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Reframing market research: from cold science to human understanding

Maria Soroka
Human interface at Fastuna
Maria Soroka, MD and human interface at Fastuna went on the Chris Webber podcast Thinking Outside The Fox to talk about how lethal market research can be in that it can be lethally boring. How to survive this era of accelerated change, why the old tricks no longer work and why today it is more important than ever to make consumer feedback part of your hygiene process.
Thinking Outside the Fox is all about helping people to feel confident in dealing with difficult customers and building trust and strong relationships. In this podcast, Chris talks to talented people to share insights and tips on how they do it.
Listen to the podcast on your favourite platform or read our abridged transcript below.

Reframing market research

Maria: Market research is boring. So let's start with reframing market research. Human understanding is the closest to how I feel about what I do.
Chris: Human understanding is at the heart of where my passions lie. It's about really understanding how people make decisions, why people make decisions, what's driving those decisions, and how we can then influence those decisions to build teams, influence customers to buy products, and build strong relationships. And so market research feels cold and scientific, human understanding feels like you're finally getting to the heart of what it is that we are doing.

How market research is changing

Chris: So how do you feel market research has changed in the last 3 to 5 years?
Maria: Consider the Accelerating Change Theory—the idea that tech-driven change accelerates exponentially. While before visible changes happened every decade or maybe eventually every month, now they happen constantly. This means we live in a very unpredictable world. We have to adapt and businesses have to adapt to be able to meet those evolving changes and demands of their consumers. For example, ChatGPT only appeared a few months ago and if you haven't adapted your business to it somehow, you are already behind the curve. To be able to adapt, you need feedback from your environment. Ergo businesses need constant feedback from their customers.
At the beginning of 2000, it was a completely different landscape. As a market researcher, you would help businesses to leverage consumer feedback. The demand was there but the way it was obtained was very different. The tools we had in the 2000s met the demands of businesses in 2000s. Innovations in the industry appeared as rarely as once a year. And it was all about that year's latest focus. And it might be a new product development or it might be how we were updating the campaign. Was it similar for you, Chris, as I know you worked with big businesses as well?
Chris: Yes! Very much a yearly cycle of what's that year's big thing was. Now businesses are under pressure to constantly come up with new ideas. Something breakthrough, something edgy.

To understand needs rather than sell

Maria: In this rush to get things to market, we sometimes forget to listen to people's needs. We forget that we're all humans living in this information overload environment, which means that the mechanism for making decisions is going to reflect that. The digital element alone has changed the decision-making process, where we shop online, and use reviews or price comparison sites. This situation is unprecedented. And therefore the way we learn from consumers has also changed.
Before interviews could take around an hour and even result in a pleasant cup of tea when doing door-to-door research. Now this attention span has shrunk to about a minute so you have to be extremely focused on what you need to find out, and efficient at obtaining it.
Previously, companies would come up with an idea internally and push the product out to consumers only asking them to confirm this is, in fact, what they want. Now it is more about asking consumers straight off the bat about what they want rather than telling them what they want. And continuously checking in with them that what you are doing still addresses their needs.
So rather than thinking of consumers as an amorphous body somewhere out there in the environment and the target audience as a group of people with whom the offering resonated by accident, we have to be deliberate. Think about who the consumer really is and how would you talk to them. Shift the focus away from your desire to sell stuff to fostering your curiosity and your openness to really hear what people need. This is the main driver of prosperity for every business.
Chris: Oh, totally. I'm a big believer that we shouldn't be selling anything. We should be helping people to buy. And when you dig into why people make a decision, it's because they are finding a solution to a problem they have. And if you can help facilitate that journey, that becomes a purchase decision. And yet I get frustrated with sales models which are outside of this notion. But let's go back to understanding people as I believe this is a huge topic.
Maria: Have you heard of the Jobs To Be Done approach? It is about the way you approach your consumers as the first step. It is used to understand the problem they are having. The most well-known example of this is the drill and the wall. Consumers don't need a drill nor do they need a hole in the wall. What they need is to put up a picture.
I believe in Fastuna. I believe it is very simple, very user-friendly. It provides really fast and actionable insights. And I am seeing the need for this type of product at present.

Fastuna VS traditional research

Chris: So let's talk about this need. Let's talk about Fastuna and what you guys do that is so different to the traditional model for market research and why you're seeing some real excitement from executives and leaders who are tapping into it.
Maria: Yes, it's a bit like with Chat GPT. We created Fastuna to address market needs / our customer needs to get feedback fast and early on. Before, people would be waiting for too long for their market research as the testing happened much later in the process. I don't know how much this process differs across clients but they have more or less similar gates that you have to go through. So the first thing they do is, fill up our innovation pipeline, which is a usual thing. The team creates some ideas, which most likely come from R&D. I love R&D as I think they are amazing and very creative people. But lots of the ideas come from the place of 'we can create this, so let's create this and sell it to someone'.
While there can be nothing wrong with this approach, the question is—are we creating a new drill sometimes, instead of helping customers put a picture up on the wall?
And then the traditional process would be taken through the gate. So we created an idea, the concept and even tested this concept, but then we wait for three months to get feedback. By which point it's already too late because we have started this process of initiation. E.g. we spoke with legal and people have started investing thier time in it. We have already reserved assets.
Chris: Yeah, the patents are filed. The manufacturing lines.
Maria: Exactly. And then when you suddenly get feedback that is not satisfactory— what do you do? You would try to get it through the gate to the next stage anyway. You would say, okay, but 10% of people loved it, so it must be a niche product. It would get produced nonetheless.
And the issue is that we know about 90% of products, fail. If you needed to create a product out of an idea and it doesn't deliver—that's another issue.
So what's different now? Because of this constant change and innovations appearing frequently, new tools are appearing in the market. Among them is our tool, Fastuna, which is an automated market research platform, where you can just upload your ideas and get results within just a few hours. Those DIY / UIY [Use It Yourself] platforms are increasingly popular.
The questions are structured to mimic the decision-making process in the digital world. Then, because the questions are all standardised, the dashboards are ready in real time as the results come in. This format is incredible actionable, because its fast, simple and the results are displayed in a very accessible format. So you can see the number of people who will buy the product, the number of people who didn't understand it, etc. And it doesn't mean that you're a failure because you still have plenty of time to adjust your product because it's so early on and you get feedback really quickly. It's not anyone's failure. It's just feedback. So you adjust your idea based on consumer feedback, and put it into another round of testing.
It helps the multifunctional team creating the new product, migrate from the territory of fear where they are really afraid to fail as a business or as a team, to the territory of excitement. Now they are excited and not fearful as this feedback is welcomed and deliberately sought and therefore if negative, will not appear detrimental to the reputation of the business. It doesn't matter that something hasn't fully resonated at that stage, but but it is clear what needs to be tweaked.

Obtaining feedback early is crucial

Chris: That's really fascinating because I think it's about timing. You're saying that you get those insights at the point where you can still change your mind, make changes, whereas in the past people weren't really understanding the market at the point when it was actionable. The market understanding came later when it was too late.
We're now stuck because we've created a product and its too late to change. And so people bury their head in the sand. And what you're saying now is that we can get insights so early in the process that you still have time to change it, to adapt it to, to refresh it, whatever might be necessary in order to really listen and understand what the consumer wants, and therefore how we can solve the problem that they have, the job that they need to do, rather than just pushing out innovation for innovation's sake.
Maria: Yes, absolutely. And what I love about it is that even recently we actually introduced a solution that helps test the size of potential unmet need in the market. So without even coming into the space of ideas yet, you can understand where people are. Where the needs are and where the jobs are.

Courageous and smart leadership

Maria: I'm passionate and excited about Fastuna because just several years ago, I didn't have that tool as a leader. But, that would have been handy because instead of just, making a guess I could have made an informed decision. This is heartfelt and human-centric leadership.
Once you become open to receiving feedback from your customers especially early on, your trustworthiness within your team and your organisation will grow.
People will trust you because it is not just your point of view it's your openness to feedback. Being open and vulnerable is important for improvement. And being vulnerable is not actually a weakness. It's being open to change, to feedback and to saying when something is not going to work. Our clients have to make those decisions. And that's courageous leadership.
Chris: Yes, that's courageous leadership. What I admire in the great leaders who I know and have worked with is their courage. However, that's not about making unpopular decisions.
I think courageous leaders today listen to people and understand them. And being courageous enough to go and ask the market what they think of a particular product or service to then come back having really taken in what the consumer has told them and make changes to it. That's courageous leadership. Because, when we're authority figures, we automatically believe that we are experts and that people should listen to us. Therefore, as a leader, if I've decided a product should be going to market and I want to test it, there's a huge vulnerability in me admitting if I was wrong. I made a mistake. That's not what people want. That's courageous leadership.
I guess that's the type of person that you guys really are engaging with. Those guys are really excited, I imagine, to get this insight because they're able to make decisions at a point where they haven't wasted several million euros on development. They can change their minds at a point when it doesn't cost them a huge amount of money and their ego allows them to do it. Is that right?
Maria: I agree completely. And I believe that if you think about having not just business and heart, but your consumer and heart, then—that will drive this change.
Tools like ours actually help leaders and teams get feedback early on, when the risk is minimal. It is much harder to say no and go against everything when you already invested a lot of time and money. It is really hard! So I would say it's smart leadership, not just courageous. Changes happen constantly so the mindset should change around how we do business and how we do the processes. Because now instead of the lean and gate process, which is one after another gate, now we talk about an iterative approach—obtaining rapid feedback, adjusting and moving on.

Constant consumer feedback

Maria: Businesses are adopting the model of getting constant consumer feedback; they choose not to wait because productivity is essential for the business.
Can you proactively approach your consumers before they come to you and say that they need a product because so and so… But it will be too late because someone else will already have created it.
And this is the principle of the agile approach versus the previous system of hierarchical approach. And those courageous and smart leaders in large multinational companies now understand that a deeper integration of feedback is necessary.
When Fastuna launched in Europe four years ago the demand was for something quick and dirty, whereas now increasingly they come to us asking to build this rapid constant consumer feedback system from earlier on in the processes. They want all of the processes to run connected to consumers 24 / 7. Seamless consumer feedback and a completely different request to the ones before where they only needed reactive sporadic validation, i.e. something quick and dirty.
Chris: Yes, and the 'dirty' in the phrase 'quick and dirty' is often used as an excuse to make errors and disregard the findings. Which is why I don't like that phrase.
The other thing that I want to build on here, which I think is amazing, is that we are in an unprecedented time of reviews. I read an article recently about things like Amazon reviews Google reviews, all of this kind of stuff, where you're getting immediate feedback from your customer on what they've used that product for, how they've used it, what their feedback was. And there is an opportunity to really start to shape future developments based upon reading the problems and the reviews of your products, but also other products in the market. What was consumer expectation vs reality with a product. And that in itself is kind of another tool that just didn't exist even ten years ago.
Maria: Yes, absolutely. As we see social listening is growing right now. And this is another toolbox to use constantly in your business because it's feedback from already existing customers of your product and competitor products. If you are not doing it someone else is, so the competition is crazy.
Therefore I feel there are two things. First, in terms of the research, you get this early consumer understanding and validation—that's what we do. We validate consumer feedback quantitatively on massive sample sizes within just a few hours. We help customers learn about new territories, potential unmet needs, get new ideas, test them, tweak them, reshape them, test them again and then move on to product development. And the same approach with commercial programs. This one company just tested seven different variants of bordamatics for creative executions (draft visual outline of a future video ad). And then picked one. They invested so little money into this but they already know which one they are going to go with.
You could say this is a kind of front-end innovations and commercial program development. And then you have this back end—it's the feedback from already existing products. This seamless process within organisations, of receiving this constant feedback at all stages. Ideas about new products or unmet needs can be obtained online. Why not! It's a huge space to get these ideas. This is how GPT chat works, by the way, also sourcing information online.
So it's it's a loop, where you get feedback again and again and improve your product.
Chris: I can hear the passion in your voice. It's amazing.
And what's really exciting here is this topic is about understanding. We always lead back to things like great leadership and being open to listening and it's no good gathering the best information in the world if you're not prepared to listen to it. And what I've heard today is exactly that. We can get really up-to-date insights and information, but the organisations that will win are the ones that use that and are open to it. And then they are building on what their customers truly want right now, not what they wanted 12 months ago when the research was initially done.
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