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Insight vs A-B Test

When I first began my career as a researcher in 1993, I was mentored by another qualitative researcher Alison Fraser. I was 22 and she was ancient at 39 and introduced me to everyone as her ‘protegee’. As a part of that role, it was my job to watch, listen, carry bags, take notes, transcribe groups, analyse groups and proofread reports. I worked on so many interesting and strategic projects for some amazing brands: Telstra, Ansett, Roger David, McCormacks,  Holden, Fosters, Westpac, Heinz. I couldn’t believe the decisions which were being made and the role that qualitative research played in shaping those decisions. As Alison was fond of saying, people paid us to think. And that was a huge privilege in a world when most people were paid to do.

In that first year, I sat in the back room, watching hundreds of groups. Learning how to moderate, to listen, what it meant. But also learning about clients and agencies. Because at that time, most of our work was coming through ad agencies.

1993 was pretty much the beginning of the end of the industrial age.

I was sad but unsurprised to hear of the end of Roger David this month. From what I’ve read in the press, they failed to keep up in the new digital age. Failed to know what their place was in an age where people increasingly shop online, and where their opinions tastes and preferences are shaped largely through social media.

But whilst being blind to the coming of the new economy is a mistake, it is also a mistake to think that none of the methods or practices of understanding customers and insight from the pre-internet age matters. It does matter, and if you are looking to innovate and lead and delight your customers, you want a capable and talented insight professional to have a seat at the table with you.

It’s a mistake to think that insight that is going to inform true innovation can be found in an A-B test. Sure an A-B test will help you to refine, learn, improve – if there is a digital expression of a possible solution you’d be mad not to try various permutations of that. Observing what people do in response to a test is always better than asking them what they would do. But there will always be gaps in what you know about your customer if rely on passive data collection and AB testing alone.

If you really want to innovate you need to know your customer. Not just what they do, but why. And what they believe, and what they consider before they choose. What their pain points are.

It is not a rock-solid guarantee of success but it will leave you better placed to make a better decision. Do it well and share it widely and it will inform and inspire countless decisions across the organisation. It will pay for itself many times over.

Be led in this process by an experienced and well-trained insights professional. Make sure they belong to the appropriate professional organisations in your market, like AMSRS The Australian Market and Social Research Society.  It may be that this process is more about ticking a box and providing cover in which case you’ll want a big name – but if it’s insight and expertise you seek you’ll get far better value by going directly to a smaller agency or independent like a member of the IRG.


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