How to Create a Winning DIY Research Strategy in Times of Uncertainty

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Posted Dec 11, 2020
Heather Dallam, Global Research and Analytics Manager at ExxonMobil

Outsourcing research has become a luxury for many. It's hands-off and allows you to concentrate on other pressing jobs – like analyzing the data. 

But what happens when outsourcing isn't an option?

Maybe your budget has disappeared due to resource constraints brought on by the pandemic. Or perhaps you have a small team working from home with a pile of tasks to complete and are nervous about inheriting additional duties.

But with the right strategy, tech tools, and support, switching to DIY research doesn't have to be a headache-inducing experience.

So, if you've noticed a tightening of the purse strings in your company or even an increase in demand for data, stick around! 

In this post, I'll show you how to turn lemons into lemonade using an agile, do-it-yourself approach I spoke about at the Insighter Virtual Conference.

Before we jump in, I want to introduce myself and ExxonMobil. I'm Heather Dallam. I'm a Global Research and Analytics Manager at ExxonMobil.

Before joining ExxonMobil, I worked with or for various companies such as Texas Instruments, PepsiCo, and Capital One. I'm passionate about research and strive to inspire action through insights.

I also find humans infinitely interesting, which is most likely why I, like many, found ourselves in the research world.

ExxonMobil is one of the largest multinational oil and gas companies in the world. Headquartered in Irving, Texas with the main office in Houston, it has risen to become a household name in many countries. 

ExxonMobil has an extensive portfolio, including assets like fueling stations and convenience stores. Its business also includes oil discovery, extraction, and refinement, as well as chemical manufacturing.

Our journey into Agile, Do-It-Yourself Market Research 

I joined ExxonMobil in November 2019. It was my first foray into oil and gas, but I didn't let this stop me. 

I had a great onboarding experience and put a great plan in place. Then things took a left turn.

Oil prices dropped to the lowest they've been in many years. We had some budget cuts, and tragically, COVID-19 hit, leaving people with no option but to stay home.

In the middle of these events, we had a planned reorganization within ExxonMobil.

This is when we started discussing agile market research, specifically how we could do it faster, better, and more frequently. We decided that it was best to adopt a blend of research approaches due to our budget cuts.

Since I had substantial experience on the supplier side, I had done many research projects myself, executing tasks like writing questionnaires. I also programmed them, ran the data, presented the results, and reported the insights. So, I championed the idea of bringing in a do-it-yourself research method.

We had a relationship with aytm and quickly worked with them to figure out a way to make this goal a reality. We were tasked with:

  • Creating internally led research that was repeatable, nimble, and flexible with a strong customer focus
  • Ensuring we could identify insights and prioritize them fast
  • Taking swift action while reducing costs, developing new skills, and getting closer to the consumer

Taking our new strategy global

So, how did we do it with the odds stacked against us?

We took our goals and turned them into a three-pronged approach. This involved identifying insights, prioritizing them, and then acting.

We aimed to create a nimble and collaborative process by pooling information from the regions we were working with, the research group, brand marketing, strategy group, sales, and CX.

We're an international company with researchers in APAC, Europe, and the UK, working across the United States, Canada, and Mexico working in up to 15 markets. This made our vision a huge challenge.

Plus, we didn't have our suppliers working with us. It was a 100% DIY project, and we relied on our internal resources to deploy this method globally in multiple languages and over a short period.

World developments were and continue to accelerate at a shocking rate. So, we needed to be equipped to act fast when an opportunity or consumer need presented itself.

Additionally, we sought to build on the insights as we were learning them. But while our new approach had to be ongoing and repeatable, we didn't want to reiterate our existing data.

So, we created a survey to quantify our learnings. But because surveys can only get you so much data, we dug deeper. 

We put together a diary to better understand our consumers' opinions and their language to describe their experiences. 

This was crucial for gaining an inside look into our consumers' lives and refining our target market.

We represented all of our internal groups in our research and then prioritized our learnings on-the-go to further enrich our data.

To help you build your own winning DIY research strategy, here's a detailed breakdown of each step to take, tools to implement, and best practices to follow.

Embrace failure and strive for continuous improvement

On this DIY research path, we've learned it's ok to fail. Mistakes are inevitable and part of the learning process.

Many things will be new to you, and in this current market, you'll be moving at a rapid rate with little time to think through your decisions.

Let your senior leaders know upfront that you'll need room to make mistakes and explain the benefits this will provide to the company in the long run. Securing their backing ahead of time will help you avoid issues later on.

This doesn't mean you have to sit back and watch missteps happen. You can implement measures to eliminate foreseeable issues, reduce your error rate, and prevent unnecessary risks.

For example, we incorporated inputs from all our cross-functional groups and regions to fortify our analyses.

We also identified influencers in our company and those with the potential to impact the business by making quick, crucial decisions. This gave us a head start in securing the relevant clearance and support.

For best results in your DIY research, aim to adopt an iterative approach. Apply your lessons and learn as you go

Lead with a consumer-centric mindset to position your company for success 

Up against COVID-19 related public health measures, we wanted to make sure that we were facing our new reality with a consumer-driven mindset and setting the stage for future success.

To make this possible, we adopted a multi-phase approach, starting with desk research in the first stage. We used the search and data visualization tool, KnowledgeHound to pull research from all our regions and groups into one centralized location. 

KnowledgeHound also enables us to search across the entire data uploaded onto the platform, including research survey results.

In the second phase, we took what we learned from our desk research and created a survey to fill in all the gaps. 

We aimed to uncover what we felt we needed to know as an organization about our consumers.

To achieve this goal, we partnered with aytm to help us deploy a survey and recruit consumers to a diary study. They very quickly helped us train about ten people on how to use the tool and program surveys.

Aytm also helped us satisfy our international, multi-market data requirement. 

They gave us some shortcuts on how to take an English document, translate it into multiple languages, put it on the platform, launch it, and get responses within just 24 hours.

Admittedly, we were quite skeptical about whether this timeframe was possible, but it happened! It was helpful to receive such valuable information back so quickly.

In our final phase, we recruited internal staff who had gathered insights through our survey to contribute to a diary.

We reasoned it would help us acquire more in-depth data around our desk research and survey observations. 

It would also allow us to have ongoing, open conversations with consumers we could probe to learn even more about them.

For example, in the early days of the pandemic, we wanted to uncover the mind frames of the people who were visiting our fueling stations, especially any fears they had concerning COVID-19.

This information was critical in understanding the changes we needed to make to help our customers feel safe visiting our sites, be it a convenience store or gas station.

Having a process with realistic deliverables and logical timelines will help you stay on track and meet your research goals.

Note your processes don't have to stop at how you will structure your workflow and teams.

You can create processes to identify new tools, allocate funding, set access rights, and more. This will ensure your DIY research project runs like a well-oiled machine.

Assign project managers and moderators to make your research more efficient

While putting together our diary, we realized we had a lot of volunteers (sometimes breaching 40 people), and many were chemical engineers. 

They were all internal staff based in various locations worldwide and had never participated in a study before.

Naturally, things like writing questionnaires, moderating sessions, and compiling an online diary were all new to them.

To ensure our research project ran smoothly, we realized we needed to designate project managers and moderators, plus we'd have to teach them the best way to carry out their duties. 

We asked for volunteers who could speak French, Dutch, Flemish, or Italian. 

We explained what each role entailed and what we expected from them as volunteers.

For example, in the project management position, helpers would be uncovering and providing insights for the second phase.

For the moderator roles, these people controlled the sessions with our consumers. We covered 12 markets around the world using 20-30 moderators.

Consequently, we were able to get around 30 trained volunteers to help with the desk research, the online survey, and then ultimately, the online diary.

Choose your moderators carefully

Moderation isn't a skill that you pick up. It's something that takes time to grasp, and a knack for sparking conversation is a must. Not everyone can moderate well.

An interesting and unexpected discovery I made was how nervous people were about being moderators. 

They were afraid they were going to do it wrong. Some expressed concern at the possibility of asking the wrong questions or offending people.

We tackled this by reassuring our volunteers that we were conducting a blind study. 

We informed all moderators that they couldn't reveal that the study was being conducted for ExxonMobil or that it was an oil and gas company.

Also, we advised them to explain to respondents that we were researching to understand consumer behavior.

Additionally, to hone our communication skills with consumers and gather high-quality insights, we would moderate for weeks at a time.

We'd start with a daily morning debrief in which we talked about what we'd learned from the people we spoke with. 

Then we create an online diary over a one-week period.

So, offer reassurance and protection to your moderators by shielding your company's identity. 

It's also beneficial to seek out confident, outgoing people who can initiate conversations with strangers.

Be prepared to invest in training your DIY research team

We noticed a mixed bag of reactions to our data gathering approach and insights obtained during our moderation period.

Some people expressed shock at their discovery that personal issues could influence consumer behavior and how they interact with our brands.

Others queried the need for conversations and personal questions and why they couldn't just skip to the specific details they required.

To become more agile as an organization, we researchers need to teach people the purpose of research. 

For example, why we apply specific strategies and why it can take a little extra time to harvest useful data.

It's also important to explain that digging for more details in conversations can help you uncover better insights.

This will help ensure they are not just aware of what to ask consumers but why they're asking it and what results they will achieve.

Also, to ensure your researcher gets the most out of talks with consumers, you must build empathy into your strategy.

Using your heart will help you connect more with consumers and with each other to create better experiences, products, and brands that are more relevant to consumers.

This can be done in various ways like emotion-based consumer questioning and regular, open discussions with your research team as well as others in the organization.

Learning these takeaways was pivotal for our research. Once we implemented them, we began to thrive!

By the end of the week in which we made this discovery, we'd become a much more responsive research group because we were learning as we were going and building on those takeaways.

The debriefs got more and more informative each day, with moderators based in different territories sharing questions they would ask and adopting each other's techniques. 

Consequently, our moderators began changing how they were having conversations with the consumers based on what they were learning from these debriefs.

Researching became a very iterative, quick, agile learning process, which was a huge win for our team.

As a result, we were then able to produce a report on our findings because aytm made it very easy to download all the data. 

Even though we had done a variety of markets, we kept the survey similar so we could easily download it and package it into a PowerPoint document. This made it easy to distribute our findings, which was another success for our project.

Empathy facilitates a better customer experience 

The benefits of taking an empathetic, consumer-driven approach to research extend beyond getting to know your consumer better.

As we did, you can learn a considerable amount about your research team, like each other's job roles, strengths, and weaknesses, then use it to optimize your research. Most importantly, embarking on your DIY research journey will teach you how to connect and have more in-depth discussions amongst your team and consumers.

This will also help breakdown silos in your business and allow data to flow through your organization. Then, other departments can take action based on these insights too.

While it may take a little extra time and energy to get your moderators up to speed, you'll reap the rewards of richer insights and strong team bonds if you commit to providing high-quality training.

Great research takes patience, but a solid tech stack and strategy can reduce time to insight

It's no secret that thorough research takes a good chunk of time.

Going from our desk research, online survey, and online diary, to presenting our findings to upper management and senior leaders took around six to eight weeks.

Typically, this process would take much longer. But thanks to a helping hand from aytm, an impressive set of tools, and a robust strategy, we were able to reduce our research timeframes despite doing all the work ourselves.

We realized that you don't just upload and program different surveys and languages. It takes time, effort, and a handful of hiccups.

Prepare for delays by adding a buffer to your timelines and applying a liberal dose of patience.

Your roadmap to a successful DIY strategy

To ensure you see early and steady success in your DIY research projects, it's crucial you set up a phased strategy that outlines your objectives, targets, and job roles at each stage.

This will help you stay organized and ensure all participants are aware of what's expected of them.

Putting processes in other areas of your DIY research project like tool usage and data access rights will help avoid disruptions and confusion, which can hinder your results.

Be mindful that it takes a considerable amount of time and effort to develop mission-critical research skills like moderation and consumer interviewing.

Allocate consistent time to train and debrief your teams to ensure they have the knowledge and skills to gather data successfully. 

By applying these lessons, you'll discover that you're better together and that by working in unison, you can learn much more.

When building and executing your DIY research strategy, be sure to use your brain and heart; both are equally important.

Specifically, use your heart to weave in empathy into your consumer questioning and team discussions. This will drive a better understanding of your consumers' wants and needs, plus what each team member brings to the table. 

Use your brain to draft efficient and logical processes that will help you obtain data and extract the best information.

A well-crafted strategy will not only equip you with the tools to gather rich data; it'll also allow you to spring these agile insights into action.

Apply this phased approach, tech tools, and tips, and before long, you'll have created agile partnerships and processes your company can benefit from for years to come.

Have changes affected your research capabilities? Find out how aytm can get you back on track.

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