When we look back at the period following quarantine, the changes that took hold permanently will probably make a lot more sense. Hindsight is 2020, after all. (Sorry.)
But as we close out a year we’d all like to forget, many aspects of 2021 are still up in the air. To figure out which changes will stick around, we organized a roundtable with our CEO, Head of Marketing, and a leading data scientist.
Together, these three perspectives provide a more complete picture of 2020 — and the beginning of a path forward.
The status quo was nowhere to be found
“2020 was the year of the pivot,” according to Laia Pescetto, Helixa’s Director of Marketing. “Every sure bet you were counting on was turned on its head — sorry trade shows.”
“Marketers were called on to flex their creative muscles hard and fast,” she added. “The status quo was nowhere to be found, and we lost the option of hitting our KPIs by simply expanding on what had worked the year before.”
“2020 was the year of the pivot. Every sure bet you were counting on was turned on its head.”
“The shift was so intense, I even heard executives and investors asserting that ‘flat is the new growth,’” Helixa CEO Florian Kahlert said. “Nevertheless, the industry reacted mostly rationally, economically speaking: assess the risk, account for the unknown, preserve cash, and renegotiate contracts.”
“I think the companies that are faring best had a wide variety of clients or a portfolio that touched many different areas,” he said. “That’s just common sense.”
The shift to digital (yes, it’s somehow still happening)
Another easy way to spot the early winners is to look at companies’ appetite for technology.
Companies built on a digital foundation (or that heavily invested in digital transformation later on) were more likely to excel when our screens became our whole world.
“COVID-19 forced traditional companies to make serious investments in order to rapidly meet those technological needs,” according to Gianmario Spacagna, founder of Data Science Milan and advisor to Helixa.
“As behavior evolved worldwide, people left unprecedented traces of their interests inside the digital ecosystem,” he added. “This presented new opportunities for the advertising industry — especially for companies like Helixa that can make sense of those signals.”
That’s good news, Kahlert said, because the pandemic left a lot of new questions unanswered. “How should we ‘speak’ to consumers now? How will this affect consumer behavior? Will these changes be temporary or permanent?”
“That’s where I think we were able to provide a lot of value to our clients,” he said, “especially when we were seeing big swings on a weekly basis.”
This shift won’t just disappear once we start to establish a new normal.
“Now, retailers need a virtual experience, events need a virtual component, and the list goes on and on,” Pescetto said. “I don’t see this slowing down, even as it becomes safer to venture back out into the world.”
“DTC and digital-first brands might have a head start, in that regard, but they’ll need to stay on their toes and lean into their agility as bigger brands with bigger budgets start to catch up.”
No matter the path you take, Pescetto thinks the new rules are simple: “You need to move fast, and course-correct even faster.”
“And to do that successfully," she added, “your tools and processes need to keep pace.”
A new reality for the research industry
Kahlert thinks researchers need to embrace technology, AI, and big-data solutions even more aggressively to remain relevant.
“We need to be nimble and adjust quickly, something most researchers are not very comfortable with,” he said. “They are, by nature, truth-seekers who prefer data and consistency and like to quantify certainty."
“Research outputs are measured on reliability and validity and anchored in statistical methods. These requirements are not always easily accomplished with emerging trends and platforms. But, as behavior shifts on an international scale, we need to capture, understand, and interpret new ways of expression.”
“We need to be nimble and adjust quickly, something most researchers are not very comfortable with. They are, by nature, truth-seekers who prefer data and consistency and like to quantify certainty."
“Companies should be using the richness of online datasets and artificial intelligence to tailor products around customer needs, in addition to using these datasets for marketing,” Spacagna said.
“The technology is very mature and things like trendspotting and product research are definitely within reach. This is a major role that AI-driven market research will play in 2021 and beyond.”
This is something marketers need to think about as well.
“There are plenty of new options emerging or evolving fast, because they speak directly to the specific needs of your customer who is home, going nuts, and anticipating the next wave of toilet paper hoarding,” Pescetto added.
“At that point, the brand of toilet paper in their cart is not nearly as important as Charmin or Scott probably hopes. These situations are going to require more research before companies can respond effectively.”
An effective response will increasingly be tied to both the timeliness of the response and the data that informed it.
“2020 has increased demand and appreciation for timely information,” Kahlert said. “Although this was already a perceived need before 2020, the rapid changes of consumer attitudes, behaviors, needs, and desires has driven that point home.”
“While research historically focuses on consistency and maintaining trends, some changes in consumer behavior are now so rapid and persistent that updating data or surveying consumers every three or six months is no longer cutting it,” he added.
Balancing the value exchange with consumer data
“Consumers are more and more aware of how their data is collected and used,” Pescetto said. “That’s something that is hard to forget about once you discover it. And I think that stickiness is going to be a big driving force for change.”
“We do see consumers taking a more active role in their data privacy and lawmakers are recognizing that shift,” Kahlert added. “Ultimately, we need to think beyond the current laws and restrictions to build solutions that will withstand future legislation. This is something we take very seriously at Helixa.”
While most in the industry would agree with the need to respect consumers’ data, there is a lot of skepticism from those who don’t want to lose the effectiveness of research and targeting. It’s important to understand invasive data practices are not the only ways to reach these goals.
“In the data industry, it is common to consider the privacy-accuracy tradeoff,” Spacagna said. “That is, the more granular (and potentially harmful to privacy) the data is, the better the algorithms can be at personalizing their outcomes. Luckily, it is not the case anymore.”
“Details are still valuable and fundamental,” he cautioned, “but when analyzing audiences as groups of people, all that matters is that which is generalizable and statistically significant in aggregate.”
”We are seeing large data companies change the way they talk about their relationship with consumers,” Kahlert said. “Instead of using the word ‘targeting,’ they prefer talking about ‘connecting,’ for example. Will this change in labels still be palatable, once consumers discover they have the same meaning?”
Language isn’t the only thing that is shifting. There is also a move toward solutions that prioritize consumer protection.
“The reliance on permissioned first-party data and solutions that rely on in-the-moment information appended by AI models will continue to grow,” he added. “That’s how we can reach the right consumer at the right time while also respecting their privacy.”
Recent advancements in machine learning will also impact our journey toward privacy compliance.
“We cannot calculate accurate insights about a group of people if the base data lacks the right resolution. Luckily, innovations like differential privacy and federated learning are making it possible to provide accurate estimations while safeguarding the privacy of the consumers we’re studying.”
Ultimately, it’s all an issue of consumer perception. They will be more open to this type of data collection if they don’t feel like they’re getting the raw end of the deal.
“I think consumers are open to a true value exchange. They are willing to share some information if it is treated with care and used to provide truly relevant experiences,” Pescetto said.
“But it has to actually be an exchange. Consumers want to feel that they are part of the transaction, and play a role in both the data that they share and the value they get on the other side of that.”
“I think consumers are open to a true value exchange. They are willing to share some information if it is treated with care and used to provide truly relevant experiences.”
2020 advancements with 2021 implications
“I am very optimistic consumers’ spirits will be lifted by the end of a hard winter and the availability of a vaccine,” Kahlert said. “Consumers and businesses will have a more positive outlook for the later part of the year.”
“Companies will have an advantage if they invested in technology and people and fundamentally adjusted their way of doing business in 2020. Those that had to stop investment in favor of survival may advance more slowly,” he added. “The real winners and losers will likely become more apparent later this year.”
As for Helixa, we have a lot of exciting things in store for the upcoming year, to ensure our clients remain in the former category. And we can’t wait to share them with you.