Agility Through Automation: How Technology Benefits Research and Business

The recent 2015 BAQMaR event looked to the future of the market research industry, examining how we can better understand consumers as well as looking at new technologies in research. In an era where technology is driving society and business to function at an increasingly fast pace, agility and speed are hot topics. Recent research by the Economist and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) clearly shows that businesses want to be able to react more quickly to customer feedback and changes in the market, acting faster to address specific issues and stay ahead of their competitors.

  • A 2008 study by the Economist found that the businesses most likely to survive and thrive in times of change were those that could quickly transform market information into action
  • Half of the CEO’s and CIO’s surveyed agreed that rapid decision-making and execution were essential to keep their companies competitive
  • Research conducted by MIT found that agile firms grow revenue 37% faster and generate 30% higher profits than their slower counterparts
  • One of the key findings of the Economist’s research was that technology can play an important supporting role in enabling organisations to be more agile, including helping them to improve their use of data in informing change and innovation

So how can we become more agile to keep pace with our clients, and is new technology the answer?

Why Adopt Agile Research Processes?

In the research world, we are in the business of providing mission-critical insights to our clients, whether that be informing new product development, monitoring service excellence, or measuring employee engagement in helping a business to grow. If a key performance indicator for our clients is their ability to react quickly to new information and changes within their business sector, then we, as the information providers, need to ensure that the insights we provide are as up to date and timely as possible.

However, when it comes to brands commissioning market research, one of the crucial barriers that researchers frequently encounter is the perception by research buyers that the traditional market research process is slow and expensive. The time lag between a client creating a brief and receiving results to act upon using traditional face-to-face research methodologies could take weeks or even months, depending on the complexity of the project and potential logistical issues. Conducting traditional face-to-face research across multiple markets adds an extra element of management complexity. The feeling from some clients used to be that market research could often hamper, rather than help them in their need to be more responsive and agile in their marketplace.

The Automation Debate

In response, the market research industry is becoming more agile itself. The last decade or so has seen a rapid pace of change, mainly driven by new innovations in technology and automation. Researchers are exploring how new technology allows them to get high quality insights into boardrooms faster, in turn allowing clients to make more rapid business decisions.

The advance of new enterprise technology into the market research arena has not always been welcomed. As with the emergence of many new technologies, initial responses to automation centred on job security, with fears that new technologies in surveying, data processing and reporting would make interviewers and other staff obsolete. Debates still rage on as to whether it is possible to incorporate a sound market research methodology into a fast-paced study and whether some studies sacrifice research robustness in favour of speed.

Promoting Agility Through Automation in Action

The benefits that automation provides in many cases outweigh the concerns. The main benefit to clients is that research process automation can result in quality research projects being turned around in days, not weeks or months. A quick turnaround gives clients the information that they need to make business decisions faster and keep their businesses moving.

Case Study: Retailer Category Review

The business issue: A retailer needs to understand what the best layout for a product category is in order to deliver on specific KPI’s, including likelihood to buy, ease of shop, increased basket size, trade-up potential and promoting browsing. FMCG and technology brands often seek to influence this process through commissioning their own shopper research, presenting the retailer with a proposed layout for the category that suits both parties (adding elements of improved brand perception and loyalty metrics into the mix).

The challenges: Behind the scenes, long negotiations can take place between a retailer and a manufacturer before any shopper research is allowed to take place in stores. Some retailers are reluctant to have research going on in store, for fear of affecting other shoppers’ experience of the shopping environment. Researchers need to agree dates and times with store management and then may also need to pre-recruit category shoppers to attend the store for the research. Recruitment can add an extra time-lag if it is a low penetration category or footfall is low at the store selected. Overall, the lead time and expense of in-store face-to-face research can be prohibitive unless there is a specific reason for needing to choose this approach.

An agile solution: Shopper research is increasingly turning to sophisticated online visual solutions to overcome the logistical issues of researching in-store. Apps are now available that allow brands or researchers to mock up a store planogram, so that respondents can virtually ‘shop’ the fixture in an online survey, including allowing them to pick up packs to read and examine in detail.

The advantage of using this kind of technology is that it can be very quick to set up. Providers such as Conceptsauce have virtual shopping solutions that can be set up with visuals in a matter of minutes, and can be integrated seamlessly into conventional survey software. Respondents can be selected from large online samples, which is cheaper and faster than free-finding them on a high street, and provides potential for larger sample sizes, or robust sample sizes of lower-penetration groups (e.g. consumers with specific dietary requirements). A further benefit is that these solutions can easily be adapted to multiple markets and retailers.

Shelf Test

The end result: Clients benefit from real-time reporting and a fast turnaround of final results. Respondents themselves also benefit. They enjoy a fun and interactive research experience that they can participate in from the comfort of their own home.

Case Study: Packaging Research

The business issue: Packaging is becoming an increasingly essential part of the marketing mix for most brands, where it is used as an advertising tool in its own right as well as showcasing the brand and its brand values.

The challenges: Traditional packaging research might have involved investing in mock-ups of new packaging concepts to be used in research. Research with consumers could have involved a series of central location tests, which can be expensive, especially if conducted across several markets. All of this required a considerable investment.

An agile solution: Online visual software has tangible benefits for packaging research. Testing packaging design concepts online can be a quick and cost-effective way to help brands to understand the difference between different concepts on core KPI’s including likelihood to buy, stand-out at fixture and visual appeal. Visual design software is now so sophisticated that pack designs can be rendered in 3D, allowing consumers to rotate and spin the packs to view them from all angles. It is even possible to simulate opening the pack and show the actual contents, or ‘pour’ liquid contents out.

Adding hot spots to the research armoury allows brands to drill down deeper into specific elements of the pack design; consumers can click on elements that they like or dislike and comment on those elements in more detail. A virtual survey solution also allows researchers to accurately time how quickly consumers spot a specific pack on shelf, as well as what they recall seeing on shelf, to assess instant pack stand-out in a retail environment.

Pack Test

The end result: Brands benefit from faster turnaround from pack concept to final design, with clear direction from consumers on the appeal of the pack, stand-out and likelihood to buy. Virtual reality 3D visuals are a cost-effective alternative to creating numerous mock-ups of pack concepts, and respondents enjoy the experience of being able to ‘play’ with the 3D visuals and comment on their good and bad points. Research can be conducted across multiple markets simultaneously, and real-time reporting provides instant feedback.

Agile Solutions: Changing behaviour?

The agility of these kinds of technologies is increasingly driving a move away from brands commissioning detailed, large scale surveys, turning instead to multiple, concentrated doses of insights throughout the product development & pack design cycle. Automated solutions such as these can also make it easier for the brand owners themselves to access the data that they need. The challenge for us as researchers is to embrace this kind of technology for its agility and versatility, whilst at the same time adding value to the outputs with insights driven by our understanding of human behaviour and contexts.

Jo Keeling, Research Consultant, Conceptsauce, @Concept_Sauce