14 minutes

[Interview] A Discussion on the Best Practices and Changing Landscape of Consumer Research

The consumer research industry continues to evolve as more data is collected, more tools are created, and the demand to understand customers increases. At Affinio, we believe that to effectively reach and connect with consumers; marketers need to first understand the culture, the interests, and the passions of their ideal consumer. Marketers need to understand what makes their audience tick. This aligns perfectly with the philosophy of Affinio customer, Translation.

Translation is an innovative and industry-leading marketing firm based in New York City. It was founded by ‘The Tanning of America’ author, Steve Stoute who believed that Fortune 500 companies were missing an opportunity to create a deeper connection with consumers. Translation’s philosophy is built on the notion that you can’t understand your customers through broad demographic categories, that you must go beyond this to understand the cultural experiences and values of your audience.

From Translation’s website:

“Today’s generation doesn’t think in terms of rigid demographic silos, like race, gender, and age. They relate based on shared values and interests. It’s a way of processing, understanding, and relating to the world.”

Recently, we were lucky enough to sit down with Craig Stauber, Translation’s Director of Analytics, to learn more about his role at Translation and how consumer research plays into Translation’s philosophy.

The following interview is lightly edited for ease of reading.

What Makes Translation and Their Research Team Different

Affinio: Translation seems like a really cool place to work. What is it like to work at Translation and what sets it apart from other agencies?

Craig: Translation is a really cool place, and truly different from the other places I’ve worked at. I’ve been at big, New York traditional agencies and I’ve worked at some pretty small startup-size ones as well. This place definitely has a different feel; every single person here has a different story, it’s amazing! But even more than that is the philosophy of the company, which all stems from Steve Stoute. His diverse experience in the music industry and the belief that hip-hop culture shapes mainstream culture all funnels down into an awesome work environment and really great work. And it’s also his philanthropic work that is mirrored in much of what we do. Earlier this year the agency put together a charitable event in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, with employees serving a “Biggie Breakfast” to low-income individuals in honor of the late Notorious B.I.G. T-Bone Steak, Cheese Eggs, and Welch’s Grape was served ala the lyrics in “Big Poppa.” Celebrating arguably the best rapper of all time through the lens of charity is a perfect reflection of Translation.

We have a wide range of clients, and the reason that they come to us is that they are on board with Steve’s philosophy.

Affinio: What does it mean to be the Director of Analytics at such an innovative and forward-thinking agency?

Craig: It means a lot, and I love what I do. Research is a really important role here and I’m so happy to be in a place where it is truly valued. In order to successfully be “forward-thinking”, it’s required that my team stay on the cutting edge of measurement. There’s so much out there in the way of data and tools and how people do things, that I’ve needed to be very firm and confident in my own beliefs in what should be measured, and pass that onto my team. I can’t get caught up in what this person or that person is doing because I’m aware that I most likely work at a very different type of company.

From a functional standpoint, we have three main roles: The first part is measuring the success of our client’s campaigns, events, or any philanthropic work we do as an agency. Second, we help our brands find new opportunities through deep-dive audits, helping them break through in their respective industry. Third is collaborating with our strategy department, whether it be proving their point with both quantitative and qualitative research or perhaps steering them in a different direction.

Affinio: How does your team differ from a more traditional research team?

Craig: Well first, we’re pretty lean, by design. There’s 3 of us, myself and two analysts. I definitely prefer having a smaller team that has the opportunity to get involved in all sorts of various requests and assignments. It works to our advantage in so many ways. It constantly challenges us, allows the analysts to get a well-rounded education in not just Analytics but advertising in general, and increases the opportunity for input from our department. Those are all things I wanted early in my career and I’m glad that I can run a team like the one I have.

We’re also different in the way that we are all really different from each other. I love having a diverse team that offers different strengths. We’re not just mathematicians or excel nerds; we’re designers, presenters, and active participants in all things Translation. All of this allows us to effectively present findings and get people to pay attention and understand the importance of those findings.

Understanding the Success of A Campaign

Affinio: When understanding the success of a campaign, what are the KPIs that you focus on?

Craig: It depends on the project and the client, of course, but at the end of the day what we want to see is evidence that people are relating to, participating in, and responding to our efforts. We believe that conversations are key to everything that follows: reach, follower growth, website visitation, purchase consideration, etc. Word of mouth is how information is discovered these days. On a more specific level though, if our messaging is asking people to do one thing, that should be the KPI we measure for that message. For example, if we are asking people to visit and sign up for something on a website, I can’t feel good about agreeing with a client who wants follower growth to determine the success of that message. At the end of the day, the marketing objective, messaging, and associated KPIs need to be in alignment.

Gaining Industry and Competitive Knowledge Across Verticals

Affinio: How do you gain industry knowledge? This is likely a challenge because of the breadth of customers you service.

Craig: A lot of research. Before I even start collecting and analyzing data for an industry, brand, or product, I need to educate myself on its history. I read about the history, how it has evolved, and where it is right now. I also keep an eye on the latest news surrounding what I’m researching. All seemingly obvious things, but also really easy to lose track of in the moment. Context is everything, and I can’t do my best work without it. It’s important to not just be an analyst, but to be well informed on what it is you are analyzing. This helps guide all resulting insight, and also instills confidence in your audience when you can ask intelligent and informed questions.

We regularly produce deep-dive audits here at Translation, learning a lot through social listening. Strengths, weaknesses, pain points for customers, what competitors are up to, and areas of opportunity can all be discovered through our process.

Being that this can be a tedious process, it’s important to know how to spend your time because you don’t usually have weeks to do a project. Ask questions, find out what is most helpful, and if there is anything not needed. Helping people understand all the things you can provide them with can only work to your advantage.

Affinio: How do you gain that competitive knowledge? What tools do you use?

Craig: We use a number social listening and analytical tools, including Affinio. I love knowing how a competitor brand’s audience makeup is different, or not. It really can explain so much about how effective someone’s marketing efforts have been. Did they achieve the target audience they went after? Also, listening to how consumers discuss the brand, with more traditional social listening tools. The challenge, from a timing perspective, arises when you are trying to understand the strength of their individual messages, like social posts. It’s more than just looking at the numbers visible on their posts; without admin access to their data, it can get tricky as there is no insight into organic reach, messages that may have had to spend behind them, and a whole lot more. There are some tools out there that have capabilities like promoted post detection, which solves one issue. However, no tools can replace the human aspect of analyzing the performance of different content themes and the subtleties that a brand has tested within each of those themes, like caption length, questions vs. statements, and a host of other factors. We try to leave no holes in our analysis, so there continues to be a good amount of manual work. I’m not complaining though. This is what keeps us employed, and as good as tools have become, they’re still only as good as the analyst using them.

Affinio: The third bucket in your role is helping strategy prove a point. How do you work with the strategy and creative teams to help drive their strategy?

Craig: Our two departments, Analytics and Strategy, are under the same umbrella at Translation. We sit next to each other, collaborate every day, and I love that. There have been times where, through research by someone on my team, that we will proactively approach the strategy team to let them know of something relevant and practical.

However, it typically begins with a hypothesis, and the request for research to back it up. This can be anything from a new strategic initiative to the best way to execute creatively.

There are also ideas that stem directly from clients and communicated to our account managers, strategists, creative teams, etc. that require research to help determine the strength of that idea. As an agency, we’ve helped our clients avoid some mistakes through the use of data.

The Challenges and Trends Researchers Are Facing Today

Affinio: As a researcher, what challenges do you come across on a regular basis?

Craig: There is still a very mysterious aura surrounding “Analytics.” Most think we do nerdy math things, which we do, and some think all we do are bar graphs and pie charts because that’s what the person they used to work with did. There are also challenges along the lines of what is possible to measure, how long things take, and of course, how much to trust the data. Some of these pains can be alleviated through education; just sitting down with people and explaining to them what you do, what is possible, and how you can be helpful specifically to them.

Affinio: What about trends in research or trends in the types of insights you are uncovering lately?

Craig: I think the one thing I’ve uncovered about any “trend” is that it doesn’t last long. The social platform du jour changes every few months, some disappear forever, and new ones are created all the time, seemingly to keep what they share as private as possible. I think what I’ve found through my work is that I better be prepared in the morning to do something totally different than the day before.

Breaking the Mold: Moving Away From Demographic Targeting

Affinio: Why do you think that people still rely so heavily on demographics? Is it because it’s what they have always done? Or is it because they don’t trust the newer ways to understand consumers?

Craig: I think because it’s easier for most to grasp. Age, gender, location. Three things. In a world of confusion, people want simple decisions. That’s honestly how I feel.

It’s also what people are used to, yes. But I think if you have trustworthy data, interesting insights, and the right person walking them through the information, you can change their mind. In that scenario, how could they not?

If someone asked me who I was, I wouldn’t answer with age/gender/location. That’s not who I am. I’m a music lover, a surfer, a drummer, and I like breakfast sandwiches.

A co-worker once showed me a picture of Ludacris, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffet sitting together courtside at a basketball game, and it’s the perfect representation of how to reach people based on passions rather than demographics.

Affinio: How has Affinio helped you with targeting? Have you been able to run any campaigns that were solely driven by interest-base data instead of being built on broad demographic categories?

Craig: First, the fact that Translation and Affinio have the same targeting philosophy, the same “North Star” of passions over demographics, made this partnership a great fit.

Audience clustering in general is something everyone should be doing. Knowing the different segments of people who either talk about or follow you based on their interests and how who and what they proactively choose to hear from is invaluable information. Affinio does this in such an easily digestible way that it has really helped further the argument of passions vs. demographics internally.

The influencer grid might be my single favorite capability of any tool I’ve used. For one client, we were trying to grow one of the smaller segments of our audience. When narrowing down the influencers we wanted to use to help spread our message, we plotted each against our audience segments. There was one clear winner among that small target audience, and that’s the one we went with. Not only did it result in observable growth of that segment, but it was so much easier to sell it in to our client having that research for them to see.

The other side of that is that (I know that you guys have other data sources as well) right now we are primarily using Twitter as that source of information and people are starting to question if Twitter is enough. Nothing is ever perfect, and everything should be directional and a proxy for what is true, but it’s a challenge we face.

Affinio: We’ve had that feedback before around Twitter, but where else are you going to find a focus group of billions of people where you can understand their culture, interests, passions, content, influences, etc., in an unsupervised environment?

Craig: That’s the other thing, they aren’t being paid to express these feelings and opinions. It’s a proactive conversation in most instances, so it’s really the most honest take you’re going to get.

Affinio: If you think about how else you would collect that type of information, like a survey, your sample set might be quite small, you’re making a certain amount of assumptions, and there’s a lot of bias there. Executives will make multi-million dollar decisions off of a small sample when they are trying to target 10s of millions of people. When you are analyzing on Affinio, you have 100s of thousands, even millions of people to gain unbiased information from.

Craig: I’ve really never understood it, not when we have all this other research from a large, ongoing, unsupervised sample. But again it’s that mold that people are used to, like demographics.

The Best Part of Being a Researcher

Affinio: What is the coolest part of your job?

Craig: Seeing people’s eyes light up when you present them with something they’ve never heard before. I think that’s always been my favorite part of my job and always will be. Also helping my superiors crack a tough brief or paving the way for a new opportunity, that’s what I’m here for. And seeing that new idea come to life and be successful…I think that is the other coolest thing that someone could do in my position.