Tom Ewing offers a recap of the annual insights conference
It’s become a cliché to say that market research is a changing industry, but Greenbook’s IIeX (Insight Innovation Exchange) has spent several years beating the drum for change and trying to accelerate it. It’s a good place to hang out if you want to see the future of marketing—or at least the future insights, data and tech companies are trying to sell you.
With the $8 billion purchase of Qualtrics last year, research’s reinvention as a data and analytics business came of age. Qualtrics helped its cause by smartly rebranding what it does as XM, or experience management, which sounds a lot sexier than customer satisfaction research.
There used to be a division between the research companies presented at IIeX and the tech firms exhibiting. Now, researchers are reinventing themselves as AI wizards and data mavens, while the tech firms are presenting case studies and methodology pieces.
On the main stage at IIeX 2019, Annie Corbett, lead user researcher at fantasy sports and online gaming firm DraftKings, presented a study of highly iterative user experience testing. The nuts and bolts of iterative testing—small experiments and optimizations running to hundreds or thousands of tests—are difficult to present onstage except in the most broad-brush ways. It’s a far cry from the three-act story of problem-study-solution that researchers are familiar with. But this kind of project, which is complex, data-heavy and requires superior processes where no single researcher is likely to have full sight of everything, feels closer to the future of insights and marketing than the old-school case studies.
The old-school and new-school presentations have something in common: They are at their best when the insight is used to solve real and specific marketing and business problems. In DraftKings’ case, the problem was in pivoting away from the friendly competition of fantasy sports to the more serious and highly regulated business of online gaming. Some of the issues tackled by up-and-coming firms are more familiar. For instance, AI-driven trendspotting firm Black Swan showed off impressive work for Unilever when it picked up on increasing buzz around matcha as an ingredient. The IIeX presentations were strongest when the problem, not the method, led the work.
Some of the best presentations were more speculative. Remesh CEO Andrew Konya, provided one standout, with an original and perceptive look at the ethical risks of AI. He asked the audience to imagine assorted possible future techniques, from the relatively ethical, where new techniques uncovered hidden truths and patterns but with transparency and consent, to the far dodgier, where tools observed individuals without consent then worked to manipulate their behavior.
There were optimistic futures on offer at IIEX, as well as scary ones. A technological future full of shadowy manipulation sits next to a future where the drive for inclusion continues to bring the benefits of tech to more people than ever before. Microsoft’s presentation, “Empowering Every Person: Accessibility Concerns In Survey Design” was put on the main stage and was the most inspiring of the entire conference.
Kirstin Hamlyn and Marcy Chartier, from Microsoft’s customer and market research team, used surveys as an example of a wider theme: When you solve for one (an individual with a specific physical or cognitive need) you can improve your products for everyone. By developing tools allowing blind and partially-sighted respondents to take surveys quickly, for instance, you are also developing tools that can make surveys on voice-activated home assistants more practical, or help people navigate other complex choice systems. By designing packs that can be opened one-handed, you are helping users with missing limbs, but also users who are carrying a phone, a baby or a heavy bag.
Some of the futures on offer at IIEX were controversial. In the exhibition hall, there was debate among those who felt much of the AI and machine learning on offer was old wine in new bottles. Judging from the presentations and the exhibitors I saw, there seemed to be a real shift. The statistics behind the tools aren’t always new, but the emphasis among vendors and users was more on practicality and power. The promise of new platforms is that they will democratize machine learning software and bring unstructured data sources together more easily and at a bigger scale.
I was less convinced by the inevitable rash of presentations on Generation Z, who have now firmly displaced Millennials as the hot demographic at marketing events. What we’ve been told about Gen Z—their digital lives, the need for convenience, their spending power—was also said about Millennials. None of the presentations I saw offered anything very convincing on how the two are different. There’s a welcome backlash against the domination of generational cohorts as the only broad consumer segments marketers care about, and an awareness that the picture might be a little more nuanced. In the future, consultants looking to sell generational analyses will need more than a sprinkling of brands, slang and cornball “How many of these apps do you recognize?” slides.
The centrepiece of IIeX is its Insight Innovation competition, whose past winners include insight platform Zappi and AI firms Remesh and Decooda. This year the prize went to UXReality, which promises to turn any smartphone into a usability testing lab.
Elsewhere, 13 new speakers made their conference debut in a track organized by market and social researcher Annie Pettit. The enthusiasm, energy and intelligence on display here often put the rest of the event to shame. Hannibal Brooks, an insight associate at Olson Zaltman, was a deserved winner for his standout presentation, “How To Sell Time Travel Convincingly.” Brooks raided marketing’s archives to uncover how the marketers of 80, 100 and 200 years ago had sold the high-technology of their own day, from airplanes to telephones to portable ice.
If you break down people’s fears by using metaphor and familiar analogies, introducing innovation becomes a lot easier. In an event packed with the future, it was a handy reminder that marketers can still learn a lot from the past.