As GreenBook wrapped up their flagship event, IIEX NA, in Austin, three industry veterans discussed the event, from the atmosphere to the content, and what predictors of the future of insights they anticipate based on their experiences.

Lenny Murphy: Hello everybody. It’s Lenny Murphy. 

We’ve turned what had originally been intended to be a GreenBook podcast into another one of our CEO Series of interviews. It is my honor and privilege to be hosting Karen Lynch, Head of Content at GreenBook, and Jamin Brazil, host of the Happy Market Research Podcast, one of the founders of a top survey platform called Decipher, later the CEO of FocusVision (now Forsta) for a few years, and now Chairman and CEO of a research operations platform and community management platform called HubUX.

The three of us got on a call to debrief the 2022 IIEX NA event. So let’s dig in … 

Lenny Murphy: One of the cool things that we did at IIEX North America this year was podcasting from the Podcast Stage, which gave you an opportunity to talk to a lot of people in a different way than you would normally have at an event. Let’s start with that. Jamin, from your conversations with people while broadcasting, what were your key takeaways, the themes that you heard?

Jamin Brazil: As you know, Lenny, I’ve been podcasting for two years prior to COVID and now that we’re back in action, I’ve been doing live podcasts on the show floor with exhibitors. This year we did 23 live podcasts, and I asked our guests two questions:

  1. What do you think about the show?
  2. What do you see as a material trend that’s impacting consumers and say, will carry us forward into the next couple of years?

And then in addition to that, I was fortunate to have two live podcasts on the Podcast Stage. That’s 25 podcasts. I would say my big takeaway is that you had created, or the team at GreenBook had created, a brand new format that was foreign to the majority of the attendees and exhibitors. And when they walked in, I think that everybody was kinda like “What the F is going on?”.

Lenny Murphy: I was too!

Jamin Brazil: For those of you that weren’t there, there were four stages. We were basically in a big rectangle. Just a big open floor and massive square footage. And then you’ve got four stages, one in each corner, and in the middle, you have the exhibit hall. And then you have headphones that are color-coordinated to the stages. It was completely different from the traditional conference model, which of course everybody is familiar with.

I think initially that felt like a barrier, and people were questioning “What have we walked into?”. And then, by the end of the show, after just two days, people were high-fiving each other, they were loving the format, the integration of the content, and the connection. And the fun, along with being together for the first time in a few years, almost created this pseudo euphoria.

And I had more than a few people that were not exhibiting (I won’t say names) but they were just checking it out, seeing what it’s like, and they said, “We really missed out.”.

Lenny Murphy: Well, that’s great feedback. I’ll give my perspective on that in a minute as well. But now Karen, you mentioned this was your first time behind the curtain and into the deep end. So, what were your high-level thoughts and key takeaways?

IIEX NA categorically disrupted conference behavior

Karen Lynch: To piggyback on what Jamin said, we disrupted people’s conference behavior. It wasn’t going to be business as usual when people walked through the door, which felt appropriate post-COVID. Everything has changed, we are all changed. So the way we’re going to go about conference hosting and attendance has changed as well. 

It was serendipitous. I noticed people having a very authentic experience, true to who they are in today’s world. They were listening to the podcasts at the Podcast Stage while walking around, or sitting in chairs, couches, or at tables, typing away on their laptops, taking in conference content. Instead of feeling like they had to remove themselves from the environment to get pressing work done, they were staying in it, and doing both. And, they were staying connected with everybody while they operated the way they normally operate. So our virtual worlds over the last two years kind of came together and merged for people in this location. And it was really interesting to watch that behavior.

Lenny Murphy: Yeah, it really was. And I want to give a shout out to the GreenBook team. Everybody kind of thinks of me as the face of GreenBook, and to be clear, that’s about all I really am nowadays, right? The hard work, the planning of the events … I have not been directly involved in that for a very long time. Our team did an amazing job. So I just want to go on record – Emily, Cara, Natalie, and the rest of the team – they just rocked this.

And, I was surprised as well. I was very skeptical of the headphone idea. Well, not skeptical, but I wasn’t sure how people would respond to it. It could have gone a whole other way where everybody was disengaged and just kind of in their little corner with the headphones on and not talking. But that’s not what happened, right? We decoupled content from location, which was certainly something that happened over the course of 2020. We learned, for example, that good content is not dependent upon location. So duplicating that in a real-world space was an interesting experiment. I think it paid off.

We learned quite a bit as well. For instance, we had big stages this year with plentiful seating. We’re not going to have the big stages next year. Why the hell do you need them? Instead, we actually looked at the Podcast Stage and thought, that’s what we’ll do next year. People gravitated towards that layout – with couches, tables, and comfortable sitting areas, not just the row of chairs in front of a stage. This layout creates a more intimate experience for people to engage in content if they want to sit there to see slides and the speakers, but also to roam about and do whatever they need to within the overall space, while still tuning in using the headsets.

And, I’ll be the first to announce that we will be back in Austin next year with that format.

Also, it was incredibly powerful to be back in person with people. I was concerned from a COVID standpoint, would people be reticent to hug and shake hands? And I’m a hugger. I just am. There was no hesitance. I mean, everybody was so enthused to be together and you know, there was a great energy. And I think you mentioned that kind of euphoric feeling, but different from past IIEX events, which felt like a marathon – high energy, just boom, boom, boom, boom, going all the time – this felt more relaxed, more casual. Still high energy, but a different type of high energy.

Karen Lynch: I think we gave people choice and autonomy for self-selecting what they could take in without the feeling of pressure that they were going to miss something.

Attendees were always aware of what was going on in other corners and they could choose. For example, right now I’m going to sit and have a conversation. Or, right now I’m going to sit over by a stage. Or, right now I’m just going to chill on the couch with my headset on. That freedom of choice afforded attendees a more relaxed state of mind to engage with the content on their terms.

M&A conversations happened deliberately and on the fly

Lenny Murphy: Yep. All right. So, yay IIEX! But you know, I’ve always viewed our events as a stealth information-gathering session. For those who don’t know, well, I’ll just share this, because it informs the perspective. The first IIEX was a stealth vendor trade show for P&G. So P&G was asking us to help make recommendations, and we thought, well, we’ll just do an event, you know, we’ll bring them to you. So that’s always informed our thinking overall of a two-way dialogue between the buyer side and the supplier side, and making those connections. And that’s what GreenBook does, from a business standpoint – we connect supply and demand. And the best way to do that is to have our ears to the ground, you know, and we have a few ways to do that.

We have GRIT. Of course, we have Gen2 Advisors, our consulting arm, which engages us in lots of conversations. But then we have IIEX, which tells us an awful lot about trends and what’s moving. So, one key way that we do that is the private meeting program that we have at IIEX, where we let brands pick any suppliers they want to meet with.

And we always take a look at that because it tells us an awful lot about what buyers are looking for. What are the key capabilities? The key trends? It’s a great early indicator of where the thinking is from a buyer perspective in the industry. 

One of the things that we saw this year was the continual desire for large brands. And there were, I forget the exact number, right this minute… I want to say a hundred and something meetings scheduled between, you know, 50 or 60 brands. It wasn’t the usual suspects, which is always a very cool thing about IIEX, right? Those companies certainly got their fair share of conversations, but there was also a desire to engage with early-stage companies or with newer entrants into the market. That was really cool to see.

I interpret that in two ways:

  1. The existing supplier community still has room to innovate and improve and step up. The established players are not necessarily meeting the needs of the buyers overall because they’re looking for new stuff. 
  2. It creates an ecosystem where lots of new partnerships and relationships between suppliers can be developed to help meet that need, because there are still structural issues. I think we’ve all experienced that, to become a vendor at a P&G is a painful process. Procurement, it’s not easy. For an early-stage company, you literally can go broke trying to navigate through those things. But if you’re an established company that already has that relationship in place, to meet a new need, then helping to foster innovation and new relationships with up-and-coming suppliers, can be an important consideration. I saw a lot of that happening as well. There were lots of M&A discussions that happened on the fly. We were seeing folks recognize that there is no status quo. And in the insights and analytics industry, while there are foundational components, there is still a huge demand for new.

Do you agree from what you witnessed or from your own conversations, or can you offer any perspective on that piece of things?

Jamin Brazil: I did not have that experience in the way of over-indexing on new. But I think a lot of it had to do with where I was sitting. I was sitting with the exhibitors, who by definition are, you know, somewhat established. There’s a barrier to entry to just exhibiting. It’s expensive traveling, it’s expensive exhibiting, it’s expensive to create a proper presence on the showroom floor. 

Also, you saw a lot of, let’s think about Schlesinger for a moment, creativity on booth activation this year that I had not seen before.

Over the past few years, you know, pre-COVID, I’ve found booth activation to be critical. And our industry just misses it. We basically put up a sign that’s pretty, maybe it has lights. Many of the exhibitors brought their A-game to what they were doing on the showroom floor. I think there’s an opportunity to help exhibitors and speakers better engage in this new context that IIEX has created. It’s filling out that meta, not from a paid perspective, but just kind of like an educational point of view. Maybe that’s a little bit of a marketing thing. 

Also, it is not sexy, but it is clear, that the demand for sample is increasing. So too is the creativity and technology around how to get access to quality sample in real-time. That continues to be a cornerstone. It’s so funny, because I feel like we talk about it all the time, but it continues to be this unmet need in the space. 

Qual is currently on the rise

Jamin Brazil: Finally, based on the conversations, there’s the rise of qualitative. UX as a space has just been experiencing exponential growth. I think one of the statistics I saw was 28% growth, which is massive outpacing. That’s predominantly a qualitative field. We’re seeing this bleedover now blending into market research. There are people starting their careers in UX and they move into market research. And so because of that, you’re seeing the rise of qual.

And, you know, qual isn’t just like the thing that weird kids do down the hall – or you know, the funny people. It’s a science and it’s being treated as such for me. Those are the two pillars that were emerging for me at IIEX

Lenny Murphy: My brain is racing, but I want to hear Karen – are you one of the weird kids? Karen? I don’t think you’re a weird, funny kid.

Karen Lynch: Well, I think it’s interesting with my researcher hat on the bias we all bring into this. Lenny noticed so much going on in mergers and acquisitions, Jamin was talking about sample quality and then leading into UX and qual. And I, of course, would piggyback on that. I noticed UX researchers going beyond usability work seeking to understand their customers or users in a different way, thus qualitative enters the scene for them. I heard a lot about immersive qual and conversations about online communities

Maybe the desire to run a series of focus groups or in-depth interviews is slowing down, but immersive ethnography is on the rise and certainly in-depth conversations in online communities is hot. 

Brands are commercializing internal research efforts

Karen Lynch: The other thing I would say, which I think is really important to the state of the industry, is the fact that many brands are getting into the research game internally. I chatted on stage with Edwin Wong from Vox and Timo Pelz from Reddit. Talia Parnass from Pinterest and Linda Lomelino from Walmart both spoke. All four of these brands talked about their internal insights departments and how they’re socializing that research with advertisers, right, and other brands, and basically doing what a lot of vendors in our space have always done. So we’re blurring the lines of competition in a way that I’ve not seen before. You know, many large research suppliers are actually competing with brands for research dollars. 

Lenny Murphy: Yeah. So I agree with both of you wholeheartedly, and especially I have a regret on the sample issue that we put the panel for CASE, the group that has been spearheading sample quality concerns, they’ve done a few town halls recently with Insights Association. We put them at the very end on the second day. That was a disservice, and we won’t do that again. It should have been front and center because it is a huge topic across the board for all the reasons that you both said. But we talked about it all the time, so we won’t dive too far more deeply into that one today. 

Technology brands showed up to explore insights and analytics

Lenny Murphy: One surprising thing was the heavy concentration of technology. Brands that we’ve never had that before, you know, it’s usually CPG and pharma, you know, the usual suspects, but by God, I mean every big tech company had a large presence there. I mean, you know, Meta sent a ton of people, and the conversations with them were interesting. 

The barriers between UX and CX and MRX, all these abbreviations, are coming down. They are merging. These technology companies have access to a lot of data, right? They have access to a lot of information. It’s not enough. They are looking for the tools and expertise of our industry to help them grow their businesses in a different way. And in many cases, they start to look a whole lot, like not just internal resource suppliers, but external resource suppliers to their own customers as well.

And I had a conversation with somebody from Adobe who would neither confirm nor deny that Adobe is shopping for a research company. Basically, an ad testing capability internally, which makes perfect sense. Oh, I’ve heard that LinkedIn is looking at things like that. We’ll see what Twitter does now that Elon is buying them, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see those companies, not just invest internally in that as a capability, but actually as a business unit and to make those investments.

What does it look like if Google bought Qualtrics? I have no inside information, I don’t think it’s going to happen, but, you know, as a hypothetical, like, that’s really interesting for them to have those capabilities, to drive, you know, advertising awareness and testing for their clients.

We saw hints at this event, with everything in one place, those types of scenarios that could drive the industry in a very different direction as we move forward.

Jamin Brazil: Before COVID, Meta had 3,500 UX researchers on staff. That’s probably the largest concentration of UX researchers in any company – and it’s only grown. I’ve been saying this, you’ve been saying this, everybody’s been saying this for literally years: If you want to be in business in a modern context, you have to put the customer at the center of your decisions.

Making personal conversations and connections

Lenny Murphy: So Jamin … was there a conversation you had that touched you in a personal way? Something that helped you, that made you think, or that was just an awesome conversation that you wouldn’t expect to have at an event?

Jamin Brazil: So there’s the at-event part, which is very work-oriented for my brain. And then there are the activities that happen around the events like the dinners and cocktails.

Yes. Joanna Lepore from Mars Wrigley have developed a friendship as podcast buddies, and she gave me a great big hug right when I first saw her. I walked in and she was there, and it felt like I just came home. It was joyous. So I think for me, it was maybe less about the conversation and more about the – and I don’t mean this in a weird way – about the intimacy of being in proximity to others. Relationships, making a connection, as opposed to being in a sterile environment … when we’re in person, it was like a whole different level of chemistry that we’re able to exchange, and it’s spectacular.

Lenny Murphy: The human connection. Absolutely. Karen, same question for you. Was there something that just stood out that just was very personal, like this makes it worth it for me?

Karen Lynch: There was a session by Timothy Cornelius, and in it, he talked about inclusivity in research. The title of his talk was “Your Online Research is Disqualifying Those with Disabilities”. In it, he shared a metric of what percentage of our population has a disability.

And by our research methods, whether it’s our recruiting or the platforms that we use, by not taking disabilities into consideration, we’re missing out on a large percentage of our population. That was one of those aha’s for me personally, where I thought … okay, for instance, we at GreenBook, we should be looking into whether our website is accessible to everybody. We should be thinking about that at our conferences. We need to be inclusive in the work that we do, and then help lead the future of insights as an inclusive one.

Tim was also one of the speakers in the Future List panel that we conducted with some of the honorees. They are among the most inspiring young adults in this business and I had the pleasure of speaking to them. They were really fantastic to learn from. It just goes to show you that no matter how seasoned you get, you can still learn from somebody who brings different qualities into this industry – qualities like problem-solving, perseverance, grit, and things that the more seasoned researchers may not really be talking about. 

What lies ahead for the industry?

Karen Lynch: Automation is everywhere, and it is now surprising when a platform doesn’t have it. So if you are not paying attention to how you can incorporate AI and automation into your business model, you need to be working to figure that out.

Lenny Murphy: Okay. Sage advice. Jamin?

Jamin Brazil: For the last decade, we have lived in an environment where speed eats everything and technology is the backbone of speed, right? To Karen’s point, it’s automation … and I think we’re moving into a phase where impact is most important. There’s this decoupling now … either it’s okay to go a little slower as long as a trade-off is you’re incorporating stakeholders in the process of research so that it has a bigger impact. We’re moving into a phase where agencies are going to have a major opportunity to redefine what that one is.

Lenny Murphy: I couldn’t agree more. The GRIT Report is in the field. I think by the time this interview is released, it will still be in the field. And that is one of the key findings: It’s still cheaper, faster, better. But the definition of the better is impact. It is quality. It is not just cost and speed. That’s the cost of doing business; table stakes. There are trade-offs. The way I think about it is, the more tactical it is, the more speed and cost are the core drivers. And then quality is the table stakes. The more strategic it is – and I think that we’re moving more and more into strategic with UX and CX all of those things –  the quality leads. 

This has been fantastic. I love chatting with both of you. We should do this more often because it’s just cool to get together with friends and talk about these things also. Thank you both for your tremendous contributions at IIEX. And again, shout out to the GreenBook team.

But it’s not just the Greenbook team. It’s everybody. It’s the attendees. It’s our friends, our colleagues, our sponsors, our exhibitors. Everybody makes that possible.

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