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MRS Impact 2019: Day 2

Dr Nick Baker Chief Research Officer 03/14/2019

Our key takeaways from the annual conference

Social change, political insights and the challenges of AI were all hotly-debated at day two of MRS Impact 2019

After a rousing first day at the Market Research Society’s annual conference, the second and final day delivered even more powerful and fresh insights from the industry's best and brightest.

...the challenge for research and insight is how do we cut through the sound and fury?”

We kicked off with the Rt. Hon. Nicky Morgan talking about how both research and insight are of critical value to modern politicians – and how it’s more important than ever that they make full use of the new tools that are available to them.

New communication channels and technologies have empowered politicians, Morgan told us, to continually gauge public opinion. But whilst this is doubtless a treasure trove of information, she would counsel caution: “Political leaders need to think about brand image, but can’t focus on it too much as they won’t be able to get things done.”

Morgan shared her enthusiasm for how great research and evidence is for surfacing relevant issues: “Politicians shouldn’t be scared of elections. I actually enjoy elections. I’m quite nosy, I like to know what people think and what makes them tick.”

Morgan highlighted the importance of making research short and to the point to make an impact amongst her colleagues as well as the persuasive power value of anecdotal evidence where people are voluntarily offering true and authentic opinions.

She also talked about how technology has changed the level of access to politicians that constituents now have. The near-universal availability of social media and email means they can now reach their MP directly.

This is arguably a great thing but, as Morgan observed, it has created new kinds of risk from members of the public who are perhaps “less interested in professional judgement,” and more interested in opportunities to broadcast their unfiltered opinions: “It’s not just politicians, it’s entertainers, female actors – if you put yourself out there you are going to get abuse.”

Research for change

The panel at the Powering Progress and Enabling Change: Nudging Behaviour for Social Advance session explored the social applications of research.

The discussion covered ways in which behavioural insights such as social norming, ‘power of now’ and gamification could be used to reduce hate crime and improve student campus experiences, as well as the role of The Big Issue in helping homeless people to experience a meaningful sense of purpose and social inclusion.

Standing on the shoulders of machines

Social issues were also covered at the Artificial Intelligence: Rising to the Commercial and Social Challenge session, where the observable, real-world effects on research projects created by AI went under the microscope.

“The amount of data we have to deal with to understand an audience can’t be analysed by a human alone. It (AI) is supporting a person to make sense of information,” Francesco D’Orazio told us. Far from being a sinister threat to mankind, D’Orazio believes that “AI is like a kitchen tool for doing something, it doesn’t have an agenda…we project that agenda.”

The sinister characterisation of AI as being ‘the end of humanity just waiting to happen’ also got short shrift from Kate Adams who said “It’s not man vs. machine…what it is to be human is to be fully celebrated, we can augment it with computers but we can’t replace it.”

This notion of AI creating opportunities to elevate our capabilities as a society, and indeed as researchers, was echoed by Stan Sthanunathan who said “AI can help us augment human intelligence rather than replace human intelligence – make machines work so that humans can think.” When asked by an audience member if there was any reason to feel less depressed about the rise of automated work systems, Stan replied that “AI will be used to augment our intelligence and to give us more time to make better decisions.”

Tabitha Goldstaub brought the panel to a close on a positive but cautious note: “What I’m most excited about is how AI will make the lives of workers or consumers better…we need more regulation…more than we thought we needed.”

“Humans live in bubbles, giving a running account of the world that makes us feel better about ourselves,”

Cutting through the noise

At the Stories for Change: Strategies for Electrifying and Driving Insight Through the Business panel, chairperson Daniel Wain began the session with his observation that: “in the modern age I think sometimes we find it difficult to hear ourselves let alone hear anyone else. I call it living in the age of infobesity.”

Within this context, he identified “the challenge for research and insight is how do we cut through the sound and fury? How do we get one set of people to hear and understand another set of humanity?”

We then heard from the panel, including representatives from Disney, AB Inbev and Sony who reminded us that, as researchers, we need to find innovative and engaging ways to land insights so that clients embrace and action them. Insights don’t have to live in a PowerPoint when they can be immersive and affecting experiences.

In Wain’s summing up of the session, he homed in on the value of “being brave with your questions, with your challenges, with the solutions, with the recommendations,” as well as “being collaborative…working as a team, maybe putting client and agency egos to one side and also being pragmatic.”

Choose a side

The notion of seeking out pragmatic solutions to complex problems also emerged at the Brand Trust and Consumer Engagement in a Polarised Society panel, where a plea for transparency was made by Sean Pillot de Chenecey.

He urged for it to be considered as one of the keys to building trust: “Society has a real problem when there’s no solid ground and everything is entirely subjective … Transparency is needed for leaders to regain trust, for brands to regain trust.”

Mark Shayler shared his observation that “Brands that are going to do really well are the ones that stand for something the consumer believes in, or stand against something the consumer believes in.” This idea was further driven home by Emily Hare who said: “Purpose is not a marketing effort, it’s fundamental to the whole organisation,” whilst Katrina Stirton Dodd reminded us that, at its most basic level; “marketing is an empathy game.” Indeed, trust without empathy is a very tough sell indeed.

The truth is out there

On the subject of empathy, Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything – and What We Can Do About It was an excellently-titled session which encouraged the audience to fully question themselves and their assumptions.

The dangers of being distracted by the sensational was highlighted by Bobby Duffy: “Vivid emotional stories are what we remember and, because of that, the media gives us those stories,” and that, to our detriment “we’re drawn to much more vivid, negative stories but we don’t really notice these [positive] trends…the slow improvements. Instead, focus on negative information.”

On the subject of how perceptions are fuel for research and insight professionals, David Halpern said; “We get a lot of clues about the world by how people perceive things.” Halpern also spoke of our tendency, as a culture, toward confirmation bias and the creation of convenient narratives: “Humans live in bubbles, giving a running account of the world that makes us feel better about ourselves,” before reminding us that “it’s tempting to assume the way we misperceive things is a new crisis” which, of course, it isn’t. A strangely comforting fact when considered from certain angles.

When Jan Gooding shared her recommendation that “whatever your view is, imagine you are completely wrong” she added her voice to a common theme of empathy and humility that emerged wholly organically throughout many sessions at MRS Impact 2019.

Closing time

This year’s conference offered up a fresh cornucopia of ideas, insights innovations and I know that all of the Savantians who attended are still digesting the many messages that were generously and enthusiastically imparted over the course of two days.

I know that everyone here at Savanta feels extremely lucky to be able to work in a field so rich with exceptionally smart, talented and inquisitive people. MRS Impact is a welcome reminder that, together, we can help to nudge, push, cajole and encourage the whole world to Make Better Decisions.

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