Consumer closeness: the unexpected ingredient for better storytelling

Discover how consumer closeness can transform research into impactful storytelling by bringing new characters, obstacles and journeys to life.

Two women talking to each other
Two women talking to each other

Andrea Nienstedt

29 May 2024

5 min read

There’s no question about brands needing to stay current with evolving consumers. And there’s no question about the pressure many individuals and teams are under to unlock new segments or markets – all by way of the ever-elusive hot, fresh, new insights.

Have you ever started a project with the goal of finding “hot,” “fresh,” or “new” insights? Whatever the approach, you didn’t know exactly what you were looking for, just that it needed to be fresh and exciting.

How many of those projects delivered something groundbreaking? Or at least something really compelling? Did any of them?

Let’s talk about the pitfalls of this kind of fishing expedition and something else you might try instead. Obviously, we all want fresh insights. No one is looking for all the stale information they can get their hands on. The trouble is how we go about finding those insights.

Often, organisations come to us with that exact charge, “help me find something fresh on….” But when we get into the research, they want to approach it in the same way they’ve always done. Same secondary data, same survey questions, same sample. And somehow, in the analysis and storytelling, we’re supposed to see something no one else saw before. We may find some nuances or a different angle to look at the story, but rarely are we able to find something earth-shattering under those circumstances.

That process is disheartening to everyone. Our clients are trying to please multiple stakeholders and tell compelling stories that keep customers at the heart of the business. As partners, we want to help our clients find new insights and tell impactful stories. It’s about bringing the people we speak with to life within client organisations and helping our clients shine in their roles.

So, if the hunt for hot, fresh insights is just a wild goose chase, what should we do instead?


How to find new and exciting stories to tell

Start off with the story you want to tell.

Bear with me. I know good research means seeing what the data says, not forcing the data to say what you want it to. But, on the other hand, if you need to arrive at a particular destination but don’t plan the route, you’re highly unlikely to get there by chance.

When I say start with the story you want to tell, I’m talking broad strokes. Some examples of what this could look like are: you want to tell the story of what retirement really looks like in 2024, why it’s different from years past and how it might look in 2030. Or how Black people engage with digital media and how that behaviour sets them apart from other users. Or even, what’s happening in snacking and why it’s different than 2020 or 2017 and how it’s likely to change in 2025.

From a storytelling perspective, it’s like saying you want to tell a modern, opposites-attract love story. There’s enough detail there to carve it out from other stories, but a world of opportunity for it to take shape and become any number of unique stories.


You’ve got the story you want to tell, now what?

Many organisations go directly to a full-scale research project. They might start with some secondary research to get a feel for the landscape (always a good start). Or, alternatively, go straight to primary research.

The trouble with either of these options is we know our story, but we don’t know anything more about the subject than when we started. Or than the last time we researched this group or topic. When we create surveys or discussion guides by piecing together what we already asked and what we already know, we’re going to end up telling a story everyone has already heard.

The plot twist? Consumer closeness.

Often, consumer closeness is used as one-off inspiration. It’s great at empathy-building – helping stakeholders and teams step inside the world of the people you serve. These sessions create powerful moments that tend to have deep impacts on all participants.

But without a strategic plan for next steps, these sessions often become more anecdotal than actionable.


What might consumer closeness look like in this context?

Consumer closeness can be a powerful tool for shaking up research because it can give your story new characters, obstacles, journeys, heroes, villains, experiences and plot points.

To see how consumer closeness could come to life, let’s revisit our example story of ‘what retirement really looks like in 2024 and what it might look like in 2030.’ One approach could be a speed-dating consumer closeness session.

First, we’d start with a brainstorm of possible topics and questions to have in our back pockets. Then, we’d hand-select consumers for our client’s team to have real conversations with – about what retirement looks like for them, maybe what they expected compared to what it’s like, what’s great about it, what they hate about it, what they’re looking forward to, or what scares them. Then, after a pre-determined time, everyone would switch and have another one-on-one conversation.

After all the conversations, we’d debrief to talk about what we heard – what was in line with what we knew, any contradictions, or unexpected insights. We’d also talk about the consumers’ body language, tone of voice and words used to inform our learnings.

Alternatively, we could set up anthropologically inspired ‘in the wild’ outings, to observe retirees in common locations such as retirement communities, stores, restaurants or exercise facilities. We would coordinate the locations and observers, brief everyone, brainstorm things to watch for and provide worksheets to capture observations. Afterward, we would debrief, exploring what was expected, what was surprising, but also where there was joy, where there were obstacles, the nature of interpersonal dynamics and evidence of people’s physical and emotional experiences.


Telling a better story with consumer closeness

To return to our story metaphor, by leveraging consumer closeness, you now have different plots and story elements to explore, allowing you to kick off that primary research project with new eyes.

Sure, there will likely be some questions or details that have been used before. But now, you also have new avenues to explore, new questions to ask, new hypotheses to test – new chapters to write. All these elements were inspired directly by the people you’re trying to reach, understand and connect with.

In addition, by creating empathy-building deliverables from the consumer closeness sessions (e.g., videos, personas, immersion boxes) and sharing them throughout your organisation, you’re able to create deeper connections to the people you’re researching and generate internal excitement for the forthcoming research.

When we look at the classic hero’s journey in non-business storytelling, it can feel far from our daily realities – full of perilous journeys, magic, heroes and villains – much more Matrix than market research. But that doesn’t mean our stories can’t be compelling. The stories we tell have the power to shape organisations and the lives of the people they employ and serve. So, let’s make them good.

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