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  • Suzanne Lugthart

Living well with lower research budgets

It’s inevitable pretty much every business will be looking to make savings post COVID and that means less money and less resource for research and insight. So what are your options?

Put up a fight for your budget

Now, I appreciate this one is probably a long shot but, if you’ve done your job well, you should be in a position to remind your stakeholders that the insight you delivered on Project X contributed to that project’s bottom line. Risk aversion is likely to be higher than ever and your track record could help your case. Recession or not, if you want the impact of what you do to be noticed it’s your job to make sure your research has been implemented. At eBay the team regularly reviewed the progress of business initiatives with stakeholders and found out how they had applied the research we delivered. It reminds stakeholders of your contribution to the success of a project, even if your bit was done 2 or 3 years ago

Start with a blank sheet of paper

Rather than cut back on your current programme, start again. I’m a big fan of zero sum budgeting and believe your research programme (and therefore your budget) should reflect the challenges of informing the decisions your business needs to make now. I’ve happily ridden the rollercoaster of totally flexible budgeting knowing that I will be judged not on how much or how little I’ve spent but the impact the business has seen as a result. And because your business’s priorities are likely to be growth, growth and growth …

… take a long hard look at all that tracking or continuous research you do

As time goes by a lot of research budget and people time gets taken up by continuous research, things like CSAT, NPS and brand tracking. This puts an inevitable squeeze on ad hoc budgets when times are hard. In my first research leadership role I took the slightly radical step of pausing all routine continuous research and its reporting and waited for someone to notice. They didn’t. Suddenly we had a lot of time and money to play with. This is not an approach I’d advocate for everyone but it can be useful to review the frequency of some of what you're doing. Continuous research needs to reflect the rate of change going on in your market, customer experience, brand, product. There may be studies eg your brand tracker that can be shifted from, say, a monthly to a quarterly or even reporting annual cycle.

Think really hard before dumping the agency and bringing research in house

I’ve worked in organisations where agencies have done everything and ones where agencies were kept at arms’ length. Neither was optimal. What I would say is that, whilst it feels like you might save some money in the short run bringing more in house, it may come at a price

Every minute you spend scripting surveys or moderating online communities is time you’re not spending influencing stakeholders and raising the profile of insight in your business. If you’ve worked hard to get your voice heard, don’t blow it by becoming an insight sausage factory and doing the things you were doing at the start of your career

Many of the functions that are brought in house are actually the lower cost bits of a project: data analysis, survey scripting, coding, panel management etc. Always remember your time has a value too and it can be used to support the business in a variety of ways with differing levels of impact

Agencies bring some of the smartest freshest thinking around, as well as some of the nicest and most interesting people. To not have them in your life will make you a poorer and less fulfilled researcher: believe me I’ve been there and I couldn’t wait to break free

That said, there are things which can be successfully done in house: user testing for example has some great self service tools which provide perfectly good levels of insight. UX research really isn’t rocket science. Similarly, if you’ve got a relatively stable brand tracker, move it to field and tab only and you’ll be stunned at the savings (I achieved over 80% savings on full service agency costs).

Consider demanding more syndicated research

It pains me to think of how much of our collective budgets will get invested in post COVID-19 trackers. These will be largely the same for every commissioning client. Whilst a boon to the research agencies, they will limit the budget you have available for forward looking growth oriented research. Maybe now is a good time to think about industry focused syndicated trackers?


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