Author: Sonya Turner
I spend time nearly every day talking with clients or prospective clients, exploring what’s going on inside their businesses, what consumer questions they need to answer, and, eventually, how we can help them get those answers. We ask hard questions, and the discussion can take us through complicated stuff that requires thoughtful consideration and difficult decisions.
The upfront effort definitely pays off, though. Because once we’ve drilled down to the core needs and outcomes and settled on a methodology, for the clients we work with, the rest is surprisingly simple.
I guess that dichotomy really shouldn’t be too surprising. After all, it’s a time-tested truth that the more planning you do up front, the fewer bumps you have along the way, and that’s definitely our experience.
But what does that look like? What’s the actual process of working with the Aspen Finn team on a strategic insights project, and what makes it so simple? What happens once we’ve figured out all the details of scope, timing, methodology and deliverable? Even though the details can vary dramatically, the overall process is nearly always the same because regardless of all those variables, pretty much every project can be divided into the same seven key steps.
Step 1: Understanding objectives
Unlike a lot of insight consultants, we don’t start our engagement with you with “What question do you need this research to answer?” We get to that, of course, but our conversations start with the broader question of “What is happening in your business that makes you want to ask this question?” or “What problem are you trying to solve?”
Sometimes it’s big picture, exploratory, or diagnostic, trying to understand a decline in sales, or a recognition that a competitor is making gains. Other times it’s more tactical — we need to pick a package for this yogurt, or know which ad to run for our new cable show, or we only have five days to get as much information on this topic as we can. But making sure that we start with the broadest possible understanding of the reasons behind the research makes sure we are aligned with the necessary outcomes.
Step 2: Picking the methodology
Once we understand the business question and are “in your head” a bit more, we start to think about methodology. Audience plays a huge part in this — we always want to choose the approach that will be most comfortable and best aligned with the lifestyle or situation of the people we need to get information from. And the type of learnings we need are also a big driver. Are we trying to inform product development or R&D? Then seeing people use the product or perform the task can be key. Are we trying to identify key milestones in a customer journey? In that case, maybe online journaling with a video component is the right fit.
The point I’m trying to make here — and it’s fundamental to how we approach research — is that we are methodology agnostic. We are not beholden to or invested in a particular approach, and in fact one of our favorite things to do is to blend different tools and processes to get the optimal output. Often there is no single right answer for which methodology is “best.” Instead, it’s a question of evaluating all of the different levers we have to pull — speed, cost, audience, outcomes, internal stakeholders, topic, background — and coming up with the best recipe for success.
Step 3: Assigning the team and kickoff
Our goal is always to create a frictionless process for our clients. We want you to feel confident that we “have your back” and that your work is going to go smoothly, accurately, and get you what they need. We’ve found that assigning a dedicated project team who stay with the project the entire way is a key ingredient in making this happen. It works well within our structure because all of our work is serviced under our own roof — we’re not outsourcing or managing multiple vendors — which helps keep it seamless and ensures that information transfers accurately and efficiently.
Step 4: Action!
To ensure that we all start on the same page, we initiate every project with a kick-off meeting that includes all internal and external stakeholders. We review previous discussions to ensure alignment on objectives, timelines, audience, and other expectations.
Once we complete that step, the most typical milestones during this phase include:
● Screener development
● Discussion guide or survey development
● Fielding / moderation
Each of these serves as a key touchpoint with our clients. We know how important it can be for you to feel informed about what is going on, and transparency makes everything go more smoothly. So whether we are keeping you up-to-date on the pace of recruiting, getting your input into the discussion guide, or helping you schedule stakeholders to observe virtual focus groups, nothing happens without you having a chance to weigh in.
Step 5: Analysis
I’m an analyst at heart, and this is one of my favorite parts of any initiative, because it’s where we really start to see the fruits of our labor come together. At Aspen Finn, we use a host of different approaches to organize and analyze the learnings from our studies, but one thing that I think sets us apart is that we do it all internally. And even though we have developed powerful tools and frameworks to aid our analysis, the true analysis is always done by highly trained people. We believe that human + machine provides the best blend of power, efficiency and accuracy, but we also believe that it’s really the people that make or break our analysis.
For that reason, the analysts who interpret all of our insights are integrated into our teams. We don’t outsource it — they sit under our roof and interact on a daily basis with the entire project team. This means that by the time they sit down to write a report, they are already steeped in the background of the study. They’ve sat in on calls with you, participated in brainstorming on whether the questions we’re asking are getting at what we need them to, and connected with the project team to understand the nuances of how the project came together.
The payoff for this is learnings that are not just accurate, well thought out and actionable, but that are infused with the intangibles that accompany any project.
Step 6: Readout and wrap up
For Aspen Finn, delivering a report is an exciting moment — but not because we can breathe a sigh of relief and check it off our list. It’s because it’s the precursor to the most important part of the work we do, which is helping you digest, understand, and begin to apply the learnings.
We’re big believers in readouts, and whenever possible we try to get in front of our clients, whether in person or on the phone, to walk through the learnings, make recommendations and discuss implications. Time and again we hear how valuable this phase is. After all, our team has been intimately engaged with the audience and research question for weeks, and they know it like the back of their hand. Making sure we are available to explain, answer questions, and adjust the deliverable to meet the clients’ use case is a critical piece of our value. And to our minds, without this step the project isn’t done.
Step 7: Debrief
After we send you off with your analysis and are confident you have what you need to move ahead, we’re still not done. Our final step — and again, a critical piece of our success — is to debrief. While it’s fresh in our minds, we make sure to circle the team and discuss what worked great, what could have been better, and the things we definitely want to avoid for next time, as well as those we want to try to do again. We catalog these learnings and share them throughout the organization because we know that even when things go well, we always have the opportunity to learn and get better.
And that about sums it up. Whether it’s testing a new creative campaign, identifying white space for product development, or mapping your customer’s path-to-purchase, all the work we do for our clients follows this same basic recipe. It’s been tested and refined over time, and while the details can vary widely, we know from experience that it’s getting these fundamental steps right that sets us all up for success.