Matt Warta of GutCheck, an online qualitative research firm, and Brad White of Prophet, a brand and marketing consultancy, discussed agile market research in last week’s GreenBook webinar, “Researching Like It’s the 1990’s? Get Agile and Leap to 2013″. The on-demand research technologies that characterize agile research methods have been rapidly earning a place in the researcher’s toolkit, and the speakers shared two case studies: using agile research for quick-reaction research and using agile for iterative concept development.

The Opportunity for Agile Research

According to a CEB study of 800 Fortune 1000 marketers, marketers depend on data for just 11% of all customer-related decisions. Obviously, failure to use consumer feedback often leads to negative outcomes. The 89% of marketing decisions where consumer data isn’t used represent an opportunity for consumer insights professionals to get involved in the conversation more often.

What are decision makers using instead of data? Intuition and experience, internal conversations, and one-on-one conversations.

Why isn’t research used more often? Due to the press of time, and the lack of funds. But Matt argues that in the past when consumer insight professionals said “no” to requests on tight deadlines that they in effect trained marketers to work without them.

The tools exist today to help insert customer feedback into more decisions; insight pros can select from an emerging ecosystem of on-demand technology, including online qual and on-demand surveys. GutCheck itself provides on-demand IDIs: 30- to 45-minute, synchronous, real-time, one-on-one conversations conducted online. The company also offers on-demand online communities of 20 to 30 people for 3 to 5 days, and offers light quantitative services.

Agile research solves the twin problems of lack of time and lack of funds, generating insights from specific consumers in days rather than weeks. Because of the low-cost nature of on-demand research, it can generate 3 to 5 times the feedback of a typical research project for the same research dollar.

Agile Research for Quick Response

The first case study presented was for a project helping a QSR (Quick-Service Restaurant) chain address a PR crisis: “a highly publicized story challenging a core marketing claim of the QSR chain made its way through traditional and social media.”

The client called on a Friday morning: “Oh _ _ _ _! A consumer is challenging a core claim on Facebook! …and now it’s on the evening news…with pics! What do we do?!” The client needed to know what was the consumer awareness level of the crisis, how was awareness trending, what was the sentiment, and what did the restaurant need to do to maintain loyalty?

By that Friday afternoon GutCheck used an instant research community to interview 100 target consumers to understand sentiment levels and feedback on the QSR’s initial response. GutCheck staff also launched a survey of 1,000 respondents to get an awareness measurement for Monday morning – it showed there was a high level of awareness. Fortunately, the qualitative community research revealed that consumers felt things were being blown out of proportion: so much so that they weren’t sharing information about the news on social media.

GutCheck did five waves of studies over three weeks to track awareness and sentiment among the core customer base and to test and refine three different marketing concepts. As revealed by the initial wave, the vast majority of consumers exhibited the same sentiment and intent to visit as before the story broke and did not spread the story. A small number were negatively affected, which prompted the placement of in-store displays. However, the creative response changed significantly through the research iterations, with the final response representing “a mash-up of the original three concepts, totally as directed by the respondents”.

Thanks to this agile research, the Quick Serve Restaurant didn’t overreact but took just the right actions.

Once the heat of the moment had passed, the client did research on the research: their retrospective analysis found that the on-demand research technologies provided good quality. They duplicated the research using traditional techniques and uncovered the same research results. Armed with that data, they were willing to make a significant commitment to agile research going forward.

Even better, Matt said, “We made the consumer insights team look like a rock star! During the crisis, they had the best knowledge; they had the most knowledge. We enabled our customer in this case to attack those ‘89% of decisions’ where customer data isn’t used. They made a big contribution. This was a time-critical solution where on-demand produced a positive outcome.”

Agile Research for Iterative Development

While time-critical questions are a natural use of on-demand technologies, 80% of customers use agile research for iterative development of new product and marketing initiatives. These have longer lead times and center around development of new products and marketing communications. Traditional research clients have been forced to test and retest before going into third party validation, and companies that do that often get bad results in tests like BASES with little feedback on why.

By integrating agile research up front, the iterative nature of the feedback about early concepts helps develop the best concept before conducting volumetric analysis.

A manufacturer of household products turned to Prophet to fill their product pipeline for liquid dish soap for the next three years. This 12-week project involved extensive iteration of the concepts. “Once we had come up with 10 different product concepts,” Brad said, “we gauged consumer response and understanding for key aspects of the concepts, including naming, packaging (bottle shape, label, color of the liquid), fragrance possibilities, and lead and secondary claims.”

Prophet did four waves of research:

  1. Developing the concept language and core ideas using 40 qualitative IDIs. “We didn’t know going into it what part of the concepts people would love and what parts would need work.”
  2. Aligning packaging and fragrance to the concepts using 40 more IDIs.
  3. Clarifying insights, benefits, names and claims with 40 IDIs and a quantitative study of 600 consumers.
  4. Previewing final integrated bundles — including packaging structure and design, name, claims, and concept — with 30 qualitative IDIs to refine the language appropriately for the final wave of quantitative research with 1200 consumers.


This was not a replacement for fragrance testing but narrowed the focus early on to those fragrances people most associated with the concept. “We started with a wide variety of fragrances, selected those which were appropriate for the kitchen functionally and emotionally, and those which worked for liquid dish soap and then those which worked for individual concepts,” Brad said. “This wasn’t scratch-n-sniff on your computer, but it was ‘citrusy vs. lemony vs. pine scent vs. mint scent.’”

The research produced a lot of value quickly, offering speed and control over the process: bundles evolved and improved substantially throughout the research. It provided insight-driven recommendations to the packaging firm, fragrance houses, and internal research department.

Completed almost two years ago, the research produced a strong product pipeline: “the process resulted in two ‘home- runs’ that exceeded action standards and were launched in the market, where they were widely accepted among the trade, exceeding expectations for sales. This was attributed to the fact that we got very close to the consumer very cost effectively.”

The Value of Agile Research

The two case studies showcased ways in which agile research provides value:

  • Address time-critical questions or respond to crises by producing insights in a few days far more affordably than an in-person research project while producing equivalent quality.
  • Develop product and marketing initiatives to funnel and refine concepts to improve likelihood of success, iterating on multiple concepts with three to five times the sample used for traditional methods for the same budget.

Author Notes:

Jeffrey Henning

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Jeffrey Henning, IPC is a professionally certified researcher and has personally conducted over 1,400 survey research projects. Jeffrey is a member of the Insights Association and the American Association of Public Opinion Researchers. In 2012, he was the inaugural winner of the MRA’s Impact award, which “recognizes an industry professional, team or organization that has demonstrated tremendous vision, leadership, and innovation, within the past year, that has led to advances in the marketing research profession.” In 2022, the Insights Association named him an IPC Laureate. Before founding Researchscape in 2012, Jeffrey co-founded Perseus Development Corporation in 1993, which introduced the first web-survey software, and Vovici in 2006, which pioneered the enterprise-feedback management category. A 35-year veteran of the research industry, he began his career as an industry analyst for an Inc. 500 research firm.