Trend spotting for fun and profit

Every marketer wants to know when the next trend will arrive. Software firms provide that crystal ball. Algorithms parse the gigabytes. Yet no two ways of doing this are alike.

Vision Critical is in that business. The Vancouver, Canada-based firm is taking a hybrid approach towards trend spotting. Yes, its Sparq tool set depends on data. But it also relies on “communities of interest”–people who want to participate in how a product or service gets used and rated.

“Data alone is not enough,” said Tyler Douglas, chief sales and marketing officer. “Understanding ‘why’ is where the science of market research plays a role…Context is what we are driving for.” Douglas drew a very clear distinction between a focus group and an “insight community”. Yes, marketers and pollsters use focus groups to gather insights. But the focus group is strictly transactional, Douglas noted. A pollster only works with a focus group for a single day.

“[They] gather the data and you feel like you helped somebody or you feel like you were used,” Douglas said. The respondent has no idea if their answers made any difference. “We help enterprises build a community of customers–people who choose to participate.” Douglas said.

An “insight community” seeks to establish a relationship between the customer and the company, with a group of customers providing a representative sample of information that can stand in for customers as a whole. This method can become extra insightful with customers who participate in the “sharing economy”, namely people who use web-based services like Uber and Air BnB. These companies are pretty much reinventing their industries by putting their customers in the center , relying on their feedback and insights to sharpen their product and service offerings, he explained.

Recruiting people for an insight community can come from any source. A company can make a list of them by combing through its CRM records and issuing invites. Or a firm can find names of users on Twitter or Facebook. One outfit printed its contact information on poster-sized ads pasted up on the walls of the London Underground.

The main tool for corralling customer information is Vision Critical’s Sparq intelligence platform. Customer feedback can be gathered and analyzed by the customer. It can provide data-based answers that help explain what has happened with a product in the market, or it can analyze customer feedback to deduce trends that may occur in the near future, checking on the interest community for guidance.

Like any app, Sparq will require some training to use, Douglas noted. Vision Critical can also provide customer support to help solve business problems using Sparq. Like any SaaS tool, Sparq is leased to the customer, who only needs to park their data with Vision Critical. Updates are made quarterly, also based on customer feedback, to eliminate problems and improve the product.

In the end, Vision Critical is doing what many other firms are also trying to do: use 21st century tools to take retail back to the 19th century. It sounds puzzling on first reading, but Douglas explained it this way. When a customer went to a store to buy something, chances were quite good that proprietor knew his customer, knew what he wanted and could deal with the customer as an individual. Technology is used to rebuild that relationship, Douglas noted.

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