Thoughts from ARF: Rethink 2013 — It’s Time To Stop Talking And Start Doing


If you read my blog regularly, it should come as no surprise that I am an ardent fan of using mobile devices — whether mobile phones or tablets — for market research purposes. I have discussed how consumers are already forcing our hand into the world of mobile and that market insights professionals are not conducting mobile market research but instead are conducting market research in a mobile world.

Given this, I was both delighted and dismayed when attending this year’s ARF Re:think 2013 conference. Why was I delighted? There was a marked increase in the number of talks that focused on the role mobile plays — whether as a research technique or how it plays a significant role in consumers’ lives. Of just the talks I attended, which were a lot, almost 60% of them discussed the role of mobile. And a lot of these “mobile” talks were in the main track session. Talking with colleagues who attended last year, it’s clear that mobile has definitely moved front of mind compared with ARF Re:think 2012.

But I was dismayed that it was still just talk, talk, talk. At the conference, I was surrounded by tablets and smartphones, and people were using them all the time. And while we’re living this mobile life, we’re listening to speeches telling us how we need to start thinking about the role of mobile. Dare I say that we need to do a bit more than just thinking at this point in the game? We clearly have to get our act together soon.

Our industry has a track record of coming to the party late. In fact, other topics that I was surprised we were still talking about at a conference like the ARF included how we need to tell a story with our data, the role of data visualization in presenting our data, why we need to embrace change, and how to get a seat at the executive table.

These topics are important, but if we are to advance as an industry, we need to focus our attention on solutions, best practices, and what is on the horizon instead. I want a conference to blow my mind about the possibilities of what our industry can and should look like. I want to hear new ways of using data. For example, it would have been great to have a talk on new data sources — such as 3D sensors or even Google Glasses — that can push us to new depths of consumer understanding. Or to see case studies that laid out best-practice steps of exactly how a market insights department embraced change and got a seat at the table. Or a workshop on how to leverage data visualization step by step, so that when you got back to your desk after the conference, you had a clear idea of what you needed to do.

Every conference is a delicate balance between actionable insights and more forward-looking ideas. This ARF conference definitely gave me food for thought about what I need to focus on. However, I’d love to see at least one or two tracks at one of the upcoming conferences that examine the adjacent possible, with speakers from completely different industries talking about innovation. That’s the only way to let go of our navel-gazing.


100% concur

I couldn't agree more. My own thoughts echo yours very closely.

Focus On Consumers, Not Technology

I agree: we should start "doing". But the big questions are "what things should we do, and how will we know they are meaningful?"

To make progress, we need to shift our focus from technologies to consumers. Technologies move too fast. It's like taking a snapshot of a freight train: we end up with a blurry understanding of something that has already passed us by.

While technologies change quickly, people do not. The most significant impact of new technologies is to amplify or mute known behaviors. People have been taking photos and sharing them for a very long time. Viewed properly, the iPhone, Instagram and Facebook are not revolutions in human behavior. They are revolutions in *process*.

Mobile use, today, already produces a tsunami of new data every millisecond. But the vast majority of it is -- and forever will be -- irrelevant for marketing purposes.

Instead of focusing on mobile and fixating on the differences in data between Androids and Apples, and Kindles vs iPads vs iPad minis, I'd encourage marketers to focus on consumers. 1) What problems do your consumers want to solve? 2) What's the fastest, easiest way for them to do it?

More data tends to make us freeze in our tracks. Simpler questions are a better path to action, and then to insight.

Re: Focus On Consumers, Not Technology

Thanks for your comments! I agree with you that at the end of the day it is about focusing on consumers. In fact, we need to have a hyper-focused attention on customer knowledge if we are to succeed in this fast-paced world. However, I believe that technology is still a vital piece to the puzzle. Mainly in the fact that we need to understand how consumers are leveraging the technology and whether these are new touchpoints that we can take advantage of to inherently understand the consumer. For example, why it is important to understand how consumers are using mobile devices; what is more important is to understand how we can use mobile to understand consumers (what they do in their day to day lives; where they go; how they connect with others etc). Consumers are no longer chained to their PC or the home - they are mobile. In the end, it is a delicate balance between understanding technology and its role as well as understanding consumers and their preferences and behaviors. A combination of both will be extremely powerful for researchers.

Re: Focus On Consumers, Not Technology

Thanks Roxana. I will go out on a limb and predict that precise knowledge of location and deep analysis of how people use their mobiles will ultimately prove fruitless for most brands. As digital marketers, we are brilliant at guessing that when someone Googles "waterproof iPod case" they probably want a waterproof iPod case. But... when we get outside that narrow use case, our ability to intuit intent has been 99.9% lousy: banners have a .1% CTR. The web is dominated by DR ads, which work at least in part because DR marketers don't give a damn about user intent: consumers either convert at an acceptable cost or they do not. The defining characteristic of mobile today is utility, and IMHO that will be the most important way to think about mobile for the next decade at least. I'm painfully aware that I am a contrarian on this point, but I also believe that the data so far is on my side :-)