As data and information saturate our environment, the transformational impact of research becomes ever harder to achieve. In the face of this, we have all benefitted in the recent past by the ability of our category to align itself around the 'insights' label. The co-opting of this descriptor brought with it a fresher and more business-relevant persona that updated the tired-and-dusty framework that was market research. It also encouraged us to look harder and dig deeper.
But insights fatigue is now setting in. Our industry has not been effective at protecting this valuable label and its innate power is now being diluted by misattribution and overuse. So, if the bright lights of insight are slowly dimming, where to next?
Moving forward, two factors will help define research success.
First is the continued prerequisite for inspired thinking. Whether you define this as the single penetrating insight, the ability to spot patterns in diverging information, or the fusion of multiple data streams into a coherent whole, the fact is that this remains the staple of our business. But truly inspired thinking relies on more than observation and identification - it demands illumination.
What we need is to think in high definition. This means we need to build a rich, vivid and captivating context for the findings and insights we project.
This does not mean we just use more colour or more pictures, or bland lifestyle portraits. It means we need to build on the human and cultural truths that lay behind our data points or qualitative subjects. It means first investigating and then bringing the usage context to life.
Don't start a consumer dialogue at a point of neutrality, start at a place of passion or tension. Sometimes research has to be provocative or even subversive to achieve this. Do you want to know what it is like being a woman in Saudi Arabia? Then arrange a venue that allows them to discreetly take turns in driving a car. Want to really understand what makes a Black Diamond tick? Then run a competition where the prize is a sponsorship opportunity to help them advance their multiple business interests.
In both cases, just stand back and watch them open up.
Northstar has a Human and Cultural Insights group that spends its time identifying these areas of tension and passion - these then inform the assignments we carry out.
Generating compelling ideas that make it into our clients' heads is just half the story - the real challenge is keeping them there.
We shouldn't just be asking how the work will be used, but also how it will be accessed, for how long and by how many.
This won't be directly relevant for every assignment, but if we aspire to help clients answer the biggest questions, then we have a vested interest in helping them to sustain our thinking for as long as possible. There are some obvious tactics that help with this absorption, but more is required to keep our ideas hotter for longer.
Northstar makes sure that all our work includes a 'diffusion' phase that occurs post-presentation and assists our clients in either the insertion, roll-out or archiving of the results. With this in mind, outputs such as 'mockumentaries' and pop-up exhibitions can extend the reach and life of research findings for clients.
By leveraging context and using it as an accelerator towards greater insight, and taking more of an interest in the sustenance of our subsequent ideas and frameworks, we can both generate value for clients and enhance their professional reputations.
Matthew Sell is managing director of Northstar Research