What’s the word on the street?
Editor's note: Kyle Langley is chief research officer at BFG Communications, Hilton Head Island, S.C.
Marketing research has always been a trade-off between what you need to know and how much budget you have to achieve it. Additionally, with budget limitations, what is the level of comfort when it comes to confidence interval, number of interviews, number of focus groups, online quality, etc.? The key is balancing different types of research across those budgets to get the most useful data. With that in mind, what if you could operationalize and leverage economies of scale with other marketing strategies (and budgets) that you already have to gather quality insights? Not only is it possible but the insights come on-the-spot while the consumer respondents are using your products or a competitor’s products in real time.
Imagine you are a CPG product in beverages or spirits. A natural marketing strategy for many of these companies is doing consumer engagements (CE) at bars or locations where sampling and promotions happen regularly. Imagine that your field marketing agency uses highly trained brand ambassadors (not temporary spokesmodels or nice people simply handing out samples) who on a nightly or weekly basis have contact with consumers in bars and at certain retail locations. They are well-versed in all aspects of the brand and actually live the lifestyle of the brand so the consumer engagement is genuine and real and not just some sales pitch. It is not only about the brand and product but building relationships around the brand and product.
With your CE field marketing covered, think again about the additional possibilities. With potentially hundreds of thousands of conversations (depending on program size) on the spot, over time, your brand ambassadors have learned a lot and they are also well positioned to gather insights directly. Insights in consumer engagement can be gathered by: metrics through handheld devices they are likely using anyway; anecdotal insights through what field agents/brand ambassadors observe behaviorally about consumers; anecdotal insights based on what field agents/brand ambassadors hear in conversation with consumers; what these field reps experience by being around consumers while they use the products; and what field reps ask consumers as a part of specific research needs (i.e., short surveys).
Gather consumer data
As a matter of course, any serious consumer engagement/field marketing effort will use handheld devices to gather consumer data (as opposed to simple sampling). Handhelds are often mandatory as there are issues with accountability for age verification and coupon-offer metrics especially in spirits and tobacco engagements. It is typically more beneficial to use handhelds and many can now print out coupons on the spot. These devices can upload data automatically and that data can be accessed quickly for instant analysis. Additionally, while you never want the handheld device to intrude on the CE (it can be too time-consuming and not always conducive to relationship-building), specific questions can be added to meet insights needs. But this is not where the deeper insights will come from; handhelds only supplement by gathering demographic, contact, usage and usual brand metrics.
In discussions with consumer engagement field teams over the years it is amazing how quickly they can derive answers based on their CE experiences. Over time they know consumers and what they think about products, brands, trends in the category, which consumers are harder to reach, why brand loyalties are as they are (peer pressure, comfort) and a general sense of the competitive landscape at levels that may not always be measureable in traditional research. You have eyes and ears in many markets across venues of all types, so use them.
As a part of any consumer engagement program, training and constant communications with your field teams and managers are in order. This is done to ensure field teams are getting and using the latest information and best practices in reaching consumers in consumer engagement. Additionally, it allows an opportunity to gather insights for brand and marketing needs. By using regular reporting schedules for program metrics and best practices, plus the gathering of needed information, insights can keep flowing in and can also drive additional questions based on what you are learning.
Field agents and brand ambassadors can also be trained and used to gather specific insights through surveys or simple CE conversations. They are taught to get at the why behind the what. They have flexibility in asking additional follow-up questions to highlight specific responses.
Well-trained field agents and brand ambassadors are given a lot of latitude in sizing up consumers and determining which dialogue to use and which approaches work best with specific consumers. So it should be with insights-gathering as well. The field personnel should not be out just to get a specific number of surveys, they should be trained to talk with consumers who are willing and who can give deeper meaning to the survey questions. This is where the relationships that field teams build with the consumers are so important. (For this reason, surveys in retail convenience stores are not usually recommended due to the hurried nature of the retail transaction.)
Again, it is important not to intrude on the consumer engagement with a long survey. It is best to limit survey questions to three or four and no more than six. These are typically executed on a one-page paper survey or through electronic tablets. Tablets are especially useful if they are also being used as a part of the consumer engagement to highlight brand messaging, drive people to the Web, etc. Since many or most consumers ages 18-35 are very technology-literate it can be a natural attraction to want to participate. Additionally, research has shown that consumers actually appreciate a brand that thinks enough of them to solicit feedback (especially franchise consumers of the brand doing the engagement).
A second way to use field agents in consumer engagements for direct insights-gathering is to send them out with a single question for consumers they talk with. It is included as a part of the consumer engagement dialogue. At the end of a night or week, you can gain consensus input from your teams on what they found. This consensus by market can then be tallied across all of your markets to get a feel for what the answers are. This execution can be done in as little as two to three days to get at fast answers.
Advantage of speed
One big advantage of using CE teams to gather insights is not only the richness of the findings for other purposes but the constant refinement of best practices in reaching consumers through consumer engagement. The greatest advantage, however, may be speed. When CEOs want fast information from their brand leaders, traditional market research is often not readily able to get fast answers. With permanent markets and teams in consumer engagement and a good analysis team, answers can be gained in a couple of days with consensus input from teams on what they are seeing and hearing.
As for specific survey questions, as highlighted earlier, insights can be gathered and presented to a brand manager in as little as two weeks. Real-world examples exist of getting 500-plus in-person, on-site surveys completed across 22 markets (i.e., 25 in each market) through consumer engagement, with results turned around within two weeks.
This CE strategy for gathering consumer insights is not a stand-alone research method. It should be used as a part of a complete research regimen where findings within various methods drive insight-seeking in a continuous loop. Where the CE insights-gathering methodology is especially strong is not only in supplementing other research but having the opportunity to gather almost instant feedback when needed. Traditional marketing strategy typically works off information gleaned in the last six months. Teams are working on future strategy based on data that will arrive in three months. When leaders call upon brand managers for instant answers those insights are often not quickly available. They can be when you use consumer engagement to gather them. It can also make for deeper insights at the point-of-sale with consumers who may have your product or a competitor product in their hands at the time of the engagement. The potential is also there for consumers to try a product as a part of the CE conversation where instant feedback can be obtained. Again, this method works much better for certain CPG categories such as spirits, beer, beverages, food and tobacco.
So, when it comes to using your budgets and trade-offs for consumer insights and marketing research simply ask yourself these questions. Do you want to make product strategy decisions based only on quantitative data that is six months old or wait for three more months until the newest quantitative phone or panel tracker and A&U data comes in? Do you want to base in-person consumer discussions on focus groups and/or in combination with tracker or A&U data?
The choice is yours but deep insights can also be found using consumer engagement as a catalyst. You never want to leave valuable information on the table or an opportunity to leverage what you already have available to gather consumer insights and marketing research.