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The “Device Neutral” Future of Consumer Insights

by Ivan Rocabado , 21.04.2014

Every smart researcher wakes up at least once a year with the same worry in mind:

“Is my research getting in the way of my learning?”

Today, opportunities for getting in the way of our own insights are multiplying. Smartphones, DVRs, caller ID, and other technologies are empowering consumers to filter out what they see as “noise” – with marketing, advertising, and surveys often falling into that category.

Saddled with increasingly crowded schedules, people have become less tolerant of roadblocks to simply getting what they need. They expect that they can watch the latest episode of a favorite show in 15-minute chunks over three days. Or that they can pay a bill at 11:30 at night with just a few keystrokes.

They also expect the companies they work with to be wherever they need them to be – on their tablets, smartphones, laptops, smart TVs; and the transitions between devices should be as seamless as possible.

In this world of growing expectations and shrinking patience, marketers and researchers face massive challenges. Advertising is often seen as something to work around (think of the beloved “Skip ad” button). And the surveys companies have long relied on to guide their actions can seem more cumbersome and intrusive on mobile devices.

At the same time, the need to target new product offerings and ad campaigns to narrow consumer groups – relying on precise insights – is intensifying.

Something has to give.

Letting consumers lead

In this new ecosystem, marketers and researchers must come to consumers. The ideas of “pull” and “push” are both questionable now, because they assume that people might be coerced to do anything. Not a safe assumption.

To be seen or heard, or to learn something of value, companies need to be where consumers already are, working seamlessly with the devices and platforms that are woven into their lives. This means breaking down the barriers created by traditional approaches to research and marketing. Our work needs to be transparent to as many situations as possible, because people already have so many demands and limitations to contend with.

As author Simon Sinek has observed, we need to put the question “Why?” at the center of everything we do – which means dispensing as quickly as possible with issues of “What?”

To know why a consumer bought a certain diet soda, we need to be sure that the question of what device he may be using at the time does not interfere with our knowing.

To understand why someone switched from a trusted decongestant brand to a new offering, we cannot let the what of a standard 24-hour recall method distance us from the decisive moment.

To blend in, be neutral

In today’s world, the most vexing barriers are often technological – which is why we see being device neutral as a key goal for generating tomorrow’s insights. If we are asking people to interrupt their lives to share information with us, we need to be highly accessible on any platform.

By being device neutral, we also erase other barriers to consumer insight and interaction. Our research becomes:

  • Location neutral – wherever the consumer may be
  • Time neutral – capturing the moment, not the recall
  • Age neutral – working with the technology that makes each person most comfortable.


Behind the scenes, being device neutral should also ease strains for researchers; instead of collecting separate samples and responses for each device supported, device neutral (as opposed to “device agnostic”) research will allow a single sample and a unified output. This is in keeping with how advertisers and agencies plan today, trading TV dollars for mobile (and vice versa) as part of a single campaign.

Of course, the ultimate neutrality is to ask no questions at all – simply observe. Bending the streams of Big Data in the direction of our need is no small task; but it allows us to learn without wondering if respondents have responded accurately. GfK’s Social Media Intelligence (SMI) experts find increasingly accurate ways to listen to the ebb and flow of sentiment in social media, zeroing in on specific user groups. We are even exploring how social media can predict behavior when combined with other data streams. And our work on location and mobile insights taps the aggregated metadata from cellphones to enable geographical targeting.

A necessary caveat: This degree of neutrality and transparency is, in some ways, aspirational. But the ability to be truly real device neutral is within the grasp of today’s technology; so delaying or avoiding because we are “just not there yet” is increasingly unacceptable. The technology is there; the question is, Are courageous, smart researchers also ready to make the journey?

Ivan Rocabado is SVP and Global Key Account Manager on GfK’s Consumer team.