The most exciting, and terrifying, time to be in consumer insights

Posted On: 06/17/21

By: Rob Volpe   

As a moderator, the dream scenario for any focus group or group discussion is when the participants pick up and begin having the conversation without you needing to push, prod or probe. It’s like gold. And gold is what I felt like we struck when we asked 3 of the brightest client-side insights leaders we know to participate in a roundtable discussion about a range of issues facing the industry today.

I felt like a kid getting to eavesdrop at the grown-ups table at Thanksgiving! Elizabeth Oates, Sr. Director, Consumer Insights at Ulta Beauty, Humayun Rashid, Director, Microsoft 365 Research & Insights, and Marlene Straszewski, former Senior Director, Consumer Insights at General Mills each shared insight and perspective on the evolving role of the consumer, what research methods will be in demand in the future as society opens up again, the power and importance of listening as well as what’s needed from insights agency partners today.

Honestly, when I was preparing this post and was searching for highlights, there were so many great insights and perspectives that I strongly recommend you find time to watch the entire 55-minute conversation. If that’s not possible, further below are some highlights and the “needle-drops” where you can find them in the video.

Does the Consumer Still Play a Role in Research?

“What I would say is different today versus maybe five years ago is really shifting from thinking about a respondent as a consumer. [It’s shifting from] somebody that we’re selling [something to, to] somebody that we are here to serve. Even the term respondent and the term consumer is shifting to be talking more about people, and humans and talking about how can we solve real human problems.” –Marlene Straszewski

“We find that building platforms and building things where the stakeholders are forced in some ways to participate [helps with humanization of the consumer]. We’re trying to have this scenario where the distance between the respondents and the stakeholders is becoming closer and closer and closer so that they are more in tune with those consumer user needs, and then obviously you don’t have to ask the consumer to then fix those user needs.” –Humayun Rashid

“I’ve noticed a bigger need for [learning loops]. Rather than what we might have done 5-10 years ago with a long research program that goes from A to Z, we’re seeing more and more use of the idea of ‘learning loops’. Learn, go talk to consumers to understand, don’t use consumers last response as the source of the answer, but use that response truly for insight and then trying something, experimenting, learning. So this idea of learn, experiment, learn, experiment and learning as you scale, rather than going and getting the answer.” –Marlene Straszewski

“What’s different for me now is that we, as insights leaders, have to really apply the insight to the business and that it’s us that’s really changed. We’re now an interpreter. We need to interpret and influence. And really, we have to be business professionals as much as we are insights professionals.” –Elizabeth Oates.

Returning To In-Person Research

“I think at the end of the day, we’re here to get truth, not answers.” –Elizabeth Oates

“My job is to be the [consumer’s] voice when I get back to the office and not being there with them is kind of like … ‘[A]m I really hundred percent paying attention?’ I’m not in that home sitting on the edge of someone’s tub while I’m watching her put on her makeup. Like, you’re 100% in there and you can really ingest it and really understand her life. And what’s happening for her. So I think there’s more onus on us as the insights folks to really dig in and pay attention.” –Elizabeth Oates

“I think one of the most important research moments I had in my career is when I went to the homes of inner-city youth in the Bronx, Brooklyn and on the west coast in south LA. That face-to-face was super valuable and stayed with me, to this day. I met one person outside of McDonald’s and then walked to [his] house because he wanted to do that journey of what they like and what they do and how they are with their friends. And that was super important, that you would never be able to get in a Zoom interview … We should look forward to kind of saving money and doing Zoom groups if the situation allows them and we don’t lose quality. But we shouldn’t be doing this if we lose the quality of that respondent experience. I absolutely, really strongly believe in that.” –Humayun Rashid

What Stories Have Stuck In Your Mind That Have Inspired You?

Marlene shared a story from a TED Radio Hour podcast she listened to about the Art of Listening and how it inspired her.

Humayun talked about a recent experience visiting Oregon, where a number of positive encounters with a largely white, conservative community proved the point that when we put our biases aside, we can see the good in people.

Elizabeth told us about the vulnerability displayed by Ulta Beauty’s President, Dave Kimbell, about the lessons he’s learned about himself during the pandemic. His willingness to be vulnerable really opened the door to conversations across the organization so others could share their stories.

What’s Needed From Agency Partners Today

“I need partners who are able to think of new ways of doing things. The world has changed, and there has never been a more exciting or terrifying time to be in consumer insights. As the world changes, so must we.” –Elizabeth Oates

“Bringing a holistic perspective. Not only the point in time, pulling in information from disparate sources but also over time, and noticing where you’re seeing changes and shifts happening. I do believe we are in a state of transformation right now in the business world, in general, and in society.” –Marlene Straszewski

“Research becomes extremely biased around the stimulus that the stakeholders provide and that’s where we are asking our research partners to really think about that.  In the [CVT testing platform] the most important thing for us is that stimulus. It’s that way of being able to have them partner with us to understand us, understand what the product is, the product truth, and then, [through our research partners], give us a considered response about that.” –Humayun Rashid