Monday, October 14, 2013
THE INSIGHT PIPELINE
In businesses of all kinds, it’s common to hear senior management tout their company’s new product or innovation pipeline. So important is the “flow” of their pipeline that it often informs a major part of their annual report to shareholders. Think, in particular, of the major pharmaceutical companies: when it happens that their new drug pipeline gets clogged or (worse yet) “dries up,” it usually follows that their stock price does as well. In short, most senior managers and market analysts would rightly argue that the quality and regularity of their innovation pipeline represents a major bell-weather of the company’s overall health and future prospects.
Recently, working with one of our longtime clients in Mexico, one of their senior marketers expressed the pent-up need for an “insight pipeline”--especially for communication development. Honestly, this kind of pipeline was a new concept for us. Not the notion of an established process to generate and qualify potential communication insights--for a long time we have urged marketers to set up such a process. But, we had never really considered the analogy comparing a pipeline for insights to a pipeline for new products. And, instantly we saw the appropriateness of that analogy!
Whether considering new consumer products in building-panel tests, or new drug compounds undergoing a series of clinical trials, they are all fundamentally ideas in development. Some will work out, and some will not. Few will remain unchanged as is: a good many will undergo adjustments based upon what is learned “within the pipeline.” But one thing is generally true—ideas that enter the new products pipeline come from a disciplined combination of (1) sound market research (typically assessing emerging consumer or customer needs) and (2) well-founded hypotheses or “hunches” that creative and observant managers regularly put forth.
Virtually the same can be said for communication insights. They, too, start out as ideas in development. And some of them pan out to become testable campaign ideas and others don’t. They also require a combination of sound market research (typically understanding consumer or customer attitudes & behaviors) and well-founded hypotheses that creative and observant marketing, market research, and communication agency managers regularly put forth. But here’s the rub: no insights, no (or very few) communication ideas; insights act as the DNA for the generation and flow of ideas in the communication development process.
If you accept this line of thinking, this analogy, then the why of having an established insights pipeline is clear. But there’s one other factor to remember. Most marketers and their communication agency partners—not having or (more likely), not having even thought of having, an insights pipeline in place—rely on more of an “insights-on-demand” process. As we noted in the Dispatches “Big Dig” article of two weeks ago, it’s pretty common practice to begin work on a Creative Brief and to suddenly realize, “Quick, somebody…we need an insight!” Given how critical insights are as the DNA of potential campaign ideas, why would anyone wait until the last minute to discover them? No one expects “new product ideas on-demand”; why should anyone expect insights for communication ideas on-demand? As one of our long-ago client friends used to quip, “It’s unfortunate but true that insights do not normally fall—like a rock from a cloud—into our laps at just the moment when we really need them.”
What, then, would constructing an insights pipeline imply? Well, whether you’re envisioning a textbook diagram of a new products pipeline or something more specific, like the Alaska Oil Pipeline, for sure the line must—by definition—have a dependable source and a steady flow for whatever passes through it. Actually, it’s probably more accurate to say dependable sources…because maintaining any kind of steady flow demands more than a single-sourcing point. It just doesn’t make sense, with so many new consumer and customer touch-points available to us, to rely on a single-source (like focus groups) for filling an insights pipeline. Besides, from time-to-time any insight source can run dry.
Coming up with the right, multiple insight sourcing points is something that requires a lot of brainstorming and thinking. We think it also requires “resisting the usual.” The usual, for most companies and their marketers, is to rely for hypothetical insight generation exclusively on (a) brand people, (b) market research specialists, and (c) communication agency account and strategic planner types (but not, usually, agency creative types). Resisting the usual would mean counting on, in addition to these “insiders,” agency creative types—the more senior the better. You have to wonder how is it that we so often exclude them? These are the very people whose job it is to translate real insights into BIG communication campaign ideas!
Plus, as we mentioned in the Dispatches of two weeks ago, such a select team would ideally comprise experts from outside the Company who study human behaviors and their motivations for a living. But there’s yet another set of outsiders—often overlooked--but well worth including on the insight pipeline select team: representatives from the Company’s longstanding research suppliers…people who must stay up-to-date with the latest developments in research methodology and who have a broad purview in terms of the kids of approaches other companies are using to discover legitimate insights. Just as an example (and since a number of our clients already contract for significant research methods—like ASI—from them), imagine what a wonderful insight-generating resource some of the experienced Ipsos managers would be! Don’t you think they have seen their share of real communication insights, as well as a ton of phony “unsights” in their broad industry-range of client work?
With all of these various and carefully thought-out sources, it’s much more likely that the insight pipeline we build will sustain a steady flow. And that flow will have “upstream” insights in “incubation,” as well as “downstream” insights already in some kind of marketplace, qualifying test. So we’ll have promising options when we need them and won’t be (like deer caught in-the-headlights) suddenly confronted with the need for a powerful insight but virtually empty-handed.
It’s only right to end by once again thanking our Mexican client who first brought up the notion of an insight pipeline. As much as we need insights in almost everything we do in marketing, it’s surprising—no, it’s amazing--that every marketing organization doesn’t already have such a pipeline. So what are you waiting for? Get the insight pipeline construction underway. To borrow an old movie line, “If you build it, they (the insights, in this case) will come.”
Richard Czerniawski & Mike Maloney
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