In today’s wonderfully digital world, data is plentiful. Comparatively cheap and practically real-time digital research is beginning to overshadow it’s more traditional older brother. It has become a criminal offence to design a digital experience without first examining the online space and distilling those most sought after insights.
In marketing, ‘insight’ has become more popular than currency and as a result — much like money — insight can become inflated and faked. Some imitations are obvious and laughable and some you have to read a few times before you realise the dupe. Social Media Week is an excellent mixing pot for counterfeit insight, proved most amusingly by this Tumblr last year (thoroughly worth the read). The more and more insight we generate, the less value it can be worth.
It’s because of this lurid and superficial affair we’re having with insight and Big Data that I have started thinking about the other side of it all — what do we lose by knowing more. And what if we just ignored it all. Forget everything we know and start from scratch. Not just avoiding the fake insight, but the good stuff too.
As someone who started in research, has developed digital research methodologies and now works in digital strategy, I must fundamentally believe in the integration of insight into marketing campaigns. To suggest we should start by ignoring research and true insight is a very difficult claim to make as I fear it may be construed that we should ignore it completely.
So let me clarify my stand-point: I lack patience for counterfeit insight, but I do believe that good research should enable us to define customer needs and shape campaigns to meet these needs. I believe that research should allow us to measure the value we bring our customers and track the completion of strategically relevant brand objectives. I even believe that if designed correctly, campaigns should almost form self-evolving systems, in which what we learn from each interaction tells us more about our customers and therefore allows us to evolve the digital experience accordingly. In essence, I believe that without research we simply work on whims.
But sometimes, why don’t we just follow our whims?
My fear is that with data so abundant, we can create such rigid and replicable research structures we end up simply creating campaigns by making flowchart-like decisions. For simplicity, we’re going to create a hypothetical and mono-channel campaign for Product X, an asthma treatment.
- The target audience for Product X is young adults who are beginning to take control of their condition. So we first undertake a digital landscape to identify the most appropriate channel to engage with this audience with. We discover that despite a wide variety of apps, there are none that specifically target young adults. We also find out that 78% of young adults own a smartphone, but only 18% can access the school WiFi through it. So, we decide to develop an app.
- Next we research the social space to shape app functionality. Analysis of conversation shows that the biggest challenge for young adults with asthma is remembering to track what triggers an attack and feeling isolated from their peers. So, we decide to create a smart disease management app that allows patients to connect socially. Onto this we overlay the needs of the brand and build in a rewards system to drive adherence.
- We go back to the digital landscape to find out that online activity for ‘asthma’ usually peaks in April and October. As there is a respiratory congress in October, we decide to launch the application then. We hold a number of focus groups with young patients we connected with through asthma support groups to tinker with functionality. Finally, we whip up some KPIs, define our engagement plan and start building our app.
And you have an excellent, insight-led mono-channel campaign. It meets the needs of the patient and those of the brand and it plugs a gap in the ecosystem. It could easily inform the communications you have with the healthcare professionals, who in turn could help develop the functionality of the app.
What a wonderful and evolving system. Except of course, it is simply a series of junctions where decisions and choices are answered through insight — not creativity.
We’re at a point where we can and should be creating these types of digital strategies as standard. Let me re-iterate, I believe in this type of research because we know it works. But by doing this every time, my concern it is that it is too easy to plateau. How do we continue to invent and innovate if we are simply choosing option A or B? How do we find space for creativity when research has already given us the answer to what we should do?
“Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things” — Ray Bradbury
If we should work this way as standard, then it is the exception that I want to change. There is something very refreshing about a completely blank page. An empty space filled only with whims. Whims that we can then sculpt and craft with what we learn but are based not on data but on those elusive connections in our minds that jump from one idea to another. Whims that may well fail horribly!
And because research has made it so easy to be right, we are afraid of being wrong. We would rather regurgitate counterfeit insight than come up with something new. We seem to have entered an age where predicting what has already happened allows you to count yourself as a trendsetter. Something we see every December with the hundreds of ‘12 trends for the next 12 months’. People are too concerned they may be wrong. And a lot of the time, you will be wrong because that’s how predictions work. But I would rather read about 100 things that never happen than ten that already have.
Of course, being prepared to fail isn’t an option for at least 95% of the work we do — it just wouldn’t be good business. And it’s in this 95% that the research firmly belongs. But for that other 5%, let’s not fall into a system of decision-tree and flowchart campaign creation. It demeans ourselves and our work by suggesting we can do no better than what already exists. Let us daydream and digress our way back to the drawing board until blank pages of paper overflow with ideas. Let us look beyond the confines of what we know will work and come up with something that may not. Because if it does succeed we will have created something just a little bit special.