OPINION20 April 2015

Unifying the voice of a brand’s 12th man


Data sources should not compete with each other, but rather provide a collective view of the customer says Ryan Garner.

Following a hard fought game, many football managers praise the performance of their 12th man. They are, of course, referring to their supporters and not an additional player they have snuck onto the pitch.

In the context of the current information age, there is no reason why business leaders cannot leverage the support and insight of their 12th man; their customers. The question is: how do we produce a unified view of the customer that goes beyond the data and reveals the real person behind the 1 and 0’s?

The emergence of big data and digital technologies have introduced new ways to capture and communicate the voice of the customer. But, with the explosion of digital data there is also debate over the best approaches and data sources.

Different data providers like market research firms, big data analysts and neuro-scientists, all extol the benefits of their respective approaches to sourcing and interpreting data. But different data sources are just different aspects of an individual’s life. They should not be competing with one another, they are part of the same puzzle.

A customer’s data (whether passively collected or actively voiced) is the digital manifestation of their relationship with a business. The key challenge, in the current environment, is integrating the appropriate data sources easily, cost effectively and in a timely manner. This is why obtaining a ‘unified’ or ‘integrated’ view of the customer is important for businesses operating in the data economy. There are two major obstacles preventing businesses achieving this unified view:

1 )   Customers do not exist within the confines of just one organisation.

So, it is very difficult for any business to create a unified view of the customer. At best they will be a modern day Victor Frankenstein: they will bring the data to life but it will not look or behave like a human. The easiest way to avoid this situation is to hand control of data back to the individual where third parties (like market research companies) create value and meaning for both the customer and businesses. This may seem counter-intuitive to the business model of a data-focused business. However, if the data used for customer insight is to resemble anything that looks or sounds human, the point of data integration needs to sit with the individual.

2 )   To overcome the data integration challenge, there needs to be a platform that allows customers to take control of their digital data.

A safe-harbour that simplifies data integration into a coherent, single voice. A service that is convenient, simple to use and creates value for both businesses and individuals. The market research industry has, for a long time, been the independent intermediary between an anonymised mass of customers and the business world. To move the industry forward, it needs to build on its trusted position and find a fresh new way of thinking that creates a channel for businesses and government agencies to understand a unified view of digital customer (or indeed citizen). 

This requires new innovation and there is a high chance it may occur outside the market research industry. It is encouraging, however, that these issues are rising up the industry agenda.

The annual Impact Conference featured many panel discussions about privacy and personal data. The MRS has launched a special think tank called the Delphi Group to explore ‘the most important business and public interest issues of the day’. Its most recent report Private Lives puts the consumer at the heart of the privacy debate. The technology, availability of customer data and need to provide the individual with greater privacy and control are aligned and waiting for someone to piece the puzzle together. The market research industry is in the perfect position to balance both the privacy concerns of customers and the integrated data needs of the business world. If it can solve the puzzle, a supercharged holistic voice of the customer could be propelled into the boardroom with much greater speed, accuracy and impact than ever before.

However, even if the industry makes progress in this area, there is still a cultural change required in business decision making. In this information age, companies need to be insight driven but a recent report shows only 38% identify their company as such.

Businesses need to avoid extreme cases of completely excluding the customer voice or conversely, just following the course dictated by customers. To continue the football metaphor, the 12th man should not pick the team and will not, by themselves, win games. But they make all the difference in a tightly fought contest.

Ryan Garner is a director at Verve