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What can brands do to get a more complete picture of today's customer? For many global brands and their insight teams, that's one of the key questions they need to answer if they want to maintain competitive advantage. With technological advancements come pressures to gather consumer insights faster, more efficiently, and more cost-effectively.

It's also a question that was widely tackled at this year's Australian Market & Social Research (AMSRS) National Conference. As I mentioned in my Marketing magazine blog post, this year's AMSRS conference was one of the best of its kind to date, delivering everything from knockout keynote speakers with a truly global perspective to local expertise discussing new and innovative products. And as the four themes below show, this year's conference revealed the role of research in closing the gaps in how brands understand their customers:

  1. Close the time gap by leveraging longitudinal learning.

What if research can answer a brand's question before a new project is even deployed? What if brands don't have to start from scratch each time there's a new project? Can existing data help brands get a more holistic view of their category?

These are important questions that McCann Japan's Dave McCaughan challenged his audience to think about during his talk. Briefs currently being written by buyers could be answered by understanding the history of the category better - so why doesn't the research industry use longitudinal learning more often?

One reason is that research companies and insight teams typically get paid for collecting new data and analyzing what it means. Looking back and using data that is already available is not what research is generally paid for. But given the wide availability of data, there's a good business case for using what's already available. Increasingly, the data that brands need already exists somewhere.

The challenge for the research industry is to figure out a business model where they can get paid for looking back - for using data they already have at their disposal.

At Vision Critical, the promise of longitudinal learning is something we're very much in tune with. While more than 600 brands already use insight communities to get closer to their customers, only a small percentage currently use their communities for their longitudinal value. McCaughan's talk is a great reminder to educate brands and clients about the power of harnessing longitudinal studies.

  1. Close the relevance gap.

Brands need to iterate quickly to focus on what really matters. That's the main message from Pravin Shekar, KREA kreator-in-chief and ESOMAR Board member. Shekar talked about the research implications of Jagaad Innovation, a concept on thinking frugal and being flexible to generate breakthrough growth.

Companies across Asia Pacific face more constraints compared to globally-established players, according to Shekar, and he challenged his audience to apply the Jugaad approach to solve these challenges. He urged his audience to take out the unnecessary and be willing to fail fast and to move on to the next opportunity.

The good news is that insight teams today have the ability to screen, test, and develop ideas in less time than ever. Technology allows brands to iterate and get rid of superfluous ideas quickly and in a more affordable way.

Also, emerging trends such as mobile surveys provide constraints that allow researchers to think differently. Because of the way people use mobile devices, companies run shorter surveys and discussions instead of running long studies. The mobile constraint forces insight teams to think hard about their research needs and to take out unnecessary questions.

  1. Close the behavioral gap or observation gap.

In separate sessions, John Cucka from TNS and Dean Harris of Brand Navigator told us what many smart insight professionals already know: big data is not exactly new. The excitement about big data comes from the fact that brands can now integrate data from various sources, opening the doors to better understanding of what makes people tick.

But big data does come with big issues. For one, brands need data-literate people - marketing and insight professionals who can merge multiple sources of data and then translate that analysis into a story. There's also the issue of velocity and volume. The amount of data to sort through and the speed at which it comes challenges brands to be more nimble and focused.

Of course, organisations also need the technology to turn big data into insights. Big data, after all, is just part of a wider insight ecosystem. The ability to learn from real world data and survey responses is exciting, and bringing all these learnings in one central location is key to turn them into insights. Brands need a central location - some sort of an insights command center - where they could put together learnings from social media listening, transactional data and responses from insight communities all in one place.

  1. Close the trust gap.

Ben Smithee, CEO of Spych Research, talked about how organisations can use research to build brand equity with consumers. According to Smithee, today's consumers know more about companies more than ever. If a consumer wants to learn about a brand, they just need to do a quick Google or Twitter search to see what people are saying.

With real-time intelligence within people's fingertips, all brand activities become a touch point, including research. That's why brands need to deliver a great respondent experience when engaging consumers. Personalisalion and engagement are important considerations when designing research people actually want to be involved with.

In this era of the empowered consumer, the insights team also has the opportunity to help drive better-informed decisions and really bring the consumer's voice to the table. The research team plays an important role in figuring out what to do with all the data available and in outlining how brands can implement action.

The importance of consumer insights today is why we are passionate about improving respondent experiences when they interact with brands. At Vision Critical, we realize that people's experiences in insight communities can improve the brand equity of organisations, if they use the tool correctly. Insight communities can help brands bring the consumer voice into more decisions an organization makes, more often.

Listening to customers is one of the most important things brands can do today to ensure long-term profitability. But as the previous items show, there are still challenges organisations need to address to truly understand their customers. The recently-concluded AMSRS conference was a great reminder that although the research industry has come a long way, we need to be relentless and nimble to continue to bridge the gap between business needs and the voice of the customer.

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Peter Harris

Peter Harris helps brands build authentic customer relationships through technology. Pioneering customer intelligence since 2010, Peter Harris has led Vision Critical Asia Pacific to become the largest customer intelligence software provider, supporting over 140 customer-led brands, in Asia Pacific such as Telstra, Adobe and Cathay Pacific. With deep roots in research and strategy, Peter has championed the future of research and technology across his leadership roles at prominent research organisations, including AMSRS, APRC and GRBN.
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