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ESOMAR is the leading international voice for the insights industry, so its annual Congress works hard to reflect global research in all its variety. From a McDonalds Malaysia case study told via screenshots from the film Avatar, to a spine-chilling session on “Research disaster movies”, the 2018 event achieved that.

But there’s a serious undertone to every conference these days. The insights industry – and marketing in general – are changing fast.

Pressures on cost and speed; higher expectations from buyers; proliferating media platforms; culture wars and social change – oh, and the little matter of a promised AI revolution. It’s rarely been harder or more exciting to be a marketer. ESOMAR has to reflect that, too.

Here are the most interesting trends we spotted, and the most useful things we learned.

  1. FASTER: The need for speed isn’t letting up. “Faster isn’t fast enough”, said Unilever’s BV Pradeep. The FMCG giant is using a platform that lets senior marketers chat directly to consumers, a sort of insights hookup app which represents the last word – for now – in removing the research middleman.
  2. CHEAPER: Ray Poynter, independent consultant on ESOMAR’s biennial industry reports, presented the latest news on costs. Online prices continue to fall. The median price of a bare-bones (no presentation) online U&A study in a key research market has dropped from $27,000 in 2010 to $12,000 in 2017. Buyers now live in a world of global, commoditised, online research. Simple, highly automated quant studies are the new normal – which means agencies like us have to keep working to make those simple questions as accurate and predictive as possible.
  3. BETTER: The prestigious Research Effectiveness Award was won by a B2B segmentation study from New Zealand, and all three finalists came from the APAC region, where fast-growing economies mean there’s room for insights to make a huge competitive difference. Overall though we sensed more consolidation than innovation at this year’s conference. The big new areas of the last few years – behavioural science included – are baked in to today’s research. It might just be the calm before the AI storm. A few presentations, like Sonos’ work on NPS drivers, were already using machine learning in very smart ways.
  4. SHARPER: Insights teams can’t be effective if they don’t communicate well. One of the best presentations we saw addressed that head-on. A McDonalds Canada study had plenty of methodological intrigue (discrete choice models were on the menu). But its real value was in how researchers addressed the two main stakeholder groups: consumers and internal decision-makers. The project used natural consumer actions – swipes, taps and likes on new menu items – and the business language of outcomes, margins and growth. But neither audience was subjected to any researcher-speak.
  5. SLICKER: We saw a big jump in the visual quality of presentations – more graphic design sense, less ghastly stock photos. This has its good sides – some of the talks were gorgeous – and its bad – there were a lot of pointless corporate video ads taking up valuable time. An excellent Coca-Cola presentation with Keen As Mustard looked deeper into internal communications of insights to see which approaches were most effective. Their experiments concluded the most engaging and memorable media is… the humble newsletter! With the human touch of talking head videos a close second – and powerpoint attachments dead last.
  6. SMALLER?: It was an ESOMAR lacking in buzzwords, but one theme kept cropping up in the presentations we heard: everything was micro. Micro-influencers on YouTube. Micro-experiments in online retail. Micro-spaces negotiated by low-income consumers in mega-cities.  Micro-trends which require constant updating. Everything is busier but also somehow smaller – there wasn’t much room for broad reach, big idea marketing. And without that, we think there’s a danger insights work will become a sort of fractal – tinkering away with ever finer, more efficient detail at the edge while ignoring the chance to jump beyond the boundary into true effectiveness.

The best presentations from ESOMAR will be available on their website. Meanwhile if any of the issues raised strike a chord with you, get in touch!  

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