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The insight data market is changing, says Newton’s Phil Lynch

As the potential of data to inform digital communications has increased, so the number of tools offering insight and planning services has increased. I recently caught up with industry veteran Phil Lynch (previously of Kantar and Presswatch) about the state of the insight data market and his new venture Newton Insight.

Ben Smith: The PR/comms insight sector seems to have split between firms who offer a (presumably) lower-cost service as a software solution (SaaS) and those offering bespoke insight consultancy. It seems to me that both are likely to have a market. Are these very different strategies likely to co-exist or will there be a winner do you think?

Phil Lynch: There won’t be an overall winner as we cannot have sophisticated insights without the large-scale data processing provided by the SaaS platforms. So it is a case of co-existence.
But I do believe suppliers will need to choose between an emphasis on technology or an emphasis on human interpretation of raw results. Suppliers will need to give clients a clear understanding of their strengths.

On the client side, the challenge with SaaS is that unless you have the expertise in-house to really understand the raw info you are getting, and knowhow to ask the right questions in the first place, you may be achieving a limited benefit.

Is there a case for hosting solutions and research skills under one roof? I’m not so sure. Evolution in digital media means organisations need to retain a flexibility to mix and match resources to meet new challenges.

We have to accept that SaaS businesses are unlike skills-based agencies. They have a different investment cycle, resource base and structure. Putting the two together can result in some fuzzy decisions about strategy and how, where and when to spend money.

It is important to be clear about who you are. Newton Insight is a specialist research agency supported by technology. That’s as clear as I can make it.

BS: In your 20 years working in PR/comms service provider market have you ever seen much evidence that PR/comms buyers want a one-stop shop PR service provider solution?

PL:  For clients operating at the sharp end, they simply want a solution that works and helps them to do their job better. In these cases, a more straightforward relationship with suppliers may be desirable, but not at the expense of flexibility and quality of service.

Clients need to think carefully about their own internal set-up and their stakeholders. Are they ready for a one-stop solution? Can they truly say that all departments within their organisation have the same needs? Integrated services can thrive within client organisations where requirements and expectations are uniform. But the reality is most departments and individuals within organisations have different needs and this creates tensions with one-stop services, which typically seek to standardise delivery. 

BS: Why do you think there is a need for another social insights agency?

PL:  I would dispute that Newton Insight is simply ‘another social agency’. We are here to challenge market research by broadening and accelerating access to knowledge and insight. This sets us apart from traditional research and it also sets us apart from social listening platforms.

The research community has an ongoing debate about how to use social insights, but much of the discussion is based around how social data can be used to support legacy research programmes. This misses the crucial point that what clients need from research is changing.

If we take the case of brand tracking, periodic waves of interviews will struggle to keep pace with the flow of views and opinions across social networks. Put simply, the rate at which people are receiving new information and changing their opinions is outpacing the frequency of research investigation. At a practical level, clients cannot wait three months to act on an opportunity or a problem which is happening now.
I’m not suggesting we stop and start again, but research does need to evolve. Newton Insight is coming at this with a sense of humility, but also with a belief that the next 20 years won’t be like the last 20 years. The challenge for some legacy services is that the evolutionary curve will be steep.

BS: What does ‘insight’ mean to you?

PL: I think the word ‘insight’ has been misappropriated, and to an extent devalued, by metrics-based solutions. We are focused on insight in the truest sense, understanding why something happens and what can be done about it.

The focus of most social media analysis to date has been on brands and organisations. Newton Insight does that, but we are also turning our focus to communities in order to understand them better.

BS: What is it that brand managers and in-house comms teams can gain from social media insights?

PL: What is gained from social media is directly related to how you value it. At a very basic level, social media gives a temperature check on what people are saying about your organisation, or where you stand in terms of awareness. For a more sophisticated understanding of audiences, social insight is a fast and accessible resource. PR operates on lower budgets than advertising and I think most communicators would acknowledge that they have rarely been in a position to commission as much research as they would like. Our set-up means we can work long-term, or deliver single projects on a quick turnaround.

If we can prove to PR teams that audiences are responsive to their messages, we can help them to create more effective campaigns. An important point for the communications community is not to view social media in isolation, but to use it as part of a broader engagement philosophy. Many of the subjects discussed across social networks are seeded in mainstream media, and the insights we learn from social can be incorporated into media campaigns. It becomes a virtuous circle.

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