Insights on research in B2B PR and marketing agencies

Jane Hales went from forecasting the weather at the Met Office to forecasting countless predictions in the B2B and B2C marketing sectors. As one of several B2B PR agencies we often utilise research to inform or support client campaigns, and Jane is a great partner to have on board. We asked her where it all began and what’s changing in the B2B research landscape.

Jane, tell us about your background and how you got into research.

As is not uncommon for market researchers I fell into it by accident. My heart was set on having a job in environmental sciences. I wanted to save the world and keep our rivers clean. Instead, I learnt how to forecast the weather in the Met. Office and then got moved into a market research position as maternity leave cover. A temporary two-year stint in an agency quickly expanded to 20 plus years. Understanding what makes people rather than rain clouds tick suits me better as I’m a ‘why?’ child.

How have you seen the market research landscape evolve over the years?

The fundamentals of research haven’t changed but the way that we report findings has. I remember many a late night in my first agency, staying late for pizza while printing out the projector acetates. One error spotted lead to time consuming reprinting. I’m grateful for today’s digital documents!

When I first started, most data collection was through telephone interviews. Now, we only use that for hard-to-reach audiences. You’ve got to be tough to cope with the number of refusals telephone calls involve. Thankfully, pre-screened, opt in online interview survey panels provide much more certainty.

The biggest change is the world’s appreciation of data and the power it holds. Data analytics is sexy (at last!) right across the business. It’s not just conventional market research agencies talking about the power of insight. I think this data realisation will help the world innovate.

Thinking about B2B marketing, what’s changing there?

At Sapio we’ve seen a big shift in the B2B briefs coming through our door compared to pre-pandemic. Businesses pivoted quickly on instinct, but now they want greater confidence in their next move (or need to support the case for funding it).

Our biggest hitting web landing page right now is market opportunity assessment. We are working on B2C brands that want to go into B2B, and vice versa. The B2B world has moved more direct to consumer with recent supply chain challenges. There’s been a huge rise in the number of brands who want to understand the sentiment of their customers and what these new markets look like.

What areas of research do you think are underutilised by B2B PR agencies and similar? Are there ways marketers could gain more competitive edge or insight by adopting these?

Please don’t be offended but I think many PR agencies are potentially missing a trick by not using data and insights more strategically (we totally agree! – Editor.) A wealth of information is collected through research for content and storylines but it’s so much useful than that. If B2B PR agencies are running multiple studies for the same client, they are building treasure trove of insight. This data brought together and analysed from a different perspective can create new “aha” moments.

An agency holding the keys to new knowledge, spotting the gaps that a client has in its strategies or campaigns demonstrates its value and can open broader conversations with the client. Strategic insights can be found within content research and you’ll be loved for it.  Knowledge really is power!

What makes a B2B research project successful?

First, have a clear brief – I mean a business brief! Put into a single sentence what you want to do differently, what you want to find out, or the headlines do you want to achieve.

Next, avoid ‘scope creep’.  “While you’re there can we also ask this and this and this?”. The respondent loses focus, quality of response suffers and depth of analysis is lost. Stick to your brief.

Finally, only research your clients when you really need to. A lot of organisations put content research surveys to their client base but you can only ask them so many times. Keep them fresh for the important things like co-creation or customer satisfaction.

What are the barriers to success that you experience?

Unrealistic timescales. While we’re known for our swiftness of delivery, if we say that an in-depth, multi methodology project with customers and prospects will take eight weeks to produce personas, it’s based on experience. Research companies want to get to the answers as fast as possible too but it can take time. It’s important to plan well ahead.

What’s been your favourite research project recently, and why?

Last year we did a fascinating project on behalf the Institute of Customer Service. It was reviewing the green agenda from the perspective of company owners, corporate executives, employees, and consumers. It was amazing to hear during the in-depth interviews how a few internal champions and supplier compliance initiatives can make such a difference to the way consumers buy more sustainable things. There is a way to go but it gives you hope, particularly when you see consumers’ appetite for it. The report resulted in lots of actionable recommendations that companies can adopt to emulate some of the best in their class.

If you had one piece of advice for B2B marketers investing in research, what would it be?

Invest in a good taxonomy tool to keep a track of all those great nuggets you come across that don’t mean much in isolation but could be of use in the future. I’m not a techy but I’ve been told notion.so is great, as is Evernote.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

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