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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Inside consumer insight

by Torsten Bernewitz

With the implications of the Affordable Care Act, many payers are concluding that a key success factor for the health insurance industry is to create effective ways to win, retain and influence consumers, who for a long time have not enjoyed a lot of the payers' marketing attention. A number of companies have declared that they want to become "consumer-centric", but on average the industry has still a very long way to go to achieve such a vision.
What does it really mean to become "consumer-centric"? What new capabilities do we need to create? What can we learn from other industries that have a long history in engaging consumers effectively? What will be easy, what will be harder?
In a recent post (, I proposed that to embrace the direct-to-consumer marketing model, payers must become excellent on four dimensions:
  1. Consumer insights
  2. Consumer engagement
  3. Simplicity and openness
  4. Stakeholder alignment
Today, I want to go deeper into the first dimension - gaining deep consumer insights:
If we want to engage consumers more effectively, we need to learn more about them first.
Deep insights about the consumer constitute the platform upon which we can build our customer relationships. They help prioritize the groups we want to target, and identify the leverage points we can use to attract and bind them to our offerings.
We need consumer insights to develop the right strategies to build the brand, develop and refine products and services, price them right and promote them effectively. We must understand the demographics, needs, resources, attitudes, choices and behaviors of different consumer groups. What are their channel preferences and service level expectations? How are they connected socially? How do they respond to different ways of interacting with them? How attractive is each segment for us, both in the short term and the long term? What will it take to identify, win and retain segment members?
Obtaining consumer insights - in particular insights that create competitive advantage - is much more than marketing research, more than “knowing the facts”.
Traditionally, market research tries to find an answer to a specific question, or test a hypothesis in a structured way. It is usually pre-defined, granular, focused on reporting back responses. Building customer insights goes significantly beyond this – it is the process of turning observations and signals into revelations about the consumer that inspire ideas and action:
  1. Consumer insights emerge from a holistic perspective and the integration of signals across a variety of sources.
  2. They include unprompted signals and can be – in contrast to periodic, individual studies to answer a specific business question – “always on”.
  3. Consumer insights search for the meaning of signals, and link them to a business decision and action.
  4. They include “Eureka” moments, where we discover something about the consumer that we did not know before, challenging our current thinking, and inspiring new ideas.
Gaining superior, game-winning consumer insights means looking where others don’t look, finding what others don’t find. Marketing gurus like Philip Kotler and Mohan Sawhney view this type of “consumer insight” as critical for marketing success.
If we want to make the transition to become more consumer-centric, we have to master this second, parallel, shift: the move from traditional marketing research approaches to building capabilities allowing us to “fish for knowledge” in vast, unstructured “oceans” of data and information. We may have some caching up to do, and perhaps it is beneficial to look over the fence and learn from other industries that already have a long history in engaging consumers effectively.
Ubiquitous internet access, online shopping channels for virtually anything, social media, GPS-enabled smartphones and other devices etc., are already transforming many retail markets. There is no reason to expect that healthcare will be an exception – health issues already count among the most researched topics on the internet.
User generated content on social networks, blogs, forums, chat rooms etc. provides previously unavailable opportunities to “listen in” - in real time - to the consumer and observe social habits and behaviors without bias. New streams of cheap, previously unavailable data are filling up and enriching the oceans of consumer information. Not only does this emphasize the need for integration of many disparate sources and synthesis of meaning to fish for valuable insights, it also creates innovative opportunities to engage with consumers, as illustrated by the following four examples:
  1. Geo-marketing: GPS enabled smartphones allow us not only to target the right consumer with the right messages, but now also at the right time and in the right location. A number of companies have begun using location based social networking services as a way to interact with consumers, offering discounts or other incentives to customers who “check-in” at their store (which means posting on a social networking site where they are). Last year retailer GAP attracted thousands of consumers into their stores through offering them the chance of winning a pair of jeans or receive a significant discount on any regularly priced item. Earlier this year, French automaker Peugeot started a campaign to target users when they are near one of their 400 dealers across France and invite them to make a small detour and test drive the Peugeot RCZ model. Geo-marketing could be an interesting opportunity for health insurers as well, for example enabling them to reach out to consumers with specific messages about adherence, coverage benefits, health maintenance questions etc. when they are near a pharmacy or “check-in” at a doctor’s office. It can also help to avoid sending messages when the time or place is not right, thus reducing the risk of annoying the consumer.
  2. Field experimentation: Consumer companies like Capital One, EBay and Google regularly engage small fractions of their customers in field experiments to test new business concepts. Health insurers could make use of consumer field experiments as well to test how consumers respond to communications, service offerings etc. The advantage of these experiments is that they test the actual behavior of the participants, e.g., show what choices they make under different circumstances, allowing to observe, in a contained, “safe” environment, what consumers actually do, not what they say they will do.
  3. Co-creation: Companies like P&G, Reebok and even Harley Davidson are taking consumer insights to the next level. These companies have created brand communities where they involve consumers in the creation of products and information. German cosmetics company Beiersdorf used co-creation with consumers to develop a new deodorant for its Nivea brand. Toymaker Lego has boosted sales significantly by recruiting fans to participate in its innovation effort. BMW calls their co-creation lab “a virtual meeting place for individuals interested in cars and all related topics, who want to share their ideas and opinions on tomorrow's automotive world”, and “invites people from all over the world to contribute their suggestions for specific topics and to connect with like-minded others.” This direct channel of two-way (or multi-way) communication provides immediate feedback, brings new ideas to the forefront, and creates a sense of consumer participation that goes a long way in building trust and loyalty. For health insurers, similar communities could significantly enhance the communication with and among consumers as well as healthcare providers.
  4. Crowd-sourcing: On a similar line as co-creation, companies like 3M, IBM, Dell or Starbucks proactively solicit from consumers proposals for solutions to specific challenges or problems. This approach of “crowd-sourcing” is based on the observation that consumers, as a large group, have specialized and accurate knowledge about issues that concern them, knowledge which they are amazingly motivated to share when given the opportunity. Ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s used crowd-sourcing to develop new flavors, and Coca Cola solicited consumer ideas in the development of a new vitamin water drink, and the graphics and labels to go with it. A large number of open innovation websites facilitate crowd-sourcing in many areas ranging from R&D, software development and design to marketing and branding, trend prediction and general problem solving. Crowd-sourcing could be an interesting approach to engage both providers and consumers in the quest for win-win solutions to healthcare challenges.
How can we build the capability to create valuable consumer insights?
First of all, investment in technology is required to acquire state-of-the-art data integration and “insights fishing” tools. Second, employees’ knowledge and analytic skills may need to be enhanced as well, and perhaps hiring of experts from CPG or technology oriented companies could accelerate the transition to become more consumer focused.
Third, the holistic approach demands an effective cross-functional approach across intra-organizational boundaries, e.g., marketing, analytics, product development, database management, and IT. It may also create the need for increasing reliance on vendors with highly specialized expertise, for example in data integration, web-analytics, social media listening, or geo-marketing.
Finally, we may need to align on a new way of thinking and a new vocabulary about business information. For example, what exactly defines a “consumer insight” and how is it different from other information? How is a small insight different from a large one, i.e. how do we prioritize and rate them? Where do we store our consumer insights and how do we make them available to the right stakeholders and decision makers?

Torsten Bernewitz is a healthcare industry analyst and management consultant.
He is Managing Principal, Healthcare Insurers and Payers at
ZS Associates.

This post is the author’s own and does not necessarily represent ZS Associates’ positions, strategies or opinions.

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