Is foresight the new insight

With COVID-19 causing dramatic changes in consumer habits and behaviours, how will insight be used to drive businesses forward in the future “new normal”?

In London we are 6 weeks into lockdown!

My new routines in lockdown living I am still figuring out these new ways of lockdown living, working, shopping, learning, socialising, exercising and parenting (!). On top of that there’s balancing the binge snacking, Netflix, books, magazines, podcasts and live DJ sets. Pre lockdown I worked largely from home but I am not massively feeling the benefits of a head start. I blame the kids!

Adding the kids into the mix has meant work routines are much more staccato. Their interruptions are many-fold, from helping them to access learning tech platforms, fitting in the daily walk and exercise, constant chefing and then the pointless discussions on likely return-to-school dates. This can quickly descend into searching questions and debates about our politicians’ ability to run the country. Who’d have thought teens could be so engaged in politics?

I guess what hangs in the air is much uncertainty about the future.

The commercial implications of COVID-19

And clients and brands, too, are grappling with this uncertainty. The volume of retail sales –the first hard economic period partially covering the lockdown –fell 5.1 per cent in March compared to the previous month, according to the Office of National Statistics.

In this period of disrupted shock, strategic focus for businesses and their brand plans have been somewhat derailed and the journey ahead is blurred. This fogginess makes it difficult to predict the future “new normal” and to make concrete plans. It is clear, however, that consumer and shopper behaviours have been significantly disrupted, and in some sectors, such as travel, trading has ceased. And while shopping from supermarkets has soared (where food stores reported a 10.4 per cent increase in trade, the strongest on record), shopping and consumption of food and drink is radically different from before the lockdown, though many of these choices are being driven by availability rather than preference.

Across the entire retail sector, online sales rose 8 per cent, pushing the proportion of such sales overall to 22.3 per cent, the highest recorded.

The “stickiness” of rituals

Outside “the office” and across the fence (at a socially safe distance), my neighbours discuss the best time to go to M&S, to avoid queuing, the benefit of shopping local to support small convenience type stores, to the more bizarre of how when you are denied something you end up unreasonably craving it more. My neighbour had a hankering after tinned vine leaves. Drawn into this, I found myself telling him that I had seen them in the Co-Op opposite the milk fridge (where incidentally he found them!).

For now, many brands are currently blind-sighted. They don’t know which of these displaced consumer and shopping behaviours are permanent, or where to focus their energy. Of course, some behavioural patterns will stick, some will rebound and some may continue to morph and change forever. But which ones will do what? Who knows?

Redefining the role of Insight

What we can be sure about is that people have changed, and therefore businesses will need to adapt to ensure they survive and thrive.

In the old world, yikes only a month ago (!), strategic brand and operational decisions were supported by insight generated from existing data including market research. But how much of this data can now be repurposed for future plans? And how valid is the measurement when behaviours are still in flux? It’s hard to say and it depends on the questions being asked of the data, and who is asking them i.e. which industry sector, market, brand etc.

Now more than ever, the spotlight will be on those in insight roles to help find answers to lead the organisation boldly into the future. More weight will be given to making sense of the data, as well as building and telling relevant stories using post COVID lenses. Some past data can be drawn into these new conversations but fresh knowledge, smart thinking and an ability to connect and curate data will be necessary. These newer approaches can be used to test and refine hypotheses guiding businesses confidently to new opportunities and innovations.

What’s crucial now is to know how customers are redefining value and changing their buying preferences and behaviours. The thirst for learning and knowledge has never been greater, and will go beyond conventional market research. And it strikes me that this is more about “foresight” than insight?

Rather than conventional market research, much more emphasis will be placed on market sensing. These are processes and learning capabilities whereby trends and events in markets can be monitored, building understanding and predictive abilities ahead of the competition and actively addressing opportunities and threats.

Let’s rewind to the previous recession and draw upon some useful learnings. Back then insight capability was markedly different, where now we have a greater array of market sensing tools at our disposal. Those that spring to mind are social listening, semiotics, mobile ethnography, online qual, online quant etc and how these complement each other. Key benefits of these methodologies are that they online, meaning they can be deployed continuously (to keep abreast of change), at speed and are safe to use in COVID-19 times.

Looking ahead, successful insight teams will draw upon these tools and utilise people to connect and curate past data with fresh updates and knowledge. The people skills tantamount to delivery will be those who are strong creative and lateral thinkers.

Author: Lou Stacey

I am founder of Magnifisight, a research and insight consultancy, where I deliver end-to-end market research across commercial and government clients. I also consult and train on building effective and innovative insight functions where I am especially focussed on the adoption of newer research technologies and practice.

I am also the Insight lead at Fraction, a strategy and insight consultancy, where I get the opportunity to work with an amazing and talented team of commercial strategists and data innovators. We harness insight and instinct to realise disruptive revenue growth in the FMCG, Healthcare and Finance industries.