Editor's note: Matt Warta is CEO of Denver research company GutCheck. He can be reached at matt@gutcheckit.com. This article appeared in the May 6, 2013, edition of Quirk's e-newsletter.  


The troubling truth is that only 11 percent of Fortune 1000 companies use customer feedback to make market-facing decisions (Harvard Business Review, August 2012).


The evolution of the Internet and emergence of mobile computing have forever changed the stakes in the courtship with customers. If consumers can learn about products and services from Google searches, Facebook Likes and Amazon reviews, then marketers need their own set of Internet-enabled solutions that provide smarter, faster insights to stay in front of this digital marketplace.


Never moved faster 


Business has never moved faster. Consumer trends and sentiment change at an even faster speed. Urgency matters. Joan Lewis, global consumer and market knowledge officer at Procter & Gamble (P&G), clearly feels the urgency, given her recent question posed to the research community: How do we change from a plan-learn-qualify-optimize-launch-track-revisit-in-a-year research approach to a more agile, real-time, do-learn mentality?


The conflict is not with consumers but with traditional research methodologies that haven't reinvented themselves to leverage today's technologies. As such, most marketing teams think that they don't have the time (or the resources) to talk to customers, despite innovations in the market that allow brands to find consumers quickly and obtain immediate customer feedback. This mind-set causes marketers to gravitate toward personal intuition and internal conversations as substitutes for consumer insights because they seem like the only options that work in a world of short time frames.


In reality, that's simply not true.


The agile research methodology


The tools of the research trade have advanced along with all other facets of technology. On-demand research engages specifically-targeted consumers in real time through their online vehicle of choice. Innovative companies are launching online communities literally in hours to gain in-the-moment insights or to optimize various concepts, from product ideas to ad creative, through successive waves of research. This iterative approach is the agile research methodology - purpose-built to use Internet-based research tools to allow researchers, marketers and product managers to gain in-the-moment insights at an affordable cost.


Agile research finds its roots in The Agile Manifesto, introduced in 2001 by software developers, which promotes iterative and incremental software development and encourages rapid and flexible response to customer input. In a 2011 survey from VersionOne, 80 percent of respondents claimed to be using agile methodologies in their software development processes. Why should marketers and researchers pay attention to this statistic? Development teams cite faster time-to-market, lower costs and higher product quality/usability as the top reasons for using agile methodologies.


Agile is also an ideal approach for certain research categories - like customer exploration, concept optimization and Web/social media understanding - and yields similar benefits in speed, cost and quality. Agile research uses an iterative testing and insights process, enabled by an on-demand community platform, that provides feedback in hours, flexes in real time based on in-the-moment insights and doesn't challenge budgets.


Similarity ends there


The first step in agile research is where most research starts - with the business challenge. However, the similarity ends there. The second step sees the research team take the business question through an iterative design, resulting in an optimized set of concepts and questions that get programmed into the online tool. The third step is a quick test that uses an on-demand community to execute a 24-to-48-hour study, including recruitment, moderation and discussion.


The agile process kicks into full gear 24 hours into the test, when researchers and marketers gain access to the initial findings and can make real-time changes to the research instrument to optimize the discussion and better answer the questions or issues at hand. These in-flight refinements are designed to yield higher-quality insights upon completion of the initial quick test. Moreover, the rapidity of the initial test lets the research team field one or more subsequent iterations with the online research community to test more focused product concepts, winnowed messaging or enhanced creative than what was in the initial instrument.


The flexible, iterative nature of the approach means the market researcher is in control during every step of the process. They can refine or add questions during the test itself and if they don't receive the answer in the first cycle, they can conduct another cycle or two until the answer becomes apparent.


Procter & Gamble: A case study


P&G has long been heralded as a bellwether of the most progressive marketing research approaches. The nuance of branding for such consumer products as detergents, shampoos, diapers and beauty products is a multibillion-dollar point of impact.


P&G has employed agile research for several of its brands, including Prestige, the company's fragrance division. What the Prestige research team knew was that a significant percentage of fragrance shopping is done on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. To capitalize on those two key days, P&G Prestige needed to better understand consumer attitudes and online shopping behavior so they could refine online marketing strategies for the remaining holiday-season fragrance purchases.


P&G Prestige selected Denver research company GutCheck and its Instant Research Community (IRC) platform to recruit and organize a national panel of 20+ male and female online fragrance buyers. All respondents in the community discussion were 21-to-50 years old; represented a variety of ethnic, economic and educational backgrounds; and had purchased fragrances between Black Friday and Cyber Monday.


GutCheck's online research strategists worked with P&G Prestige to craft a discussion guide in just a few hours. The quick test began at 8 a.m. on the Tuesday following Cyber Monday and before lunchtime, the community had been recruited. By the end of the initial 24 hours, initial insights were gained and used to modify the next day's questions. Due to the refinements, Wednesday yielded even higher-quality insights over the community's final 24 hours. GutCheck delivered a topline report by the fifth business day.


Relevant and actionable


The insights gathered were relevant and actionable. P&G Prestige learned not only what drove buyers to shop online for fragrance during Cyber Monday but also what closed the sale for these shoppers. P&G also gained ideas from these consumers on how it could optimize the shopping experience and increase online sales.


Thomas Vince, vice president, consumer and market knowledge, P&G Prestige, was very satisfied with the study's results and sees continued use of agile research inside of P&G: "This solution is a research breakthrough, in my mind. Fielding a community, making in-field refinements and reporting results within five days is unheard of. We used GutCheck between Black Friday and Cyber Monday and got such good results so quickly that we were able to inform other decisions during the remaining holiday season."


Shake up the status quo


The importance of connecting with customers has never been higher. The fact that only 11 percent of decisions are being made with feedback from the market means that it's time to shake up the status quo and deliver research solutions that are more accessible and relevant to more businesses.


Business moves fast and the best-informed marketers are typically the ones that win. Agile research allows researchers and marketers to participate in and tackle the 89 percent of consumer-based decisions that are being left to watercooler conversation, intuition and other unscientific methods.