Will the future be a no-fly zone?

Brands and consultancies need seamless connections to customer insights and to each other. So what’s the solution when travel restrictions put these connections at risk? In this article, Onika Simon, intO’s Strategy Director, stresses that remote research isn’t only a safer necessity at the moment. It also offers a more sustainable approach for the future.

Scrolling through social media feeds during a global pandemic, you might see a lot of panic about what the future holds. Shoppers posting shots of empty shelves on Instagram, Twitter timelines filling up with Venmo and Cash App requests to help users pay their rent, and Facebook becoming a home-schooling hub for cishet parents of a certain age. LinkedIn however, appears to be a bubble of business as usual. 

Across my network of 1000+ people, at least, there seems to be little outward concern about project cancellations or client relationships being risked because of social distancing. Yet we all know it’s happening. The creative consulting industry (which includes marketing comms, media planning, design and innovation) was literally built on confident handshakes and whispers into ambitious ears. Fresh insights about human truths, and how and why behaviours change, is like blood flowing between consultancies and the brands they serve. So when direct contact has to cease abruptly and analogue processes don’t migrate smoothly onto digital platforms, there is good reason to panic. Projects and contracts are undoubtedly being cancelled, so it’s baffling that there are so few spaces where industry peers can share the resulting anxiety. Digital agencies and remote research consultancies now have a unique opportunity – to not only meet the increased demand for their services from brand clients, but to do so via partnerships with other agencies and consultancies that might need help to navigate these new ways of working. 

Studio intO, where I head up strategy, delivers custom insights that help businesses make informed decisions faster. These decisions are almost always about what to stand for and how to prove it. Many research companies and agencies deliver the exact same thing, which is why we have no qualms about partnering with them on projects that require broader expertise than they can manage alone. Our main point of differentiation, however, is that everyone on our global team of almost 60 people, works remotely. The benefits to this business model were not all intentional, but after nine years of learning-by-doing, we’re in a position to support brands directly or in partnership with agencies, consultancies and even other research teams. Well before the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, we became a safe space for our clients and partners to share their challenges and to access answers and guidance from anyone, anywhere in the world, in record time. But here are three reasons to get in touch, whether your upcoming research plans are being compromised, or you simply want to explore a more sustainable and efficient approach to global research, moving forward.

  1.   We’re intO local access on a global scale

We have over 50 Local Experts spread across six continents – and by ‘local’ we mean that none of them are expats, so they are supremely qualified to navigate their own communities and cultures. This is especially important when accessing niche groups or finding folks with emerging behaviour patterns, and it makes our recruitments faster and more accurate. Truly local experts are also able to observe, moderate and analyse research with less decoding and no translation required. Everyone on the intO team has also worked or studied in another country (usually the US or the UK), so we develop recommendations together and work hard to make sure we keep an international perspective.

  1.   We’re intO saving the planet by staying at home

The biggest advantage of remote research is that no one has to travel, which means that money is saved. However, the majority of businesses are also eager to reduce or offset their carbon footprint. According to carbonfootprint.com, the carbon cost of sending one employee abroad (flight, commute, accommodation, dining) is 9.25 tonnes of CO2. As a comparative reference, the average household in the UK emits 2.7 tonnes of CO2 every year by heating their home. So, if everyone stops flying for business, the net-positive impact would make a huge difference to the climate crisis. Furthermore, while ‘remote’ can mean that research is run in-person by Local Experts, it can also refer to qualitative research that’s conducted solely online. There is a pervasive mistrust of this approach because yes, it means ceding visibility and control over respondents. However, Tom Woodnutt has recently written this article that extols the virtues of online qualitative studies, and aligns perfectly with our perspective. To summarise, online respondents give researchers more time, more detail, more honesty and more personal information when they are in the comfort of their own private spaces and on their own schedules. They can also share their own videos and photos more easily. The pros vastly outweigh the cons.

  1.   We’re intO the future of work

Our company culture is all about soft power, i.e. led by empathy with employees’ needs rather than keeping up corporate appearances, powered by collective output rather than individual performance, and helmed by a leadership team of four women (three of us being mums) and one man. We also embrace the fact that answers and insights can come from anywhere, so make a point of hiring folks who are also weaving multiple work/life strands into remarkable lives. Such interesting people are rarely available full-time, though. They tend to have fluid geographies and availability, so we acknowledge this and show that we value it with custom contracts.

So what next? We are on standby to support anyone needing to pivot an existing project, or time-sensitive proposal, to a remote research approach. Currently, our three most requested scopes of work are:

  • Local investigations: running digital qual (interviews and diaries) to get fast answers, or to track updates on a focused subject
  • Parallel market responses: assessing concepts or prototypes in multiple markets at the same time, or in a relay across time-zones 
  • Proxy relationship building: we often act as an auxiliary partner or extended team for other agencies, which means that our Local Experts can be utilised to attend or moderate meetings that are critical to project continuation or keeping alliances warm

Alternatively, if you’re planning ahead and interested in discussing how remote methods could enhance future projects, intO’s Founder and Managing Director, Joanna Brasset, has set up bookable remote video appointments for anyone who would like to talk. 

You can book a 30-minute video call into Joanna’s diary by following this link.



(Photo by Oliver Cole on Unsplash)

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