Great Strategy Starts with Solid Customer Insights—See the Process

August 16, 2018 Christopher Decker

You know what they say about assumptions, right? If you don’t, I’m not going to print it here. But suffice it to say, you should avoid making them. In life and in business, we have to deal with them, and counter with the facts.

One of the more common assumptions about the customer insights practice is that all we do is find high-level data points on what consumers are buying and what industries they are buying in to create cute little graphs we can plop into client research presentations.

Wrong. It’s so much more than that. In fact, the research from the customer insights group often provides the key intel that drives the best strategic plans we present to our prospects and clients.

The customer insights team provides value to the strategy team in three main areas:

  1. Consumer mindset. What needs or challenges do consumers have, and what are they buying to solve for them? Why are they choosing one product over another? What value does the brand’s product have to consumers that the brand should continue promoting? What is the consumer's attitude, intention and preference around a product throughout the different stages of the buyer's journey? What are their behaviors throughout the journey around a purchase or non-purchase? All of this information helps to decode a customer’s journey toward their ultimate decision to buy.
  2. Opportunities and trends in the marketplace. What are the client's competitors up to? Where could a client jump in to get ahead of a particular trend? Following industry trends helps keep clients abreast of what their industry is doing, what their competitors are doing and how to go about leveraging those trends to adjust or create new strategies. Most clients are too busy to closely follow what’s happening in their space, so we bring breaking news and new ideas and innovations to them.
  3. Media channel usage. What channels are consumers using? In general and in specific consumer segments? Understanding what channels specific consumers are using can help establish which channels the client should use and where key messaging should go.

These insights provide the springboards and the ah-ha! moments from which our strategy and creative teams build innovative marketing plans that resonate with clients' customers.

The Process for Compiling Insights

Whereas our analytics team dives into the data within one segment of one client to find rich insights, our research team looks at the marketplace in general to find the macro trends and other intelligence that our clients need to succeed. The main objective is to look at every possible angle of our client's challenge to effectively lay the groundwork for strategic ideation. That process looks like this.

Step 1: Get to Know the Need

While it may seem like a no-brainer, it's critical that our team understands the client, their industry and the challenge this client is facing before diving into the research phase. Delivering the most relevant insights to solve for their challenge requires understanding the specifics of the brand, what they offer, their business objectives, etc. If we don't thoroughly comprehend the client's need from the start, we risk setting ourselves up for inaccuracies, irrelevant information or ultimate failure. 

Step 2: Dig Into the Assignment

Once we understand what the client is trying to solve for, we begin the heavy lifting. This means using research tools like Mintel, Forrester, Gartner and eMarketer to see what information is available on the topic, including related trends. Understanding trends can help in a variety of ways. Similar to data analysis, trends can help predict a customer’s movements. Patterns can be seen through data, media coverage and new brands/products that may pop up in the space we are doing research in.

Google is a valuable tool to search for examples of what other brands are doing related to the challenge at hand. We also try to find data points like industry benchmarks. eMarketer is particularly useful in this area as the publication provides a lot of useful graphs and charts around benchmarks, media channel usage and other data points. 

We take all of this information, siphon it down into what we believe to be most relevant to the client’s request and build out an easy-to-follow presentation document. The document typically includes general background on the request, a summary of what is happening at a high level in the industry and then a deeper dive into key trends that could be opportunities for the client.

Step 3: Find and Tell the Story

There are literally thousands of data points that could potentially go into developing customer insights. The very essence of consumer research revolves around data that constantly changes and that needs to be monitored frequently. What may be the storyline one day could completely change direction the next if the data is impacted by a change in consumer behavior or a significant move by a brand, for example.

The story often revolves around discovering the key problem (or job to be done) that the customer is trying to solve for. Teasing out this story helps us all to align on strategy and messaging that will resonate with the consumer.

The trick is therefore to find the most relevant story in the data—the ah-ha! moment. Our customer insights team collaborates with the strategy team to figure out what the data is telling us, and how we can use that information to help the client. The story often revolves around discovering the key problem (or job to be done) that the customer is trying to solve for. Teasing out this story helps us all to align on strategy and messaging that will resonate with the consumer.

Customer Insights in Action

Our business development team was working with a prospective client in the home security industry, and our research team was tasked with doing a deep dive into the brand's competitors: their offerings, what they were doing for marketing, who their target customers were, what their key value propositions were, their key differentiators, etc. We compiled this information and provided visual examples of each competitive piece of marketing to provide examples of their creative approach. 

In addition, we did a deep dive into the home security industry to give the client a thorough understanding of what is happening in the space, what trends are popular, as well as what’s not working in the industry—all through the lens of inspiring new ideas that could put the client ahead of the game. We also included information about smart home tech, a vertical to the home security industry. Finally, we did some primary research with Harte Hanks employees, asking them who their home security providers were, what they loved about these providers, what their complaints were, etc.

This brand had the opportunity to innovate to meet those emerging needs, which would not only help to position the brand as a power player in the market, but also to cross-sell and up-sell to existing customers.

One of our key discovery through this research was that there were emerging and evolving consumer needs in the area of home security. This brand had the opportunity to innovate to meet those emerging needs, which would not only help to position the brand as a power player in the market, but also to cross-sell and up-sell to existing customers.

In another instance, an automotive insurance company partnered with Harte Hanks to analyze the direct response marketing activities of 10 of their key competitors in the commercial space. The insights team was responsible for leveraging the Mintel research tool to pull competitive marketing visuals. When we exhausted our research tool, we went directly to the competitors' websites to examine and derive insights from their creative, promotions, themes, etc. The idea was to see how this auto insurer could own the customer relationship as it pertained to commercial lines. The story that came out of this is that our client needed to tap into the emotional element of communication—figure out how to pull customers in with appeals to the heart rather than appeal only to financial savings.

The story that came out of this is that our client needed to tap into the emotional element of communication—figure out how to pull customers in with appeals to the heart rather than appeal only to financial savings.

Final Insights

Customer insights is not just about the data and the charts and graphs. It’s about understanding the client and their needs. It’s about how to contextualize the data that is being presented, leveraging trends, and building off all of that to create a fluid and relevant story. It’s not true that customer insights develop when you come up with a story that was obvious from the get-go. True insights happen when you are able to take everything you’ve researched and create a new story from it—one that hasn’t been talked about yet—that will eventually lend itself to creating the strategy that can help the client win new business.

About the Author

Christopher Decker

As Customer Insights Team Lead at Harte Hanks, Christopher digs deep to research pressing needs of our current and prospective clients. He uses this research to help support the foundation of current client objectives, as well as our new business pitches.

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