Always-on research – why marketers need real-time insights to stay ahead

Published May 18, 2022

Phil Ahad, Chief Digital Officer at Toluna

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Originally published by WARC and ANA.

With consumer behavior and sentiment changing ever more quickly, historical data is no longer enough for brands, argues Toluna’s Phil Ahad.

For brands, customer data is everything. Established brands that have been collecting data for years have traditionally had the upper hand over their competitors – largely due to a goldmine of rich customer insights that help inform future business decisions. But times are changing, and historical insights aren’t quite as valuable as they once were.

The pace of change in consumer sentiment has been steadily increasing over the years, and this was further accelerated by the pandemic. In fact, so much has changed in recent years that past behavior is not quite as reliable when it comes to predicting future outcomes. Although historical data will always have a role to play, real-time insights are becoming increasingly important for marketers.

An always-on approach

Today’s speed of change means that brands must constantly have their finger on the pulse of consumers by adopting an ‘always-on’ approach. To be ‘always on’ is to have a constant, circular flow of information; brands must ensure a consistent stream of communications to their consumers and prospects, while also researching the reactions to those communications in real time.

This approach allows brands to develop and test new ideas, adjust, and continually refine until they have campaigns or products they know are going to be well received. In fact, this approach is much more beneficial for brands. The ability to test any changes to products or services in real time – and make any necessary changes before it hits the masses – can be the difference between success and failure.

Less is more

Traditional research projects, which can take months to complete, often require hundreds of questions to fully understand respondents – but it’s not necessary to ask so many questions when moving to a more consistent, always-on model. You don’t want to end up in a situation where you have so much data that it’s paralyzing; where there’s simply too much information that you don’t know where to begin.

While it’s tempting to ask thousands of questions about customers and collect thousands of data points, it’s usually better to focus on the main goal and find out: is my campaign messaging going to stick? Is my audience going to be receptive to this type of product or solution? Asking fewer questions, but making sure they’re the right questions, will help streamline data collection and make it easier to gather useful, intelligent insights that inform critical business decisions.

Authenticity breeds loyalty

Like it or not, social media and the 24/7 news cycle means that consumers themselves are ‘always on,’ and as such, they discover issues in real time. In this market, there’s no place to hide. If your product doesn’t do what it claims to do, those issues will be quickly discovered.

But this isn’t necessarily bad news. Consumers expect brands to be authentic and transparent, and they’re more forgiving of companies who can be honest and own up to their mistakes than those who try to sweep things under the rug. Getting real-time customer feedback allows businesses to determine a path forward based on the changing needs of the consumer. It’s a constant game of identifying issues, going back to the drawing board, adjusting, and pushing forward.

At the end of the day, brands learn more from their mistakes and missteps than successes, so any brand that can take on negative feedback and communicate their changes in a real and authentic way will go a long way to establishing trust and loyalty amongst their core customers. And with brand switching and ‘trading down’ more common than ever, even the most established brands need to work hard to earn and maintain customer loyalty in this climate.

The future of insights

Today’s consumers – from how they spend their time, to how they shop, and which brands they choose to support – are like nothing we’ve seen before. They are quick to switch, quick to comment, quick to abandon, and quick to buy. Looking back on the performance of a marketing campaign from 2019 can’t be the only avenue to gather insights, because that seemingly recent historical data can be out of touch for today’s consumer.

In today’s climate, businesses need access to insights that match the speed of the changing landscape. And thanks to the rapid advancement of research technologies, insights can be uncovered in days or hours, with brands able to watch their survey responses ticking through in real-time, getting a sense of where the findings are headed before the research is complete.

Businesses need to focus more of their resources on developing an always-on approach. They’ll need to re-learn who their core audiences are and what’s important to them; they’ll need to update their communications strategies to create a more circular flow of information; and they’ll need to streamline their data collection strategies to ensure they consistently make the right decisions at the right time.

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