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According to a majority of brands, AI-enabled consumer intelligence is most critical tool for social transformation in 2021

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In a survey of over 50 global brands, exploring current and future use of classical and AI-enabled insights, marketing leaders shared their plans for 2021:

  • 75% plan to complement classical methods with social media intelligence (SI)
  • 55% selected AI-enabled SI to be the most critical tool in driving change
  • 46% see SI as the most critical tool to democratize insights within their organization

It's clear that fast, budget-efficient, no-touch research methodologies are now complementing, if not overtaking more traditional approaches to consumer insight. We asked some of the industry leaders to review their current strategies and plans for the future, and reconcile the true impact of social data on their performance this year.

Scalable insights? Or personalization at scale?

As brands strive to prove their purpose, they must demonstrate an intimate understanding of the consumer. This year has been all about responding to rapidly changing buyer behaviors and the fight to remain relevant. From high demand for certain products and new acquisition channels, through to environmental concerns and small business support, social media conversations reflect the growing expectations businesses across all industries have faced. “Consumers at heart” has gradually become a foundation for a successful strategy, rather than a long-term goal, or worse, a nice-to-have.

Brands are struggling to find authentic and innovative ways of accessing key audiences to accelerate consumer-centricity. What previously was seen as the ultimate consumer access, focus groups and field ethnography, is costly at best and unrealistically slow as a go-to practice. Not only due to restrictions enforced during the pandemic, but also due to limited resources, and speed of changing culture. In our survey, only 9% of respondents saw focus groups as the most critical tool in improving consumer centricity next year. Field ethnography was acknowledged as a success driver by only 6%. 

Forward-thinking organizations realize that social intelligence, if used appropriately and powered by the right technology, can significantly increase the success rate of consumer engagement (according to 53% of participants). Steering away from traditional social listening, those enterprises have moved to AI-enabled SI to stay relevant and improve experience and products at the speed of the web and evolving cultural context.

Trends, brands, and tribes are the most important use cases

The three use cases where brands see social intelligence making the biggest and immediate impact are "trend detection and monitoring", "brand equity tracking", and "audience and tribes analysis and segmentation". 

Trend tracking and prediction has been particularly popular with respondents, who are keen to optimize their go-to market, and product launches in particular. Identifying weak signals which have potential to go mainstream is also an invaluable resource when it comes to innovation. This ties in with our previous research and findings on the impact of the Coronavirus on the CPG industry, hygiene in particular. As stated by RB’s Senior Design Researcher & Strategist Max Berney:  “brands have an obligation to encourage and support consumer lifestyle changes, and widen product offerings in response to circumstance changes”. 

From (almost) zero to hero - investment in social intelligence is on the rise

Marketing budgets prior to the coronavirus outbreak prioritized qualitative research (35%) and online ethnography (32%), with almost a third (29%) of participants seeing social intelligence as the least important stream. The dependence on methods such as focus groups and surveys meant that brands often limited their customer knowledge. The majority of respondents were at ease with frameworks which can take up to several months to yield results. 

Whilst still an important source of insights, brands today are clear that a faster method is needed in order to complement traditional approaches. Half of participants agree that investment in AI-enabled consumer insights must be brought to the forefront, sometimes to the detriment of methods which are perhaps better known but less effective during and post pandemic.

Democratization of insights and data are needed 

While the importance and impact of social intelligence is recognized by the majority of brands, businesses admit that they’re behind when it comes to implementation and adoption. Only a fifth (21%) of participants say their use of social intelligence is "advanced", as defined by "using AI-enabled consumer insights to guide discovery of trends and audiences, and seeing well-structured data as key in measuring their brands’ equity and resonance with communities". Moderate use, as defined as campaign tracking, competitor benchmarking, and influencer discovery, is used by about a third (35%) of respondents. These teams have mastered operational use of social data, and while some have dipped toes in strategic initiatives, most haven’t yet realized how to make findings relevant to the wider business. 

In order for a brand to become truly consumer-driven, the whole organization from R&D through to product and sales must trust data and see it as a driving factor in success. The goal for 2021 and beyond should be to ensure data serves as a single source of truth to all business divisions, who are able to work with insights and take actions as a result. 

What’s next? Moving from Social Listening to AI-enabled Insights

It took a decade for social intelligence to evolve from an important tool for digital-forward brands, to an essential tool for every global brand. Findings from this year’s survey indicate that leading organizations are now entering a new stage: a need to go beyond retrospective and descriptive analytics for tracking purposes, into predictive and prescriptive consumer intelligence for innovation, customer experience, and relevancy among psychographic groups, or Tribes.

Brands are learning the art of data triage: combining AI-enabled consumer intelligence with classical methods to get the speed, scope, and accessibility of the former, while using the latter to follow-up and where the need to solicit questions or pose hypotheticals is required. Successful consumer insight leaders will build a well-balanced research toolkit that delivers on both approaches and moves at the speed of digital culture.

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