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Skills and Talents Needed for the Future of Insights

Posted On  December 5, 2016

I’m often asked, “What are the skills and talents needed for the next generation of Consumer Insights?” Honestly, I have been thinking about this question for at least 15 years. Let me explain.

In September of 2001, I was working in Consumer Insights at a large corporation when the twin towers came down. The next day, one of my departmental colleagues applied to join the CIA to go fight the bad guys. He was hired. A few years after that, my cousin’s wife took her PhD in Women’s Studies and converted it into a position at the CIA, where she did qualitative analysis. I remember being rather surprised that the CIA needed the skills of the “researcher” and “consumer insights” specialist, but I came to learn over time that there were many similarities. In fact, if you think of the government as a big business, the NSA, CIA and several smaller teams make up the “Insights” function.  Lots of quant and qual work.  Smart analysts who can tell stories.  And a big focus on the “so what®?”

In business, intelligence matters now more than ever.  Markets are more dynamic.  Technology threats appear faster and can disrupt successful business models in short order.  Businesses are under constant pressure and threat.  I’ve asked myself and my team, “How can we respond faster?”  “How can we be more agile?”

We have begun to use a phrase at LRW that I think represents a meaningful change in all of our jobs. It’s called “Deep Listening,” and it will be a significant part of the future of Consumer Insights.  In short, Deep Listening is about harnessing technology to listen to all of the conversations that consumers are having in the public sphere of websites, chat rooms, forums, social media and the like.  In a decade this world has exploded and represents a massive resource to understand market dynamics and the consumer experience.

The skills, capabilities, protocols, science and technology of this data and analysis are new and different.  Many in Consumer Insights have struggled to deliver Intelligence from this source of data that can drive real business decisions because, in effect, we just got transferred from the Census Department to the CIA.


Doing work on large, unstructured datasets like those in Deep Listening requires a different mindset and different tools.  In traditional “Asking” research (e.g. like research by the Census), the person doing the asking has a tremendous amount of control in the process.  They define the hypotheses, operationalize the constructs, select the samples and execute a well-defined set of analyses.  In “Deep Listening,” we have to exercise a very different set of muscles that represent new skills that must be built or acquired and are far less black and white.

  1. Pattern Recognition: While we can indeed test hypotheses, Deep Listening is far more emergent.  We have to dig deep into the data to find patterns and new hypotheses.
  2. Creativity: Constructs cannot be as neatly defined.  We have to specify the measurement of the available data to link to a construct.  It won’t be perfect or nearly as neat as when we were able to “just ask a question.”  But it will be rich and from the consumer’s own voice and behavior.
  3. Inference: Representative sampling is a wonderful standard of inference to a population.  But it is not the only standard.  Most of the science of medicine and psychology comes from tests of difference which infer cause and effect relationships.
  4. Imagination: With a new body of data to analyze, we are going to need to create the new analyses of the future.  At LRW, and among our clients, I see these being invented.  But it will be another decade before the nascent tools of Deep Listening will be anywhere close to “standard.”

We began our own journey into Deep Listening about four years ago.  We found individuals in our organization with the above skills and a passion for building something and began our work.  Our recent acquisition of MotiveQuest was an acknowledgment that others had built good ideas too, and that together we could accomplish the journey faster and with better results for our clients.  But what is clear to me across this journey is that we need to hire and develop a new breed of analyst.

As we look to nurture and seek out new skills and talents needed for the next generation of Consumer Insights, I think the above list is a pretty good starting point for anyone trying to take a strong group from a Census Department orientation more towards the CIA.


  1. Pattern recognition, creativity, inference, and imagination are 4 critical skills needed to generate the kinds of deep insights that can change the game for companies and brands. Our people exhibit these skills on a daily basis, seeing what others might miss and identifying new growth opportunities for our clients.

  2. The power of deep listening is that it delivers answers to the questions that never occurred to you to ask.


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