Paul Hudson on Engaging Cities with Insight (& What It Means For You)
How do we, as researchers, drive business action? That’s the question that dominates significant potion of my working life. After all, there is a constant stream of new data collection techniques, new technologies and new models of working that are driving the insights industry forward. But we’re still stuck in the same loop when it comes to converting our work into business decisions.
For many researchers I talk to, the frustration is that the profession is perceived only as a subset of marketing - and struggles to influence non-marketing decisions. Others feel even more limited, as just one source of information in a sea of many.
There’s frequent talk at conferences of becoming better storytellers, of integrating infographics & video into debriefs, and positioning the role of insights. But I question how effective these measures are in changing engrained organisational beliefs and behaviours. Sure, these ideas may make presentations more entertaining. Perhaps even embed data into audiences’ memories for longer. But is that real engagement? I’d argue not.
To me engagement is about active, willing and genuine interest in a topic. To achieve real stakeholder engagement, and to activate insight in decision-making processes, we need to move audiences out of the role of passive observer to that of active participant.
Art and Engagement
In late 2019, FlexMR embarked on a new journey. One that sought to solve the challenges of stakeholder engagement and insight activation. We sought inspiration from a range of disciplines, including social sciences, creative arts and business fields. Our team quickly realised that the most impactful method of engineering engagement would be to focus on the reporting method.
By borrowing psychological principles and marketing tactics, we believed that it would be possible to develop reporting methods so unique and creative that they would naturally spark conversations and encourage the behaviours we wanted to nurture. The final piece of this puzzle fell into place as we settled on art as a medium for our experiment.
Throughout the ages, art has had a long and proud history of sparking conversations on a grand, societal scale. From voicing protest and driving societal change, to encouraging empathy and helping audiences cope with complex emotions - art embodies a potent tool that has had profound impacts on the world we inhabit today. But could it engender change of a small scale, within the confines of organisational structure? That is what we aimed to find out.
Over the course of three months, FlexMR invited 30+ consumer brands to work with us on this experiment. The Insight as Art project, as it was dubbed, began with a simple question board, in which consumers were encouraged to share their thoughts, opinions perceptions of each brand. This qualitative data was then interpreted by a team of researchers, writers and artists – who translated major themes into a subject and style upon which a unique artwork was developed.
Once the artwork for each brand had been developed, physical copies were distributed to research teams to share with key stakeholders and decision makers. The results were exactly as we had hoped; the medium was novel enough to encourage these audiences to truly engage. What did the artwork mean? Why did consumers think that of the brand? What could be done to modify those perceptions? These were all questions and conversations the project stimulated from its audience.
Though not entirely practical in most situations, the team were pleased to call the project a success. It was proof that creative reporting methods can have a significant impact on insight engagement and activation. Ultimately, we learnt unusual reporting formats stimulate conversation among stakeholders, but it is still vitally important that this debate is steered by researchers with a deep understanding of the data to ensure accurate interpretations.
A Tale of Two Cities
In 2020, we decided to relaunch the Insight as Art project to demonstrate the benefits of creative reporting to an even wider audience. And to help us achieve that, we took residents’ opinions of two of the world’s most recognisable cities – London & New York - and give them a full artistic treatment. These two examples showcase how complex themes and multiple opinions can work together in order to create striking visuals that leave a lasting impression.
London, as described by qualitative research
There’s no other place in the world quite like London. The design of the fantastical bird that forms the subject of the piece draws inspiration from the positive associations citizens have with the city’s multi-culturalism.
A vibrant creature, captured mid-flight, this subject is a symbolic metaphor for the adrenaline fuelled, enthusiastic race that is life in the UK capital. But a dynamic lifestyle that chases opportunities takes energy and financial resources to sustain - represented by the motion implied just to keep afloat.
The background of the piece, created by blending a Renaissance sky with modern techniques, highlights the sense of pride associated with the city’s past. But it is one that clashes with modern progress, causing very real tensions that can make life in London more challenging and even more expensive.
Above all, what this artwork captures is the delicate, dream like beauty of life for residents who are striving ardently to rise above the hidden perils and challenges the capital presents.
New York, as described by qualitative research
New York is Disneyland for adults. Bold, bright and crammed full of entertainment - the city is described by residents as being a world of its own, represented in this piece by a series of isolated islands.
Life is described as electric and always on, highlighted by the vibrant colour palette and galactic setting. Much of the city is seen as performative, leading to a fun lifestyle that distracts from the challenges New Yorkers face. The floating islands reference a lack of space, and each activity comes at a financial cost. It’s easy to be swept up in the joy and speed of this utopian piece, but it is the lack of physical room and lack of those that cannot afford a place that reflects the hidden nature of the city’s challenges.
Ultimately, it is the visual novel and hyper-reality inspired style of this piece that captures the genuine excitement that New Yorkers expressed about their city, the opportunities it offers and its larger-than-life presence.
Lessons and Key Takeaways
Over the course of the Insight as Art project, we’ve learnt a lot about engagement, activation and what it means to change the culture of an organisation. Here are the key takeaways that you can implement today.
CEO and Founder of FlexMR, Paul has over 20 years of market research experience. As an experienced online researcher, Paul remains active within the insights industry and is dedicated to innovating market research techniques for online application. You can follow Paul on Twitter and connect with him on LinkedIn.