FEATURE10 March 2017

Ringing in the changes

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AI Data analytics Features Impact Mobile Telecoms

O2’s head of research Jessica Salmon talks to Ben Bold about customer satisfaction, proactive research, technological innovation, and the benefits of balancing the old and the new in market research


There are few things that epitomise the union of old and new as succinctly as mobile telecoms. Within a relatively short period of time, the sector has transformed from one focused on untethering people from their landlines – so they could make calls on the go – to one that provides data and devices allowing people to: browse the web; stream high-definition film; make video calls; send text and emoticon messages; play games; listen to their favourite music; diarise their lives; and find the quickest route home.

“The thing I love about telecoms is that it changes so much – you are effectively working in a different industry every six months,” says O2 head of research Jessica Salmon. This coming together of the traditional and state-of-the-art is analogous to Salmon’s approach to market research, with old-school skills – such as qualitative – being used to interpret and enrich the array of data available from newer information streams.

Indeed, her approach is very much in keeping with the findings of last year’s Market Research Society and PwC report, The Business of Evidence 2016. This found that business growth was being driven by data analytics, which has increased 350% since 2012, but also that there was a rise in the use of qualitative research. “It’s interesting,” Salmon says. “For a while, people in research have talked about how social media’s going to kill research; ‘big data’ is going to kill research.”

But she is dismissive of this notion and insists that the proliferation of new information streams demands the rigour of well-established disciplines. “You still have to interpret the data. Whether it’s a survey or ‘big data’ or social media – whatever those inputs are, you still have to bring them together, understand the context they are in and answer the business question you have been asked,” Salmon says.

“[With data analytics] you can do brilliant predictive stuff, but it doesn’t always tell you why; to really get under the skin of how people are behaving – how industry is changing – I think you need that qualitative side as well... to put the why to the what.”

For instance, O2 mines a lot of social media data. “We find it incredibly useful, not only from a real-time, almost early-warning system perspective with our marketing effectiveness colleagues – but also to mine it for insight.”

But without applying the long-established tenets of market research, social media’s value to the researcher is questionable. “It’s one of those areas you could go to and find any answer you wanted to find – so you have to triangulate social with other sources.”

Salmon heads a team of 20 people. In addition to market research, market and competitor intelligence falls within her remit. “As well as overseeing the general work of the team, I sit on our planning board within marketing. We go through all our plans for the year, giving input – from an insight point of view – on the context in which we’re operating this year, or this quarter, or the next three years,” she says.

The company also taps into a sizeable roster of market research agencies, including Flamingo, Millward Brown, Firefish, Strive Insight, Populus, FreshMinds, Quadrangle, Davies+McKerr, Hall & Partners and Join the Dots. The remit – managed by Salmon, her team and the roster – is vast and complex, spanning long-term research and insight, plus short- to mid-term, ad hoc projects.

O2’s More for you campaign replaced ‘Be More Dog’ this year

O2 works across three- to five-year timescales on its future trends, identifying and examining the shape of things to come – from artificial intelligence to mindfulness. Meanwhile, its planning can range between a quarter and three years. “You have to work out what you need to know at what point,” Salmon says. “So you do big directional pieces, and then you’ll have some tactical [insight-led decisions, such as]: should we change our price; what are we going to do at Christmas; are we going to launch something; or what new developments are we looking at?”

Customer experience and customer service are the beating heart of O2, and market research is used to inform and monitor customer sentiment.

“We regularly get customers in with our board to talk about issues,” she says. “At our conference, we’ve also had a focus group filmed in a next-door room, with a section of the event involving listening to and engaging with customers. Throughout the company there’s this massive appetite for understanding what customers want. It puts you in a great position as an insight team, but under a lot of pressure to deliver.”

While O2 is predominantly a network operator (and retailer), the customer experience is influenced by third-party-manufactured devices, apps and content providers/publishers. “Devices are massively important – as are apps,” Salmon stresses. “We do research into content, TV, film, music, devices, wearables, the monetisation of data, smart homes… there are so many different areas that telecoms touches. It’s all about keeping people connected.”

The external embodiment of O2’s customer experience and customer service is, of course, its marketing and advertising. Earlier this year, the company replaced its three-year-old ‘Be more dog’ brand positioning with the less zany, more prosaic-sounding, ‘More for you’.

The multimillion-pound campaign by VCCP, which ran across TV, digital out-of-home, social, online and cinema, explored how people’s devices – and O2’s array of products and services – have enhanced customer’s lives. O2’s website and stores were also redesigned to reflect the new creative.

Salmon and her team were instrumental in the development of ‘More for you’ (see case study). They have also worked on other campaigns; for instance, activity around O2’s sponsorship of England Rugby – the award-winning ‘Wear the Rose’ partnership, which aims to link O2’s technophile customers with the sport. The brand hosted sessions at various locations across the UK, allowing customers to experience rugby training sessions via virtual-reality helmets.

O2’s sponsorship of Enlgand Rugby is award-winning

“A lot of the work on ‘Wear the Rose’, and all of our campaign activity, is carefully monitored,” says Salmon. “We’ve got real-time with our marketing effectiveness team through YouGov and social media. We’ll contribute very quickly to any tweaks that need to happen there.”

Advertising and marketing employed to attract new customers – and reassure existing ones – is crucial for sustaining a business. But when compared with the cost of retaining existing ones and reducing churn, it is expensive. “We have always been very conscious of treating our existing customers as well as we treat new ones, if not better,” says Salmon. “It’s the right thing to do from a customer point of view and it makes commercial sense.”

Mobile technology continues to develop at an exponential rate, but it is not impervious to misfortune, as Samsung – a darling of the handset manufacturers – recently found out when it was forced to recall its Galaxy Note 7 phones because of a fault that caused batteries to self-combust. While mobile operators were not culpable, it would have been remiss of Salmon and her team to have disregarded such an event. “Clearly we keep an eye on [an incident like this] – first from a social perspective, allowing us to  understand quickly what’s happening in customers’ minds around those sorts of issues. And obviously we looked at the impact of it across various brands and in terms of customer experience – how we dealt with returns, those kinds of things.

“When issues like that occur, you do have to think: ‘what are the steps we need to put in place; what do we need to look at; who are we keeping informed; what are the competitors doing?’”

While the mobile landscape suffers the occasional blight, it is largely fertile territory that will continue to be characterised by growth. “Mobile is a pretty embedded behaviour,” Salmon says. “I don’t see anyone really putting down their phones.” On the contrary, a growing demand for connectivity – tallied with increasing data speeds – will result in even greater symbiosis between networks, content providers, app developers and device manufacturers. “Those elements tend to work in sync and encourage each other to develop,” she adds. “And that will only broaden out to other devices – wearables, how it connects to your car, how it connects to your house.”

Technological innovation is also having a positive impact on O2’s research and insight operation, with Salmon welcoming a growth in such things as neuroscience, behavioural economics, eye-tracking and facial recognition. 

“What fits really well with O2’s culture is trying something new – testing and learning,” she says. “We’re always open to new ideas. We’ve sent people into stores with the eye-tracking glasses on. We’ve put advertising on the walls and, because everyone is looking at the phones in-store, their eye-line never gets above 45 degrees. So you end up taking the screens off the walls because everyone is looking down here, or building displays so it takes the eye-line upwards – real, practical, tangible feedback that you’d never have noticed if you hadn’t done that kind of research.”

But there are broader concerns as companies capture greater volumes of more sophisticated data – a point Salmon acknowledges. “As a brand, you have got a real trust-based relationship with your customer,” she says. “I’m terribly conscious of it – from a brand point of view and as a researcher – that we have an immense amount of information about people and we have a duty to ensure that it’s protected, and that it’s used in the right way.

“If it’s completely transparent, they can control it and see the benefit of what we’re doing with it – and they understand that transaction.”

Looking ahead, Salmon’s vision for market research at O2 involves tipping the scales, rebalancing proactivity and reactivity.

“How do we become less reactive as a team – in terms of people coming to us and saying ‘we want you to research this’ – and instead be the ones to go in and say ‘we think we ought to research this and be in control of our own destiny’,” she says. “That’s the move I’m trying to make with our team – that we become more thought leaders; we take stuff to the business that we think they should know about. It’s probably 70/30 reactive at the moment. I’d like to move it the other way.”

When you are operating in a market that is in constant flux, thanks to rapid technological change, being proactive is pivotal to staying ahead of the competition. 

“As with anything, O2 will always evolve and we never rest on our laurels, so there’s always room to improve things,” Salmon says.“And that’s where we come in – constantly looking to tweak and improve things. 

“It’s a bit like those marginal gains for the British cycling team – you’re always looking for the incremental next steps in how to improve things, internally and externally.”