ carry influence even if millennials don’t want to admit it!  Nonetheless it begs the question as to whether millennials are quite the silver bullet marketeers believe them to be.  Is there also a need to look at even earlier age groups as brand sophistication is evident among the younger?

2- We are more similar than we think

There is an amazing gulf in perception between what millennials think about the older generations and how they actually are.

We were running workshops with groups of people in their early twenties.  The conversation moved towards talking about initiatives that were designed to promote social welfare. One respondent carefully initiated a story with the preamble ‘there’s this rapper right called Snoop Dog…’ Obviously it was assumed that people beyond the millennial generation would not know the rapper let alone like them. I  actually confess to being quite a fan and yes I am not a millennial!

There are studies supporting the notion that the generations are merging in terms of attitudes. The US commentator Gina Pell noted that age is no longer a key driver in attitudinal differentiation and age gap friendships are flourishing.

Are we at risk of assigning this generation a whole range of assumed behaviours that actually may be replicated in other age groups?  Admittedly some aspects are unique to this generation but are we missing some close parallels with other generations in our bid to focus on the differences?

3- Tight purse strings

There is a real sense of the world-is-not-their-oyster in financial terms. There is a genuine realisation that ‘things are tough’, and studies compound financial concerns.   That means there is a general feeling of being grounded overall and the need to budget carefully for the future. Life is regarded as expensive.

Millennials are now quoted as planning their finances more than previous generations.  In a study carried out in the States 74% of 18 – 34 year olds save every month.  (Report by Mizuho Securities among 1,500 millennials,

Millennials are typically couched as experience-hungry and less brand loyal. Morgan Stanley analyst Kimberley Greenberger claimed millennials had been psychologically scarred by growing up in the recession. This has led to a complete change of habits with them valuing experiences over ownership.

But ultimately the fundamental life goals remain true.  Whilst housing feels like a pipedream, our millennials still spoke about home ownership as an ultimate goal and the above study confirms this. It identifies saving goals as a home in first place, then a car and finally for retirement.  This is a reminder that brands can chase millennial spend but the scope of their spend can taper off as bigger ticket items like housing gain in relevance.


The value of quick feedback vs. deeper insight

Here we consider an example of quick feedback used by a large retailer compared to another example of deeper insight for one of our clients to see what answers they bring.

It’s incredible how a little more thought into what consumers are saying enhances the value of insight and thereby delivers greater commercial value.  We are passionate believers in defending the time to think. It’s about having time to go beyond customer statements at face value which generates greater business impact.

Going beyond face value

We were recently working on a project where customers complained about not being called about a membership renewal.  If we had taken this at face value, we could have fed back around the efficiency of call backs.  Our advice could have been to ‘make a call if two renewal emails have been ignored’ for example.

Fair enough but we thought there is more to this story.  Analysing the relationship customers had with the brand and the dialogue they had had in the research groups, the penny dropped.  They wanted a call back to show they were cared about.

It wasn’t just about efficiency but about showing emotional reciprocity.  Taking that notion has far more extensive implications for a customer contact strategy. It informs a number of aspects such as how a script is delivered, if there should be permission to go off script, what is the tone of voice, what is the relationship.  A small point that makes a massive difference to business processes.

Walmart ‘Pile it High’ backfires

The example of Walmart is a very common one where customer insight was misleading.  Customers were asked if they wanted to see more in the store to which the answer was yes.  The stores were duly rearranged, the aisles were narrowed, and the shelves piled high.  To which the customers complained so thousands of pounds were spent changing it back!

So what went wrong?  We weren’t involved in the research hence we can only hypothesise.  It seems the answer to the question about more choice might have been taken at face value.  They said they wanted more so give them more.

It is hard to ask customers about the consequence of more stock in store, so the question needs to be approached differently.  The in-store experience and its value should be understood before approaching the question of store range.  If customers had appreciated wide aisles, space, an unhurried shopping experience then there is a clue in what might be the trade-off of increased stock levels.  Or at least how the store layout should be managed if more products are to be brought on-site.

The answers

It can be difficult to buy time for insight. If you have stakeholders or project deadlines demanding quicker results from an insight project, it can be hard to buy a few days.  This particularly applies if the research findings are internally available on an online platform which gives direct access to consumer feedback.  After all it’s all there in black and white so why the delay?

We always advise our clients (if needed of course!) to:

  • Build in thinking times to insight projects – even a couple of extra days can allow researchers space to ‘join the dots’ and create valuable insights
  • Be mindful of how direct customer feedback can be interpreted internally and be sure to brief those accordingly who have access to it
  • Allow for time within the insight sessions to explore background and share existing knowledge with agency partners. There’s a need to strike the balance between ‘we’ve heard this all before’ to contextualising questions that come later

If you’d like to explore how these answers might apply in your organisation, get in touch for a no-obligation discussion

Chatbots: Insight opportunity or just another gimmick?

A study comparing human–human interactions to human–chatbot interactions, found that the latter typically last longer than human–human interactions between strangers.   They also involve shorter messages, less complicated vocabulary, and even more profanity! 1

There is emerging thinking that chatbots can be harnessed by the research industry.  They present an opportunity for quick on the spot data.  But just how useful are they if bots elicit a behaviour change as outlined above?

Many brands are starting to use chatbots for straightforward customer transactions with genuine success.  In these transactions, customers just want to get the job done and whether it is by a human or a machine doesn’t matter.  It makes sense that their implementation could be extended into simple research.  This has a number of benefits.

1. The ‘conversation’ is instantaneous and in real time as it is from a mobile platform. The interactive nature of the ‘conversation’ mimics the spontaneity of the moment and arguably the feedback is more ‘system 1’ as the response happens off the cuff. It’s speedy and in the here and now.

2. It starts in consumers shoes and embraces the trend for messaging. This is a substantial benefit given the move from email as well as from social media. Peter Rojas of Betaworks states: “People are now spending more time in messaging apps than in social media and that is a huge turning point. Messaging apps are the platforms of the future and bots will be how their users access all sorts of services.”   In the research scenario, it moves from being a mobile survey as such, to more of a mobile interaction.

3. The bot approach provides an opportunity in particular to connect with millennials who are typically not picked up by survey panels. They can answer with their favourite messaging app or service. In truth it reflects how the bulk of their personal remote conversations happen.

4. It avoids consumers having to download an app for a particular survey platform. This furthers the impression people are dealing with a mobile interaction rather than a mobile survey.


Nonetheless the current immaturity of this technology has to be borne in mind.  At the moment its best use is limited to closed questions, yes and no answers and multiple choice.

Undoubtedly the user experience is also critical to get right.  At face value the bot appears incredibly simple but there are many challenges such as flow optimisation and being compatible with ever-changing platforms.  If people are finding themselves having to correct the ‘bot interaction’ and ‘fix’ misunderstandings, the spontaneity of the moment is affected and thereby realism of response.

We should also not forget consumer perceptions of the chatbot.  From early adopters to the technical reticent, there are varying levels of comfort.

Indeed, the perceived novelty may mean the bot respondent uses and interacts with them in a different way.  If the technology were to venture into the qualitative arena and open-ended questions, the response to a bot question may be different.  The typically shorter interaction means less richness in the respondent linguistic variety which typically helps reveal hidden emotional drivers and barriers.

There is insufficient evidence currently to assess the traits of respondent behaviour via a bot-enabled survey given the nascent use of this technology.  But it will be interesting to see how the research industry can embrace bot technology and whether it truly finds a place and adds value in the long term.

If you’d like to discuss further or explore any other insight methodology that might be appropriate for your organisation, please do get in touch for a no-obligation discussion


1 [Hill, J., Ford, W.R., Farreras, I.G.: Real Conversations with Artificial Intelligence: A Comparison Between Human–Human Online Conversations and Human–Chatbot Conversations).


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Are the rigid recruitment and participation definitions relevant for insight projects in our increasingly connected world?

For years, the research industry has used lifestage, age and geography as key criteria for defining a sample be it for qualitative and quantitative work. We ask ourselves in this article whether in an increasingly connected world this is relevant and what implications it has for insight practitioners.

The digital space is full of ways to connect by interest, behaviours or attitude. From Meet Up to the ubiquitous Facebook it has never been easier to ‘throw your hat into the ring’ and declare ‘this is me and what I am interested in’.

Age gap friendships are apparently flourishing according to Marianne Kavanagh, in a recent article in the Daily Telegraph, facilitated by social media.

Indeed, US commentator, Gina Pell, has coined these people ‘perennials’ to make it clear that using age as a differentiator is becoming outdated. ‘We comprise an inclusive, enduring mindset not a divisive demographic’. Around us we see collaborations across generations among musicians and artists who, in doing so, publicly signal the acceptability of age-gap friendships.

This raises the rather provocative question as to whether the socio-demographic divisions so favoured by the research industry actually make much sense anymore? Should we just rewrite the rulebook? Or is it a matter of prioritising what criteria should be considered first? And what does this mean for research projects going forward? Read more

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Intelligent use of VR, AR and 3D printing for customer insight

Intelligent use of VR, AR and 3D printing for customer insight

Virtual and augmented reality is everywhere. It is predicted in a few years every house will own a 3D printer. Both are fast becoming part of the consumer reality so does that mean they should join the research toolkit?

We have recently pitched for a project in China on a new electric vehicle. In this fast moving digital market VR is already playing a very real part in car dealerships, which sparked our curiosity – can it be used for concept and product development in the insight environment?

VR and AR storytelling vs. evaluation

It was big news at the Cannes film festival last year with a dedicated pavilion, Eric Darrell, Co Director of Madagascar deemed it to be a ‘brand new language’ and car makers are now using augmented reality to showcase new features. There is no doubt that this ‘unreal reality’ is adding a new dimension to story telling that organizations have previously been unable to deliver.

Indeed this is a key strength of virtual reality with some large corporations such as Unilever already using it to disseminate insight across the relevant teams and capture stakeholder imagination. It can also be used for Virtual Ethnography, exploring for example the customer view as they go about their daily shopping.

So how useful is it as a tool to test new ideas and products? The hardware is becoming very accessible meaning implementation is less of an issue nowadays. The question then becomes if it makes intellectual sense.

We think it certainly has a role but has to be used intelligently. It’s all down to the role of VR currently vs. in the research environment. The classic use of VR relies on the model of ‘show-experience-immerse.’ By contrast the insight approach follows a different dynamic of ‘show-experience-evaluate.’ A small difference but not without meaningful implications.

When immersion is the end goal, the contextual landscape is all the more important to provide a fully rounded story. In fact so rich is the landscape that it can prompt viewers to take different angles from the story. This lead Spielberg to claim that VR is ‘potentially dangerous’ as it allows viewers too much freedom to make their own choices rather than be presented with a single fixed narrative path.

With evaluation the need is a little different. Stimulus material has traditionally followed the less is more mantra.   It needs to do enough to communicate the essence of a product and idea i.e. its intended design but without biasing response. In short it is about stimulating not showcasing.

This means VR and AR in the insight context should be developed with a more objective and focused approach, with a careful brief to any developer. It is about striking the balance between providing sufficient ‘stimulus’ without over-stimulating response and treading on the gamification territory.

3D printers and new product perspectives

3D printers present a new reality for consumers that will be readily available in home within a few years. They are able to produce objects in a previously unimaginable timeframe and at the push of a button.

This has huge implications for research. 3D printers are able to deliver a new physicality to ideas that previously sat on stimulus boards. The printers can produce items in material that is identical or close to the intended product and in a similar shape if not size. And not to mention they bring new possibilities for design iterations between sessions from the design team and even consumers.

Again there is a note of caution here for their use in testing product ideas. The difference still has to be drawn between what is the intended design vs. research design particularly for completely new ideas. It makes little commercial sense for a business to invest many design hours into a new idea if its viability has not been tested with consumers. That said the design does need to be developed enough to give the idea a fair chance.

In short what we are looking at is a far more sophisticated type of stimulus material, which takes a step closer to reality rather than a physical iteration of the end product.

Lessons going forward

If we are to embrace the new technologies we would suggest five things to bear in mind:

  • These new technologies are part of the consumer reality where individuals are increasingly exposed to new ideas in ever more sophisticated ways and the world of insight needs to respect this
  • Equally there is a gap between the consumer reality and research reality for a reason – we are evaluating not selling ideas so the design of approaches using these technologies needs careful consideration
  • Understanding consumer motivations prior to exposure to these new technologies is crucial to be able to isolate true vs. hyped response particularly when they are still in their infancy
  • Ensuring the user experience of the technology is driven by natural interaction is key rather than the particulars of that technology – again these technologies are still relatively new although that will change
  • Considering how viable it is to implement the technology, as part of the insight timeline within the business, is of course critical.

It remains to be seen to what extent virtual and augmented reality will become part of the new ‘research reality’ but undoubtedly these new technologies offer the potential for a more immersive and engaging insight experience.