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Bagels, Buzzwords, and Business Challenges: A Quickie Synopsis of the Quirk’s Market Research Event

Every conference has its buzzwords, and at the recent Quirk’s Market Research Event, the terms “speed,” “qual/quant” and “agile” were as ubiquitous as tiny hotel bagels. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; these are exactly the concepts that today’s consumer insights specialists should understand and embrace. The earnest and occasionally substantive conversation about how to quickly capture novel, high-quality insights and act on them compensated for the relative scarcity of bright and shiny new tools or techniques. Indeed, if there was a single over-arching theme, it was probably the challenge of how to combine old methods with newish ones to achieve greater impact.

That question was answered in multiple ways.

Robin Pearl, Estee Lauder’s VP of Consumer Insights for North America, noted that “television isn’t the only medium in which reality is the trend” and welcomed the benefits of social media listening and market research online communities (MROCs). But she warned listeners to avoid over-reliance on technology at the cost of human interpretation. And while she stressed the importance of quantitative data quality, she told some compelling stories that illustrated the understanding and empathy that could only be derived from exploration and interpersonal communication.

Over at Etsy, Katie Hansen seems to be practicing the mantra of combining data science and analytics with consumer insights. She shared an elegant piece of research comparing self-reported buyer and seller tracker data with their actual behavior. Not surprisingly, she found that both buyers and sellers were very accurate reporters of both their past and ongoing behavior, and lousy predictors of their future actions. Will this be enough to kill the standard purchase intent question once and for all? Probably not, but maybe it will whet people’s appetite for alternatives of the sort that prediction markets provide.

Several presentations echoed the importance of walking in consumers’ shoes, of getting as close as possible to their actual behavior and subjective experiences in life. Kathy Doyle of Doyle Research and John Dahl of Red Wing Research shared case studies of how live and technology-enabled ethnographies can surface opportunities and drive innovation.

And speaking of innovation, there were some cool new tools on display. Luminoso continued to dazzle with their advances in text analytics and visualization, while Synapsify demonstrated some simple, friendly tools for coding open-ends and social media posts. LRW managed to induce vertigo, amazement, and a dollop of shame with their Occulus Rift demo that sent this queasy subject up the side of a virtual skyscraper in Century City. While I think we’re a long way from seeing virtual reality as an affordable, scalable approach to research, it was sobering to experience such a strong internal battle between my sensory driven emotion (Help! I’m about to fall off a building!) and my rational mind (No, it just looks like I’m about to fall off a building.) Guess which won.

But perhaps the most compelling and useful sessions were the panel discussions in which consumer insights professionals such as Eric Whipkey from Navy Federal Credit Union, Steven Cooley from Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Jeff Barry from Nestle Purina, and Jenni French from Microsoft shared their scars and successes in trying to bring the customer voice more broadly and deeply into their organizations. For all of these leaders, regardless of whether their corporate cultures were innately adventurous or conservative, the ultimate challenge was to actualize and convey the business benefits of partnering with customers.

To my mind, that’s the question worthy of a two-day conference. In fact, for the chance to have in-depth discussions about how to effectively design the customer into every aspect of a business, I’d happily give up the virtual aerial tour of Century City. Hell, I’d even give up the tiny bagels.

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