Amplify Strategic Decisions

Market Research Budget Tips
5 Tips for a Better Insights Budget in 2020

Are you getting the right budget for all of your company’s research needs? Unfortunately, the answer is “No” for many insights team leaders. Most companies determine what the overall budget increase allowance is going to be for the coming year (unless you are unluckily in a budget cut or neutral situation) and then have to compete with other departments if they need anything more.

Insights are the fuel for the business growth engine, and the annual planning process is the perfect time to make sure you’ve planned to have enough fuel for the upcoming 12 months.

So, what’s an insights leader to do?  Here’s 5 best practice tips for improving your chances that your research budget will actually meet your company’s needs.

1 – Get Prepared  

Evaluate the past year’s research and document how and where it contributed to making better decisions. Did teams avoid making costly errors?  Did a new messaging strategy lead to improved sales? Did a new product get launched leading to a new revenue stream?   Don’t be shy about asking for this input from stakeholders as the list of research results is a great way to prove the value of research.

Was there a shortfall in last year’s budget?  If so, identify the ramifications of the shortfall.  Estimate the opportunity costs of research deliverables being missed or delayed and the costs of being understaffed.

Are their new research tools, techniques and suppliers that save time/costs and/or improve the value of the research? Identify these and include them in upcoming plans.

2 – Align with Key Business Objectives

Interview all key business leaders to identify each of the strategic business objectives that must be addressed next year, by brand or division. These could include business objectives like increase product trial, optimize online presence, and Go / No Go on new product(s). By the way this may seem obvious, but “learn more about customers” is not a business objective. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this in too many RFP’s to miss mentioning it here.

When probing business leaders about what they need to learn to achieve their business objectives (the research objectives), make sure that all key research topics:

  • Align with the key business objectives
  • Can yield actionable results
  • Avoid “nice to knows”

Then, work with your brand team to stratify research opportunities into two to three  tiers: say A, B, and C priorities.  While we’d like to treat all of our brands and products equally; it’s just a reality that some have more importance and thus demand more resources than others.  This doesn’t mean you should ignore strategic learning opportunities for lower priority brands; they likely also need marketplace insights to support growth.  As feasible, look for secondary/syndicated research options and other lower-cost research options to support better decisions for those brands and products.

3 – Create and Pitch the Budget

Now that you’ve gathered all the background information, you need to sit down and create the actual budget. You’ll likely have some tough decisions to make so it’s a good idea to build a few different “what if” scenarios based on different levels of funding.

If your business objectives include major new initiatives, you need to be certain to have covered those – this is the time to advocate for more dollars.

How MUCH to allocate is tricky and there’s no set rules (way back in the day, the marketing research budget was typically about 10% of the marketing budget).  Research costs are dropping like crazy and there are more DIY options than ever.  You just need to be sure you carefully weigh the risk and rewards of all techniques carefully. For example, I just recently ran across a company that provides very robust Marketing Mix Modeling for less than $80k, a far cry from the $300k+ cost companies have charged for this in the past.  This shows the importance of staying on top of industry changes.

Consider activities that can be dropped to release resources.  Does every project need a full report or would a topline suffice?  Are those brand trackers still providing the value your company needs?

Here’s a sample partial annual marketing research plan that demonstrates how research objectives and methodologies align to business objectives.

Marketing Research Budget Example

4 –  Implement Proof of Concepts If You Can’t Get Projects Funded

If you still have too many project requests and not enough budget to execute them all, one option is to check with new suppliers and see if they will run a free, small proof of concept test.

It enables you to get directional feedback on a new product or service idea making it easier to find budget for more projectable research if the concept appears to hold promise. And, it gives the vendor an opportunity to establish a working relationship with you while demonstrating their capabilities.

5 – Monitor the Progress and Adjust

An old adage attributed to Ben Franklin, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” is still true today and applies to insights leaders. You and your team should set up periodic checkpoints for the annual research plan to be sure that their strategic priorities have not changed. This will help ensure that project goals are being met and that budget dollars are being maximized.

Sometimes even well thought out plans need to be adjusted based on changing business circumstances. Keep adding to your alternate scenarios as situations arise so that you and your business partners see the impact and trade-off of each alternative and gain internal alignment on available options. Then you’ll be better prepared to make adjustments to plans well before it becomes difficult to take action.

A Final Review

It’s already September so budgets are being finalized and it’s likely the last chance for you to amend your budget for 2020.   Hopefully this article has given you some points for making sure you are getting the budget your company needs to be more successful.

Need help? Olivetree Insights can help you create your annual Marketing Research plan and budget. Contact to get the most out of your research budget.

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Tracking impact and ROI of insights
Tracking the Impact & ROI of Insights

Insights Association and Olivetree Insights webinar series: “Insights, A Source of Strategic Leadership”

The ROI of Insights is not about conducting research projects better, faster and cheaper. The ROI of Insights is about making real and measurable business impact using insights derived from marketing research.

This important topic was addressed in the 5th and final session of a five part Insights Association and Olivetree Insights webinar series: ‘Insights, A Source of Strategic Leadership.’   The following is a recap of the key points from the expert panel.

Andrew Cannon, Executive Director, Global Research Business Network
Simon Chadwick, Managing Partner, Cambiar
Ben Gilgoff, Executive Director, Global Customer Insights, Merck

Slow Progress to Strategic Partnership
A groundbreaking study by the Boston Consulting Group in 2008-9 broke corporate insights departments into four stages: Traditional/Emerging (Stage 1), Business Contributors (2), Strategic Insight Partners (3), and Sources of Competitive Advantage (4). The study found that only about 10% of departments fell in stages 3 and 4.

Strategic Partnership Progress

Cambiar and the Yale Center for Customer Insights joined with BCG to update the study in late 2015. They found that some progress had been made, as 15% of insights departments were considered in Stage 3 and 5% in Stage 4. Interestingly, the defining point when looking at top performing departments is that they consistently measure the ROI of their insights in a quantitative way.

The defining point when looking at top performing departments is that they consistently measure the ROI of their insights in a quantitative way.

There is no shortage of bad ideas nor executives who prefer to trust gut instinct over spending on consumer insights. It’s up to the insights team to show how they can help their business partners look smarter, make better decisions, and improve the probability of success.

The Benefits and Barriers of Measuring ROI
The panelists stressed that the ROI of insights is not about conducting research cheaper and faster. In fact, simply completing the same number of projects typically done in a year for less cost is not generating a positive ROI. Rather ROI is about the impact the insights team has had on business performance and measuring that impact.

This leads to the importance of truly defining the business issue before starting any project. Insights teams and their business partners aren’t always good at doing that, but it is a critical step in being able to design a project that will deliver the insights needed to make an impact.

Insights teams and their business partners aren’t always good at defining the business issue, but it is a critical step in being able to design a project that will deliver the insights needed to make an impact.

The teams that have reached Stage 3 & 4 have realized a number of benefits through measuring ROI.  They report:

  • Increased stakeholder satisfaction
  • Greater budget and more control over the budget
  • More freedom to innovate and initiate strategic work
  • Increased resources
  • A seat at the strategy table

If ROI measurement is so valuable, why are so few measuring it?

One big reason is that nearly half of departments are still at Stage 1: either newer teams or are just “order takers” conducting research that is requested by their business partners without clearly identifying the business issue that needs to be addressed.  In stages 1 & 2 researchers are doing a lot of DIY research, running tables, and creating charts. In stages 3 & 4 there is more talking to partners about the key decisions that need to be made. The quality of work improves as you move up the scale.

Secondly, inertia is an issue. The belief that you can’t measure insights ROI – “a lot happens between conducting the research and market action” – making it impossible to quantify the impact.

Measurement Framework
The experts recommend using the following framework for measuring ROI and the business impact of insights. This framework is detailed in GRBN’s Invest in Insights Handbook which also provides some great “how to’s” for measuring ROI.

ROI of Insights Framework

  • Dimension 1 Granularity: Build ROI measurement from the ground up using 4 levels of granularity: Projects, Business Decisions, Business Lines and Overall Strategic Priorities.
  • Dimension 2 Perspective: While its preferable to use an actual ROI, its typically more feasible to create a forecast ROI. This is largely due to the time lag between completion of a research project and getting a product to market. They point out that all companies use forecasting for budgeting sales revenue and expenses, the insights department should be able to forecast potential revenue or cost savings based on the insights derived from a research project. Not every ROI measurement will be 100% accurate, but it’s a good step in starting to quantify impact.
  • Dimension 3 Shades of ROI: This is the most critical of the three dimensions, as it serves to address the reason many don’t seek to measure ROI at all – much of our work can’t be measured on a financial basis. Anecdotes, feedback from leadership, and surrogate measures should all be considered.
All companies use forecasting for budgeting, the insights department should forecast potential revenue or cost savings based on the insights derived from a research project.

Thus, the team recommends considering surrogate measures of ROI such as customer retention, preference, willingness to recommend, awareness, ad likeability, and brand tracking. These might not measure financial ROI, but they are strong, quantifiable measurements of likely consumer actions.

The speakers also emphasized the following to achieve successful ROI measurements:

  1. Take the long term view of projects versus only looking at the next quarter. Think about research done in the past 1-2 years and report on how the present results were impacted by the research.
  2. Don’t try to measure ROI in isolation. It can only be achieved by working with stakeholders and business partners – finance, accounting, marketing, and sales can all help with forecasting and feedback on projects.
  3. Strive to get out of the business of “doing” and become “thinkers.” Form coalitions with teams. Business leaders will respond positively if you tell them you want to quantify the decisions research is helping them make.

By measuring the ROI of Insights, the insights team strengthens the understanding of the value of research throughout the organization and proves its professional worth. In this way, the insights team can become strategic partners of leadership and a source of competitive advantage for their companies.

Getting started with measuring and reporting on the ROI of Insights can feel like a daunting task. GRBN understands this and together with its partners, including Cambiar, offer a number of services, aimed at making it easy for Insights leaders to get started and achieve tangible results.  Contact Andrew Cannon,, to find out how GRBN can help you build your business impact.

Olivetree Insights’ InsightsCentral software tool builds engagement at the design stage of a project so you consistently align and define key business objectives and build the input needed for tracking ROI. Try it FREE for 60 days, just email .

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Build your foresight planning skills
Build Your Foresight Muscles with Scenario Planning

Insights Association and Olivetree Insights webinar series: “Insights, A Source of Strategic Leadership”

While 72% of brands say they are future-focused, 70% say they are not willing to sacrifice short-term gains to invest in long-term benefits. The results of this recent survey of business decision makers show the wide gap between recognizing business challenges and taking the necessary steps to create new opportunities.

Are insights professionals doing enough to prepare our business leaders for the future? Is sharing what’s happening in the marketplace today enough to inform decisions that will have ramifications 6 months, a year, multiple years down the road?

These questions were addressed by two insights leaders in the 4th session of a five-part Insights Association and Olivetree Insights webinar series: ‘Insights, A Source of Strategic Leadership.’   The following is a recap of the key points from each presenter.

Piotr Szymski, Vice President, Insights/Business Intelligence & Catalog, Sony Music Entertainment

Piotr kicked off the session with a definition of three key terms – Hindsight, Insight, Foresight – learned during his days at P&G:

  • Hindsight are learnings and insights based on the past. This can help build understanding but is less actionable than insight or foresight.
  • Insight is an understanding of the nature of things as they exist today. In business, it covers  what customers do, decisions they make, how they behave, and why they do what they do.
  • Foresight is about what will happen in the future. And importantly considering how we build hypotheses about the future to inform better decisions.

Foresight is more critical than hindsight or insight because we live in a world of disruption, rapid innovation, and complexity. Whole industries have been caught unaware: photography by the advent of cameras in phones; taxis with Uber. In fact, the same lack of foresight affected the music industry as it wasn’t on the leading edge of innovation and was severely impacted by piracy issues, iTunes, and streaming.  Industry revenue fell off a cliff and it required the technology sector to come in and save the day.

Piotr’s experience in numerous industries convinced him of the importance of the Insights team having a leadership role in foresight planning. He believes that the objective, consultative, and deep understanding they have about consumers means that marketing researchers are well equipped to lead foresight initiatives. However, he also adds that it is critical that all key functions are involved and contributing to future-focused efforts, such as – finance, sales, operations, manufacturing, etc.

Some future-focused methodologies Piotr recommends that researchers build expertise around includes:

  • Trend work
  • Forecasting
  • Scenario planning

In particular, scenario planning is an area that Piotr believes should be embraced by insights teams. Scenario planning is a foresight technique that relies on using multiple hypotheses to create potential scenarios about the marketplace.

He cites examples of using scenario planning in the music industry, where there is limited research for upcoming releases and labels need to be ready for different scenarios based on the initial reaction of audiences to the music that is distributed.  With this pre-planning, he can help prepare his leadership team to jump on opportunities quickly and maximize outcomes.

Chris Grabarkiewicz-Davis, Partner, Olivetree Insights

Chris provided an overview of scenario planning and two case studies.  Scenario planning provides forecasts that are very different from the risk management forecasts provided when we cite research learnings like “25%, give or take 5 pts., are likely to buy our product based on survey results.”   This type of forecast doesn’t account for the multiple circumstances (competitive, technology, social, etc.) that a new product might face.

Scenario planning is instead based on considering multiple future scenarios to facilitate better decisions.

Scenario planning:

  • Requires laying out facts, assumptions, conditions and linking them to business.
  • Pushes people to step outside of their hypotheses/biases and avoids group think.
  • Scenarios help cross functional partners look at research from a business versus functional perspective.
  • It helps them see the impact and trade-off of each alternative and gain internal alignment which is often missing from research findings.

Chris provided an overview of the four key steps in scenario planning: identify the focal topic, prepare the team (existing primary and secondary research), build scenarios (identify driving forces, critical uncertainties, and plausible scenarios), and create plans based on an analysis of implications.  She then applied the process to two case studies.

Scenario Building Process

Case #1: Customer Journey Example

The first case was based on a retailer’s shopper journey study used to help marketing bring in more new customers. Should they invest in a new website or outdoor mall signage? Both were identified as customer pain points in the shopper journey.

The insights team used the results of the shopper journey study and in collaboration with finance and others business units, built financial forecasts for each scenario, as well as a “no change in marketing” scenario.  The decision for how to move forward became clearer based on the new information.

CASE #2 – Connect with Millennials Example

The second case was based on reverse-engineering the recent launch of the Capital One Café. The Café was created to “bridge the disconnect in traditional banking with Millennials by providing free coffee (sometimes), free Wi-Fi and if desired….free financial advice.”

In this case, the Capital One team could have considered the key driving industry forces: the growth of Fintechs (like PayPal) and Techfins (like Apple Pay) as well as the decline of the value proposition of traditional banks. They would identify certainties (like the continued importance of credit) and uncertainties (like consumers want more engagement with their credit card company/bank) about the future.  Then, they would construct scenarios around the uncertainties, discuss the common risks and implications across all scenarios, and create future-focused plans….including their launch of the Café’s in test markets.

Help your business leaders build innovative strategies for the future by incorporating scenario planning into your toolkit. Olivetree Insights’ Scenario Planning Workshop will help your team become Scenario Planning pros! Because we guide you in conducting your first workshop, you’ll walk away with not only with the skills and tools to conduct future sessions yourself, but with a set of scenarios that your company can use for future planning. Contact Carol Shea for more information:

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Integrating Data for Better Storytelling
Integrating Data for Powerful Storytelling and Actionable Insights

Insights Association and Olivetree Insights webinar series: “Insights, A Source of Strategic Leadership”

The amount of information floating around organizations from a plethora of sources – marketing research, big data, social listening, business intelligence – can be overwhelming. And decision makers may not have access to the same set of data sources or interpret them in the same way – meaning that they may hold very different perceptions of a category, key trends, and consumer target. This does not foster strategic business planning nor decision making!

This important topic was addressed by two corporate insights executives in the third session of a five part Insights Association and Olivetree Insights webinar series: ‘Insights, A Source of Strategic Leadership.’   The following is a recap of the key points from each presenter.

Cindy Casper, Managing Director, Constituent Knowledge and Insights, Arizona State University Enterprise Marketing Hub

Cindy kicked-off the webinar with her definition of an insight as “the capacity to gain an accurate and deep intuitive understanding of a person or thing.” With this in mind, she makes the important point that insights aren’t proprietary to marketing research; business intelligence, big data, digital analytics, AI, machine learning, user experience, and social listening are all important sources for understanding consumers.

Yet, she notes that in-house data/research providers often limit widespread access to data to avoid misinterpretation.  Through years of experience at multiple organization, she has learned that researchers can have more impact by sharing and integrating diverse types of information than by data hoarding.

She shared three lessons for integrating multiple sources of data:

  1. Tie data to an important outcome: Cindy shared a recent ASU project which involved using research and data to determine the impact of increased alumni affinity with the university on revenue.
  2. Learn the value of other data: The Marketing Enterprise Hub within ASU created a task force made up of the leaders of the teams involved in data collection and analysis to determine how best to blend data sources to overcome biases of each individual source. The task force looked at the expertise of each source/method; discussed the biases, strengths/weaknesses of the different sources. They created a framework for utilizing each data source – inductive/deductive; small ample/large sample/census; stated/observed/derived. (See the Periodic Table of Insights below)
  3. Create data exchanges and linkages: Cindy champions the insights department “becoming the currency” and not the gatekeeper. She acquired third party data for her team’s use and freely shared it with other university departments who were resource-constrained. This raw data, alumni segment assignments and predicted affinity scores, are now in a data warehouse for utilization across multiple units.

Various Sources of Data

One outcome of this combined effort was the creation of a new product, the Sun Devil Rewards App. Cindy’s team contributed qualitative and quantitative research; data analytics was used during beta testing; agile methods were used to work with alumni in co-creating app improvements; and predictive analytics allowed the team to identify the behavior of alumni that resulted in becoming more engaged contributors to the university.


Michelle Thevil McDonald, Senior Director of Consumer Insights at Clif Bar & Company

When Michelle became the leader of the Clif Bar insights team, she knew it would be important to transition from a team that simply hands over data to a team that leverages insights to drive strategy. To do this, she needed to find ways to increase the impact research had on the organization.

She noted that previous research projects were often of a tactical versus strategic nature; and that the team was not engaging in strategy discussions nor being invited to key meetings.  She and her team embarked on a discovery process to identify what was working and not working and the following presents some of her key learnings.

Like Cindy, Michelle understood the importance of connecting insights work to important business needs. So, she started by identifying one or two key projects that would best showcase the value of Insights when its focused more strategically. Her team uses four filters to identify key research projects:

  • Where is the opportunity for the biggest strategic impact?
  • Where is the opportunity to advance organizational learning the most?
  • Where can we reach the most important stakeholders?
  • Where can we reach the broadest audience?

These filters were so successful, they are now used for developing the annual learning agenda. In fact, Michelle found that her team could have the biggest impact during the annual business planning, so she focused most of her webinar presentation on how the insights team engagement in that process has evolved.

In the past, the annual planning process would kick-off with a series of detailed research presentations (e.g. annual tracking, Nielsen or IRI data, trend data, etc.) to immerse business partners in current  learnings.  Michelle noted two flaws in this approach:

  • By summarizing all the data, the insights team wasn’t creating focus
  • Each business team would interpret the findings differently, and present different stories about competitive and consumer landscapes in justifying their plans

To bring more focus to the planning process, the insights team now starts their presentations with the implications. What are the big so-what’s?  What do we want stakeholders to walk away knowing and taking action on?  From that starting point, the team focuses on what information best illustrates those points and builds the story to support them.

The team’s goal isn’t to summarize everything, but to make judgement calls about what is most important for stakeholders to learn.  Specifically, they look for information that:

  1. Adds dimension and clarity to current strategies. What does our success hinge on?
  2. Addresses mis-information or internal confusion. Where is there danger that the organization will go sideways, or different teams are moving in different directions?
  3. Seeks to identify where the organization can look further upstream. What should we know, but don’t?
  4. Raises provocative questions and questions sacred cows.

This new process allows her team to focus on big picture strategy versus getting bogged down in minutia. It made distilling a year’s worth of data much simpler, saving her team valuable time. And ultimately it made their work more impactful, bringing greater value to their stakeholders.

Michelle was able to judge their success through an increased demand for not just research, but the insights team’s perspective on learnings. And perhaps the greatest testament to their impact is the greater organizational excitement to learn about the consumer so that insights can be applied to improve strategies.

Improve the strategic focus and build an integrated intelligence library for your organization.  Attend Olivetree Insights’ Knowledge Harvest Workshop where experienced consultants can help you create your first integrated intelligence summary and provide a template for you to conduct your own future sessions.  Learn more, contact

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Best practices for allocating research resources
Time to Say No? 3 Ways to Make Better Resource Allocation Decisions

When Tracy, the Insights Director for a small but mighty research and analytics team, was approached by a brand manager with a research request she was all ears.  But she was deflated after learning that the research would be used to validate a decision that had already been made. Slipping in one more research project was possible but would put a strain on her team. And was this really a good use of corporate resources?

We’ve all been in her shoes at one point or another, and here’s some speculation on what Tracy might be thinking:

    • Let’s say Tracy does the research:
      • Will it limit the team’s ability to do something else that could have more impact on other decisions that need to be made?
      • If it invalidates the decision that has been made, is it even possible to take corrective action, or is it already too late?
    • Let’s say Tracy doesn’t do the research:
      • Will it hurt her credibility with the business partner?
      • Will the business partner simply find another avenue for getting the research done; and perhaps not done well?

What would you advise Tracy to do?

To help answer that question, here are three best practices to help balance the business’s needs for insights to support improved decisions and the reality of limited time and money.

1. Develop, share and stick to a Team Charter that identifies how projects will be prioritized. For example, a Charter that’s co-developed with insights and business leaders could identify how research and analytical resources will be allocated to activities that are ‘more deserving’ based on criteria such as the following:

      • Fits within strategic goals
      • Will be used to improve high value business decisions
      • Has a payoff within two years

A Charter that includes these types of prioritization guidelines in the Principles section is an excellent way to focus teams on when and why to consider research. It provides the context for a discussion between the Insights team and the business partner to address whether or not the value in the research outcome is worth the effort, and to what degree. (Read more about a Team Charter in our last blog)

Team Charter Components

2. Use a disciplined process to probe the need and use of the resulting information from the business partner, such as one outlined in our Smart Insights Brief process.  Specifically, it would be important to identify the responses to such questions as:

      • In what ways will the research be used to make better decisions?
      • How impactful will the learnings be on the decisions?
      • Is there existing information that would suffice?
      • Can available methodologies answer the key questions?

Clarifying the business partner’s needs and intentions can sometimes be enough to assess the role of research in assisting with a decision. (Read more about the Smart Insights Brief)

Smart Insights Brief

3. Utilize a Decision Model Scoring System.  It’s typically not as simple as a “yes” or “no” decision on whether or not to do research, but rather a question of how much time and money to allocate. The Insights team could create a scoring system that fairly and quickly helps to prioritize projects based on how much value they bring to the organization as well as its feasibility.

The Olivetree Insights team has developed a model based on the following three steps:

      • Score Fit and Impact: Score the research need on how closely it addresses a strategic initiative; how impactful (financial threat or opportunity) it is to the company and the impact breadth (how widely the results can be applied across the company)
      • Score Actionability: Score the research need based on the decision stage and risk of a bad decision.
      • Methodology Considerations:  Are there other sources of existing information that could suffice? Is it a researchable question? Is there enough time and resources available to address the topic adequately?

Decision Scoring Model

We’re seeking beta testers of our Decision Model Scoring System. Let us know if you want a free trial.

Whatever process an insights team uses to guide resource allocation discussions, there will be instances where the business partner has to be told no.  Having an established and shared process can take some of the emotion out of the decision, but it can still be tough to say no! We don’t want to disappoint our colleagues; that’s just human nature.

So when you must say no, also work to find a yes. Perhaps there’s trade articles or other secondary research sources that could shed light on the topic. Share former research that might provide answers; reach out to other research/brand members for ideas; or guide them with DIY research.

Each of these techniques serves to set the team up for successful resource discussions because much of the heavy lifting– standards about when to allocate research/analytics funds – have already been made.  So now Tracy can have a great conversation with the business partner and jointly determine how best to use limited resources.

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How to Avoid Sacrificing Reliability in Agile MR: A Case Study

Some people interpret agile research as fast and cheap. Insights professionals know it must be better than that. Yes, it must be fast enough to work within tight, agile time frames; and cost effective to be conducted for multiple iterations, but the research can’t be managed in a way that the results aren’t reliable. There is no value in completing research quickly if it fails to deliver valid findings!

Agile management processes require a different approach to research and analysis, exemplified by this case in which an auto insurance company insights team works to improve the online application process after receiving numerous complaints. The insights and business teams worked seamlessly together, successfully implementing an agile approach to improvements, because they were aligned from the start on the goals and success metrics of the research.

Agile Project Management

To understand Agile, you need to first consider project management processes for traditional product development. The traditional or waterfall process relies on a linear method based on stage gates such as Idea to Concept to Business Case to Development to Testing to Launch. Customer insight is sought at established points in time.

Software developers were frustrated with this approach as it took too long to develop innovative products and once they did; they often couldn’t keep up with customer needs. As agile processes have become the norm for software companies like Apple and IBM; non-software companies like AT&T, Phillips, and John Deere have begun to adopt the processes.

Agile project management is based on an iterative product development life cycle – where every project is managed collaboratively and in small parts.

Agile project management is a based on an iterative product development life cycle – where every project is managed collaboratively and in small parts to reduce friction and keep moving in the right direction.  Unlike traditional methods, the product doesn’t need to be perfect before its launched. Instead, you launch a “minimally viable product” – one that provides a value to the customer.  Then, you make continuous product iterations based on customer feedback with every iteration.

Agile is a particularly useful methodology where products will be developed to solve complex problems and in rapidly changing marketplace environments. Agile seeks to help organizations make better decisions and solve issues more effectively with less wasted time and resources.

The key process for Agile is:

  • Validate assumptions via Minimal Viable Product (MVP)
  • Define and prioritize a list (or backlog) of improvements
  • Roll out and test; roll out and test; roll out and test; etc.

Marketing Research in an Agile Environment

Here’s a case study that exemplifies how an insights team works within an Agile environment.

The Scene

An auto insurance company wanted to improve their online customer application process. Customers had been complaining that it was taking too long to get their online application approved and internally, they knew that their processes were inefficient. The  team planned to use Agile management processes and they sought the advice of the Insights Team for customer input.

Insights Scope

The Insights Team used the DecisionAdvancer Smart Insights Brief with the Application Team to get clarity on the current situation as well as their goals and expectations for customer input. They worked with the Application team to define the problem and to document the backlog list of challenges and improvements associated with application process based on previous input from customers, sales agents, and customer service reps.

They also documented success metrics to identify ways to improve the insights development process in the future and how the insights research and analysis impacted the new application process.

Iterative Development

The teams prioritized the elements on which to work and mapped out the process in ‘sprints’ (e.g. two-week planning cycles).  Once a research sprint was completed the insights are fed into a development sprint (for the MVP), and the next research sprint takes place. This continued until the goals were accomplished.

The research and analytical tools employed by the insights team had to be:

  • cheap enough to conduct for each iteration,
  • fast enough to fit into tight timeframes (a couple of weeks, not months), and
  • easy to decipher.

However, “agile marketing research” should not mean conducting the research so quickly and cheaply that its not reliable.  You want to learn from product iterations that “fail fast,” not from “fast failing” research!  (Read the NewMR blog post for more on this).

“Agile marketing research” should not mean conducting the research so quickly and cheaply that its not reliable.

The insights team established an online community of customers to conduct research during the sprint periods.  Depending on the issue they needed to explore, they sometimes used video chats to speak one-on-one with the panelists, sometimes used a discussion board format; and sometimes they used short surveys.  The analytical team was also quite involved, as often the team needed internal data to feed decisions.

Each research sprint yielded new insights to build on the former ones.  The insights team kept their Application team members up-to-date and aligned on the study objectives and methodology for each sprint using the DecisionAdvancer platform.


Because the goals and expectations were so clearly aligned from the start, the Insights and Application teams worked seamlessly together and so the process was frictionless.  The Insights Team was able to guide the Application Team to make the optimal customer-based decisions. The redesigned customer application process resulted in more online applications and fewer customer service rep time.  Because success measures were identified in the initial planning stage and careful track was kept of how learnings informed decisions, both the Application Team and the Insights Department were able to measure the ROI of their research investment. As a bonus, they identified new ways to improve the insights process for future projects.

The DecisionAdvancer Difference

This Insights Team was up to the Application improvement challenge. They knew they could rely on DecisionAdvancer’s Smart Insights Brief to keep the teams focused on the right problems and opportunities from the very beginning of the project. The Insights Team confidently delivered actionable insights that were properly aligned with organizational objectives. The Application team was appreciative of a process that resulted in an improved, customer-centric application using Agile management.  The auto insurance company was assured that their research resources had been used wisely.

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Aligning Insights with Business Objectives in a Design Thinking Ecosystem: A Case Study

In the last decade, Design Thinking has gone from buzz word to relevant business process for customer-focused businesses. Insights professionals working where Design Thinking processes are in play need to be clear about how the process works so that they can meet the needs of their business partners and achieve a successful outcome.

This case showcases how one team found success working in this environment. They started with a Smart Insights Brief to plan the inspiration and ideation stages of an Emergency Room (ER) redesign project that was using Design Thinking principles. Then they provided the strategic decision support so that ideas could be immediately prototyped and A/B tested, all while tracking the ROI of the research investment. It’s how today’s insights teams must respond to the need for insights while working within ever-changing parameters for problem solving.

Design Thinking requires a business to empathize with consumers and design around their needs and wants. I can’t imagine a management philosophy more closely aligned with how insights professionals already think!

Design Thinking

What do Apple, IBM, Fidelity, Intuit, and Herman Miller have in common? They all rely on Design Thinking principles to guide them in creating products and services that meet the needs of their target audience.  Design Thinking requires business to empathize with consumers and design around their needs and wants.  I can’t imagine a business management philosophy that would be more closely aligned with how insights professionals already think!

Design Thinking adapts the creative process used by designers to provide a problem-solving framework for creating human-centered products, services, and internal processes. Its proponents point to benefits such as:

  • Reducing the risk associated with launching new ideas.
  • Reducing the time it takes for organizations to learn.
  • Producing solutions that are innovative, not just incremental.

Design Thinking utilizes elements like empathy and experimentation to arrive at innovative solutions focused on what future customers want. The focus is on relentless questioning: questioning the problem, questioning the assumptions, and questioning the implications. Insights professionals are likely to run into Design Thinking in projects where the problem to be tackled is ill-defined or requires creative solutions.

Marketing Research in a Design Thinking Ecosystem

Here’s what aligning insights with business objectives looks like in the Design Thinking ecosystem.

The Scene

An inner-city hospital wanted to redesign their ER department. They assembled an ER Design Team that decided to use Design Thinking for the process. The existing ER had a less than stellar reputation. It was perceived as slow, dirty, and even scary. The Design Team turned to the Insights Department for assistance with obtaining patient input.

Insights Project Planning

The Insights Team used the Smart Insights Brief with the ER Design Team to get clarity on the current situation as well as their goals and expectations. The teams jointly identified the learning needs necessary to build a best-in-class ER. In the process, they established success metrics that identified ways to improve the learning process in the future and how the insights process impacted the newly redesigned ER.

Empathize Stage

Design Thinking always starts with defining the problems to solve. The teams already had a leg-up on this stage because they used DecisionAdvancer’s Smart Insights Brief process. So, the Insights Team was ready to jump into action starting with deep-dive research to identify their target audience’s needs and wants. This included:

  • Secondary review of ER best practices and several interviews with benchmark ER departments across the US
  • Observational research of the ER, including some very brief, in-the-moment interviews with ER staff and patients
  • Focus groups with past ER patients and their family members
  • Focus groups with ER staff members

By the end of this stage, the teams had a clear understanding of the challenge and a human-centered statement of the problem.

Define and Ideate Stage

The Smart Insights Brief process upfront helped the teams maintain focus while mentally “going wide” to look at the ER redesign from many different angles.

Next, the ER Design Team and the Insights Team brought in all key stakeholders and held convergent and divergent sessions to identify ideas, solutions, and alternative ways to looking at the problem. Convergent sessions clustered and identified pain points while divergent sessions ideated solutions. These creative sessions generated many ideas that were then filtered. The Smart Insights Brief process upfront helped the teams maintain focus while mentally “going wide” to look at the ER redesign from many different angles.

Prototype/Test Stage

Several of the ideas coming out of the Ideation Stage were tested immediately. The Insights analysts helped set up several A/B split tests to evaluate new processes. This iterative process continued until the best processes were identified. Where appropriate, visual concepts were developed and quantitatively tested.

Because success measures were identified in the initial research planning stage and careful track was kept of how learnings informed decisions, both the ER Design Team and the Insights Department were able to measure the ROI of the research investment.

Redesign Success

Throughout the process, the Insights Team was able to guide the Design Team to make the optimal customer-based decisions. The redesigned ER Department saw improved quality outcomes and higher patient satisfaction scores. Because success measures were identified in the initial planning stage and careful track was kept of how learnings informed decisions, both the ER Design Team and the Insights Department were able to measure the ROI of the research investment. As a bonus, they identified new ways to improve the insights process for future projects.

The DecisionAdvancer Difference

This Insights Team was up to the ER redesign challenge. They knew they could rely on the Smart Insights Brief to keep the teams focused on the right problems and opportunities from the very beginning of the project. The Insights Team confidently delivered actionable insights that were properly aligned with organizational objectives. The ER team was appreciative of a process that resulted in an improved, customer-centric ER using Design Thinking principles.  The sponsoring academic institution was assured that their research resources had been used wisely.

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Prepare Business Partners for the Unexpected to Increase Insights-Based Decisions

No one likes to be unprepared. We may complain about the accuracy, but we still check the weather forecast on our phone.  Business partners are the same. Insights may not lead to action when the results leave business partners feeling caught in a torrential downpour without an umbrella.

But you can increase insights-based decisions based on alignment of research and business objectives by getting your partners ready to expect the unexpected. How? By recognizing that they are human with expectations that can be so firmly held it is impossible for them to believe otherwise.  It’s your job to provide proverbial cover and prepare them for all eventualities.

After all, often it’s hard to tell the difference between good news and bad. Sometimes bad news is good news. It’s all in your perspective.

All News is Good News?

Tell someone they owe the government $577 million in taxes and they hear bad news. Tell them they won the $1.5 billion Powerball lottery and they are ecstatic. See the difference? Your challenge is to create the environment and relationship where business partners understand that all news is good news.

It starts by learning that different value judgements are possible for any given results and preparing your partners for various outcomes. How? You must uncover underlying or hidden assumptions and hypotheses. Use probes to identify expectations upfront. By laying the groundwork to shed light on beliefs in the beginning, you can find out exactly what it would take to disprove them. Addressing credibility issues also saves resources. If nothing could possibly disprove a hypothesis, why perform the research?

Here are some ways to increase insights-based decisions by preparing business partners to expect the unexpected.

Value Judgements on Insight Learnings

Humans are meaning-making machines. We instill meaning in everything we see and experience. At the same time, we assign value judgements along with those meanings. Have you ever heard the expression, “It is what it is, and that’s all it is”? It distills the concept that when it comes to meaning, the only meaning is the meaning we choose to assign. What does that have to do with insights? A great deal.

Most people don’t like surprises in business. Don’t surprise your business partners.

See, as insights pros we must sometimes share learnings that we perceive as “good,” but business partners perceive as “bad.” It’s just a matter of perspective. But that difference in perspective can be the difference between delivering insights that form the basis of decisions and insights that go on the trash heap of wasted resources. If you’re going to increase insights-based decisions by aligning insights with objectives, you’ve got to be prepared to unmask “bad news” as “good news”.

The Packaging Problem

Let’s say your insights team was tasked with studying new packaging options. You complete the study and find that consumers do not like any of the new packaging options being explored.  Now, when it comes time to deliver the report, your insights team perceives the results as good news. You’ve added value because you helped the company avoid a waste of resources and expense on packaging that consumers don’t want or like. Your perception isn’t influenced by the sunk cost of the unpopular packaging, it’s influenced on the resources saved by not launching an unpopular packaging.

“In the business world, bad news is usually good news for someone else.” – James Surowiecki

But your business partners have a different perspective. They’ve invested considerable effort and resources to the new packaging design options. Not only is their perception influenced by sunk cost, they also have an emotional connection to the new package design options. So, the “good news” you deliver is received as “bad news”.

Instead of embracing the learnings, they complain about the study design and the participants included in the study. “It must be wrong!” they insist.  You are blind-sided, the business partners are disappointed, the insights are dismissed.  What a waste of precious time and resources of your insights department. Your credibility with the business partners take a hit too. The packaging problem has turned a real problem that ironically could have been avoided by packaging assumptions into the project design on the front end. The consumer product isn’t the only product with a packaging problem.

Increase Insights-Based Decisions by Addressing Assumptions

So how could an insights team avoid this situation? By better preparing business partners for this potential scenario right from the start.

Let’s say that the business objective of the study was “identify which one of three package designs to proceed with” and the corresponding research objective was “identify the best package design based on consumer purchase intent, shelf visibility and appeal.”  With the perspective of hindsight, it’s easy to see there was a huge assumption in these objectives:  that at least one package design would meet consumer needs and proceed.

Sometimes its hard to see assumptions at the front end.  That’s why it is crucial to spend sufficient time during the start of design and focus on the underlying assumptions that may be built into project objectives. 

How to Prepare Business Partners for All Possible Results

Uncovering assumptions should be done in the very beginning, when you are still focused on the business needs. Along with defining the current situation, business objective, business decision to be made, and identifying all business units that will be impacted, probe to uncover covert assumptions as well as the overt hypotheses.

Scenario Planning-Based Probing

Identifying underlying assumptions could be as simple as asking the business partner if they have any expectations about the results.  For example, they may have intelligence from the sales team about competitive package designs that leads them to believe one or two of the proposed package designs will be preferred.

The time you spend on the front end pays off on the back end with insights that get action.

Another approach is to develop and share potential scenarios for results and ask how they would use the learnings. Specifically, ask what decisions would be made. For the packaging design example, three scenarios might be provided:

  1. One package of the three is clearly superior in meeting consumer needs
  2. Two or three of the packaging designs equally meet consumer needs
  3. None of the packaging designs meet consumer needs

By probing how business partners would use the information in each scenario, you would identify a major negative reaction to scenario 3.

Determine Believability

By using the sample probes above, you can uncover business partner reaction to results before the study is even designed. That’s important. The insights team should understand why business partners won’t find results believable and find out in advance what it takes for results to be credible and believable.

“The truth will set you free, believability will give you credibility.” – Garrison Wynn

For some it might be a larger sample size, for others it could be a study that includes retail partners as well as consumers.  These can all be included in the design if known up front. Equally important, if business partners won’t find certain results believable at all, is there any value in expending the resources on research?

Include All Stakeholders

Be sure to ask these probes not only of your direct contact business partner, but also of other company stakeholders. You could reveal differing expectations.  In the packaging example, if you were working directly with the brand team, it would have been very valuable to probe the expectations of the operations and R&D teams about the packaging designs.

Having these expectations fully expressed before the study means that results can be compared to expectations to identify existing gaps (e.g., expectation that customers will like packaging, when in fact they do not) and these gaps can be addressed during analysis and reporting.

Help Leaders See All News is Good News

The best way to deliver bad news is after you’ve already laid the groundwork during the initial brief preparation to prepare business partners for all outcomes. You will find that even though disappointed, the team will be open to the learnings and see the value in the research. After all, in the packaging scenario, the sunk cost of poor packaging design is nothing compared to releasing the company’s product in packaging that annoys or alienates its customers.

Want to Know More About Aligning Insights with Business Objectives?

When insights are aligned with business objectives they are more likely be used to make decisions. Decisions aren’t made on insights because the alignment was missing from the beginning. By focusing on business objectives before research objectives, you are primed to deliver insights that get action.

Decision Advancer is a cloud-based productivity tool that allows you to increase the amount of time spent on strategic and consultative tasks and minimize the amount of time spent on analysis, reporting and administrative tasks. Tools inside the platform, such as the Smart Insights Brief, guide insights projects to align with business objectives from the very start.

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5 Methods to Align Insights Projects with Business Objectives

It’s a never-ending challenge in your insights department: getting business decisions made based on completed projects. If it’s any consolation, you aren’t alone. A recent Quirk’s Report found that 85% of researchers can’t get action based on insights at least some of the time. So, how can you increase insights-based decisions? They key is aligning the  research and business objectives at the start. That’s one way to  produce insights that get action.

So how do you do that? By becoming a strategic partner. It’s not easy, but if you start asking probing questions that challenge assumptions, you will find it easier to identify hidden assumptions and hypotheses. When you bring in all stakeholders, you get a 360° view of the actual needs. With that understanding in hand, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for commitment up front and in return, commit to keeping in touch in case things change. If you want to produce insights that get action, use these five methods to align insights projects with business objectives.

1.      Challenge the Assumptions

Just because your business partner identifies a challenge doesn’t mean it is the gospel. Imagine this situation: you come into the office early and start browsing your email.  There’s an urgent email from the brand team. A competitor has dropped prices and they need to decide if a price reduction is in order.  They ask if you could “do some groups” on pricing.

Now on the surface, that may seem like a straightforward request. It would be very easy to immediately start building a focus groups plan around this problem. You might cover exploratory topics like consumer belief about the competitor and your products and explore how they feel about the price cut and its impact on quality perceptions.

But imagine how you would feel if as you are reporting results, you find out that the competitor lowered prices as a preemptory move because they were under investigation for poor business practices. The price drop was just a move to get a better foothold on their market share to offset losses incurred when the bad news was revealed. The price decline wasn’t based on a marketplace need, as was assumed by your brand team. You would know in an instant your research results aren’t valid.  Consumers might have had different opinions if they had known all the facts. Why didn’t you know the “rest of the story”?

“Assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” – Isaac Asimov

This may be an extreme example, but “surprises” at the reporting stage are an unfortunate fact of life for many insights teams.  It happens because either business partners aren’t fully aware of the situation they face, they don’t think a certain fact is relevant, or they simply forget to share all relevant information with the insights team members. When this happens, the insights aren’t used to make business decisions and the resources used to conduct the research are wasted. So, ask probing questions to get better understanding. Use clarifying probes (tell me more about…) and elevating probes (let’s take a step back…) to make sure you completely understand the business needs before moving on to the actual research needs.  Don’t be afraid to challenge assumptions.

2.      Involve All Stakeholders

You aren’t going to get a 360° view by looking from one angle. To align the research with business objectives you must spin the current situation around and look at it from different perspectives. So, get the full picture by identifying all business units/functions that will be impacted by the decision and talking to all stakeholders. Marketing, R&D, operations, and insights should all be working together to deliver a brand, product, or ad campaign that perfectly meets the consumer needs and thus create more value for the business. According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, in the perfect organization, R&D and marketing serve as the perfect counterbalance to each other. But organizations aren’t perfect.

Marketing, R&D, operations, and insights should all be working together to deliver a brand, product, or ad campaign that perfectly meets the consumer needs and thus create more value for the business.

That’s why it’s up to you to interview as many stakeholders as possible to ensure the insights project is truly focused on business objectives. You may find by talking to other stakeholders that the actual needs have been lost in translation or the project is much further down the road than you thought. It isn’t always easy but including all stakeholders as well as managing their expectations and understanding what drives their aspect of the project is well worth the effort. It’s also a great way to uncover past relevant, related research, information, data, or competitive intelligence that you might not have otherwise uncovered. Lastly, getting the opinions of all stakeholders leads to better understanding the current situation and helps identify what is out of scope of the project. Understanding what is out of scope is crucial. It leads us to the next tip.

3.      Identify Underlying Hypotheses and Expectations

As part of understanding business need objectives, you must identify and understand the underlying hypotheses and expectations. Don’t wait until reporting to find out that your business partners have unstated expectations. That’s too late. Go ahead, ask your business partners up front what they believe they will hear. Just start by having your business partner imagine the results they will get from the study. Then ask them if this information will be all that’s necessary to make a business decision. Also, probe how they will react if the results are not what they expect. In our e-book, Research Without Regret, we look at a case study where a brand team didn’t share their performance expectations for a new flavor with the insights team.  Considerable resources were invested in the research, but when the results were contrary to expectations, the research was called into question – not the expectations. Has this ever happened to you? If so, download the e-book to discover how this can be prevented.

By probing the underlying hypotheses and expectations as well as understanding what is out of scope, you will better prepare your partners for unexpected results. When insights projects are properly aligned with business objectives, they not only provide the information necessary to decide what to do, they inform what not to do. After all, if research only confirms what is already known, it’s not a vital business function. Identifying what is out of scope is also critical to avoid misunderstandings about deliverables and eliminates some of the second guessing that can happen at the end of the project.

4.      Get a Commitment

You may be allergic to commitment in personal relationships, but that’s a bad strategy for your professional relationships. Especially with your business partners. When discussing the business decisions to be made, ask not only “What must you learn from this research to support these business decisions?” but then ask, “How much of the business decision will be impacted by this research/analysis?” then get a commitment to use the information. Get a commitment on how the information will be used and identify other elements that will impact the decision as well. By getting buy-in at the start and doing the groundwork to make sure the research is aligned with business objectives upfront, you will produce insights that get action.

If you can’t get commitment to use the information, can you afford the opportunity cost? It may be too high. It’s a tough tightrope to walk, but in this instance, the company may be best served if resources were directed to other projects. It’s a fact: insights professionals are constantly faced with too many projects and too little staff. Quirks Reports that 85% of insights professionals find this to be a pain point in managing and conducting research. So, get commitment up front. You may find that over time, you are pulled in earlier and earlier as you prove ROI on insights projects that align with business objectives and get action.

By getting buy-in at the start and doing the groundwork to make sure the research is aligned with business objectives upfront, you will produce insights that get action.

5.      Keep in Touch

These days, many insights projects can take six weeks or more to design and conduct. In a rapidly changing environment, that’s a lifetime. Almost anything can happen. The research team must be kept informed of any major external market factors that change during this critical period. Initiate contact frequently during this period. Don’t wait for your business partner to come to you, reach out on a regular basis. Ask if there are changes in the marketplace that could impact the research. Changes in competition, customers, resources, technology, or regulation can impact research. Since marketplace intelligence during the project is vital to success, check in frequently. If changes occur, then you can make field corrections if appropriate or address the changes in the analysis and reporting phases.

The only constant is change – Heraclitus

Be a Strategic Advisor

By implementing these processes, you’ll be much more than just a researcher. You’ll be a strategic advisor. When you deliver projects focused on business objectives, they get action.

Have you found other ways to increase insights-based decisions based on alignment of research with business objectives? We’d love to hear more. Contact us and let us know what is working for you.

Download the ebook and discover tips for avoiding research that ends in regret.
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Alignment is the key to more insights-based decisions: AMA NEO Chapter Market Research Conference 2018

With 15 presenters, the AMA NEO Chapter Conference was an inspirational, learnings-packed day for almost 100 attendees.

One message that came through loud and clear was that by aligning objectives, methodologies, analyses, and reporting with the needs of all stakeholders, insights pros can be more successful helping companies make better insights-based decisions.

  • Our Olivetree Insights team with Chris Grabarkiewicz-Davis, former Insights leader of Luxottica Retail, shared best practices for improving the ability of business leaders to make insights-informed decisions. Their process gets all the parties involved in research and analytics projects aligned around the detailed goals that ensure success. The outcome is that businesses can fully leverage their investments in research and analytics to drive improved business outcomes.
  • Several teams (Illumination Research, EMI, Action Based Research, and C+R) shared ways to align methodology with research design needs by combining quant. and qual. techniques and reaching the right sample/target audience. With the right methodology and sample, business leaders can rely on the learnings as representative of their target audience.
  • The FedEx Custom Critical and Schmidt Marketing Research team shared how they used an stakeholder workshop format to report research results. This interactive approach ensured that stakeholders not only understood the learnings, they understood how to utilize them in their business plans.
  • A panel of MR Leaders (Progressive Insurance, Vita-Mix Corporation, MarketVision Research, Broadview Analytics) shared current best practices in MR. One topic they covered was creating reports and presentations that align with the needs of the stakeholders so that they can quickly absorb and will use the insights. They discussed multiple report formats to meet the needs of different stakeholders – from one-page overviews to video reports.

Want to learn more about how aligning the stakeholders involved in an insights-focused project in order to dramatically increase the success rate for insights projects and their return on investment? Download our FREE ebook, Research without Regret.

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