Gain a Competitive Edge Through Proactive Research

Market research traditionally has often been reactive – and reactive research is necessary for many projects. But what about proactive research (which some call proactive insights)? What is proactive research? When should we use it, and how do we implement it so it helps with a customer-centric approach?

“Insights people, in general, tend to be more reactive,” said Kyle Papanikolas, global insights senior director at McDonald’s, on an episode of the market research podcast “Reel Talk: The Customer Insights Show.” “And what I mean by that is somebody comes to you and says, ‘hey, I have a business problem I need to solve.’ Or ‘I have a point I’m trying to make.’ Could you help me support it? And then we go and get the answers that they need.”

But, in addition to these requests, there are plenty of other areas that don’t get studied but could be explored and drive business results through proactive research, Kyle said.

What is proactive research?

Proactive research means that we – the insights professionals – probe areas of customer behavior, feedback, and other communications, and the activity doesn’t stem from a request.

In other words: Researchers, marketers, or anyone who needs to understand the customers are proactively researching areas that can help improve the customer experience.

Read next: What does it mean when companies are democratizing research?

Why is reactive research so common?

Kyle said pressure, the volume of research requests, and resource constraints all play a factor here. People have many questions that need to be answered through research, and then there’s a limited amount of projects any team can take on.

In addition, Kyle said, some researchers are more on the introverted side of personalities.

“And I’m that way in many ways,” Kyle said. “So you feel like you have to wait for somebody to ask you something before you go ahead and do it.”

In addition, entire days are spent answering people’s questions or pulling data (i.e., reactive research). Kyle said that doesn’t leave much – or any – time for proactive research.

"It becomes very difficult to create a safe space to explore."

What are the advantages and challenges of proactive research?

Proactive research can be a bit more nebulous than reactive research. It’s precise and actionable when somebody asks for an advertising test. But, on the other hand, it’s not that clear-cut when you go out and study the future of mobility, Kyle said. But when coupled with foresight best practices, proactive research can lead to long-term business impact.

“Proactive research can take you in many different directions,” Kyle said. “But I would say it’s kind of fun to go outside the bounds of the typical day-to-day stuff.”

Kyle added that proactive research can also build credibility within the business for the insights function. For example, at McDonald’s, the team has a monthly meeting with executives and can share some of the results from proactive research in those meetings.

“The biggest advantage we’ve seen is that this has opened up a lot more doors for us to do other things,” Kyle said, adding that the executive team and the rest of the company are acknowledging that they can do more than reactive research.


Staying on top of things

Greg Ambrose, a Toronto-based strategy, loyalty, and research professional, said that proactive research also tries to anticipate what questions the business might need answered in the near future.

“The only way you are going to do that as a research professional is when you fundamentally understand the nature of your business, what matters to the senior leaders across your business and where the business is going,” he said on “Reel Talk.”

Proactive research also helps teams stay current. Things change, new trends emerge, consumer loyalty moves from one brand to another.

“How do you make sure you got that ongoing pulse?” he said.

Sometimes the answer is directional research, and other times an exact answer is required.



One challenge can be to drive business results because businesses often focus on short-term results.

“It’s difficult to bring something back into the business outside of that and make it meaningful,” Kyle said.

Read next: How foresight can help your brand be ready for the future

Occasionally others in a company might find the proactive research results interesting but then return to what they’ve always done.

“That can be a bit frustrating and is a challenge of proactive research,” Kyle said.

Another challenge can be to pick the right area to focus on with proactive research. For example, does it make sense to choose a narrower topic or go more comprehensively, or should we explore the market outside the company’s vertical?

And when you go too broad, people might say that’s interesting, but Kyle said people might say, “I don’t know what it has to do with McDonald’s.”

“So now what we do is go broad and say ‘what’s going on with humans in that space – like gender inequality, for example – and then we find a way to bring it back to the business in a meaningful way to where people will say ‘oh, now I get how that applies back to my business,'” Kyle said.

"Making the connection to the business need is the richest part of all of this. That's where you can actually make a difference."

Getting the buy-in

Research can have an impact when people use it in decision-making and implementation. That can happen when people take ownership of it.

“What I’m not doing is researching over here in the corner and then say, ‘hey, food will look like this in 10 years,’ but what I actually do is I partner with many different functions and bring them along the way. Then, hopefully, they feel ownership and accountability when the results come out.”

Read next: How to share customer feedback with employees

Becoming a strategic partner to add the lens of the consumer

Creating a culture of proactive research elevates insights teams to becoming strategic partners in the business. Ultimately, that can help the company drive more results through customer-centric decisions that are informed by research.

“In all my years of research, the goal has always been that we want to be strategic partners,” said Jill Burnett, a global insights expert. “But the reality often is that we tend to be more reactionary.”

"Companies want the lens of the consumer and it's our role to show how we bring that."

What’s the lens of the customer?

The lens of the customer is to understand what the customer wants and needs and how they see things. That can be accomplished by understanding them – for example, through conversational insights – and genuinely empathizing with what they are going through and what their Jobs to Be Done are.

Some companies signal this by having an empty chair in the board room, but it goes deeper than that. Companies have to understand what the customer’s journey is.

“It’s our role to show how we bring that,” Jill said. “If you are an insights manager and you don’t think you have the room, you might have to get scrappy on how to do that.”

Making insights actionable

“We have to make sure our insights are actionable, and we have to show the link between what decision-makers are struggling over and are pondering with,” Jill said. “It’s on us to make the link with the business and with the strategic outcome.”

Once others see the value and that it can make their jobs easier, the strategic partnership has been formed, said Jenn Mancusi, Voxpopme’s chief revenue officer and host of “Reel Talk.”

“A lot of us research nerds would be happy just pouring through data all day and never come up for air,” added Jill. “But a lot of it is talking and understanding the needs. And being so connected and so integrated with the business that you are able to make those links.”

Use the right tools to support you

I shared the importance of automation and choosing the right software before, and Jill said technology solutions can really make it easier for researchers to share results.

“You don’t have to just show a bar chart or a trend chart,” she said. “You can give voice now to these findings. And that resonates so well across teams.”

“It adds a layer of insights that people remember and pay attention to,” said Jenn. “Actually connecting a face and a voice to the insight, it makes it more snackable and really creates empathy.”

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