Generating breakthrough innovation from consumer connects

2 Nov 2017

Have you ever wondered why entrepreneurs so frequently come up with the breakthrough innovations that elude bigger, better funded, more established market-players?

We have a theory.  It’s that they frequently have a better, more empathetic understanding of what the beneficiary of their innovation feels, thinks and needs!

Unlike entrepreneurs, you don’t need to have first-hand experience of the ‘challenge’ yourself. What you do need is the right insight approach and the right clue-gathering partner!

A combination of ethnography, consumer connects and the right observation, listening and questioning skills will quickly help you gather the actionable clues and build the empathy you need.

Map your learning objective

The first secret is to make sure you have thoroughly reviewed everything you’ve learnt from previous research.   This Rewind segment is often key to success.

  • Question everything: Look for the contradictions, look for the tensions and look for the gaps.
  • Reframe:  Take a step back and reframe your learning objective!  Only when you have a clear, but open and flexible learning objective will you be ready to start building empathy.

Plan your questioning strategy

The second secret is to ‘assume you know nothing’!  A questioning approach that sets out to validate current learning is doomed to failure.  Entrepreneurs re-write the rules of categories, because they ‘don’t understand’ the rules!

  • Explore: When you start planning your discussion guide, make sure you include all the topics you think may come up, but ask the questions in an ‘open’ way that allows the consumer to volunteer information in their own language.
  • Make it fluid:  Make sure you build in flexibility to update your question set at every stage of the process – so fresh clues can be explored and validated throughout.

Subtle information gathering

The third secret is to become ‘a sponge’!  Not literally obviously, but you do need to soak up everything around you and suspend analysis until you have gathered everything you need.  If you assume you understand, you will almost certainly fail!

  • Observe: If you approach each interview in an open-minded fashion and take in both the consumer’s environment and body-language, you will learn so much about how they live, what they value and how they prioritise.
  • Coach: Whatever you do, don’t interrogate.  Everyone knows better than to ask ‘closed’ questions, but even asking open questions can lead to failure – if you don’t listen to what is actually being said.
    • Silence can be one of the greatest tools for extracting clues.  Everyone hates it and wants to fill it
    • Why, why, why?  Never settle for the first answer, there is always a more revealing and interesting one behind it!
    • Show don’t tell:  Don’t just rely on questions and answers.  Plan in opportunities for consumers to interact with products, random stimulus, even visual mapping.  You’ll be astonished what you can learn from abstracting what they ‘do’ when confronted with relevant, but thought-provoking stimulus!

Targeted recruitment

The fourth secret is great recruitment.  Make sure that any sub-segments identified in your Rewind stage are represented in your recruitment specification and make sure your recruiters understand which are the most important variables.

  • Location:  Go beyond the easy and convenient ‘local’ locations.  You will often learn much more from consumers in more remote or less-researched geographies.
  • Super Consumers:  Although they are atypical it is frequently better to talk to consumers of above average intelligence, sociability and creativity – as you will just get so much more out of them.

Build connections in advance

Consumer connects on their own can be incredibly valuable.  HOWEVER, their value can be increased immeasurably if you can afford time and budget to run an on-line ethnography for a few days before the connect itself.

  • Breadth: Ethno allows the ‘connect’ team to observe consumers in their own habitat as they go about their everyday lives and interact with your product category.  You can almost guarantee that a well-run ethno will add 20-25% fresh topics for exploration or territories for questioning!
  • Trust:  A well run online ethno will also allow the team to interact with their consumers in advance of the connect.  This won’t just act as ‘fuel’ for the observation and listening process – it will build trust between the listener and consumer that will massively enhance the richness of the experience.

Executing Power-Connects

Great in-situ consumer connects take TIME!  Don’t think you will get inside your target consumers head in less than 2 to 3 hours.  If you don’t believe us, just think back to when you last made a new friend.  It takes time & trust to open up.

  • Time: Allow at least a couple of hours and ideally three.
  • Trust:  Start with easy stuff like who they are, who they live with and what they do.
  • Probe: Gently start to explore what they like and dislike.  Probe why, why, why?
  • Psychology: Use structured questioning to get beyond the obvious and into the deeper-rooted motivations for behaviours and choices (Don’t panic, we can help!).
  • Show Me: Remove barriers by observing them using products in your target category and asking them to share how it makes them feel and what they hope to achieve.
  • Random: Introduce related stimulus and ask them to relate it to your category.
  • Be Nosy: Open cupboards and dig a bit deeper.  Gently challenge when there is a contradiction between what they say and what you see.
  • Get out & about: If the connect has started in the consumer’s home, do try to make sure that a minimum of 1/3 is conducted in the place they will be making purchases.  You will be astonished what you can learn by walking the fixture whilst your consumer explains their purchase decisions – or even better, taking them to a category they’ve never shopped before and seeing how they react!
  • Be realistic:  If you really observe, listen and question effectively you will gather far more clues in a single session than you could possible take-in.  On this basis, we strongly recommend each connect is attended by two people (possibly one client and one consultant – so you each have different perspectives), recorded and ideally videoed for later analysis.


Whilst a well-planned Connect will have been carefully prepared to make sure you get the very best out of the experience, there are some simple rules you need to follow:

  • Courtesy: Be respectful and non-judgemental at all times.
  • Confidentiality:  Remember you need to respect the consumers’ confidences – and make sure they agree to keep your corporate secrets too.
  • Stay Safe:  Don’t take any unnecessary risks!  Connects are always best conducted in pairs.

Analysis & Harvesting

The final secret is ‘follow-through’.

Whatever you do, don’t treat the Connect as an end it itself.  You will recall less than 10% of what you’ve observed.  This may be sufficient, but with careful analysis you are guaranteed to massively increase your ‘clue’ spotting potential.

  • Review:  Give it a couple of days, then make time to watch the video of the interaction.  Note all the relevant ‘clues’ you spot onto post-it notes.
  • Double Value: If possible, watch the video with someone that didn’t attend the Connect.  They will have a fresh perspective and are likely to notice different things.
  • Mapping:  Now map the post-it note clues into clusters based on themes from the original learning guide – or even better, based on fresh observations.
  • Make Leaps: Remember, your objective is to map your consumers unmet-challenges, not just map what they already do.
    • Innovation Platforms: Record their needs and challenges – but frame them in terms of how current solutions fall short of their ideal state.
    • Opportunity Gaps: Record their behaviours and any contradictions with their aspirations.
  • Harvesting:  Our Harvesting Workshops are a great way of bringing the team together, introducing a competitive element and collaboratively building Platforms & Opportunity Gap models that your whole team can alight around!


Consumer Connects will give your team rich, deep insights into what goes on inside consumers’ heads.  Once properly analysed and harnessed they will help you set out inspiring innovation platforms and clear opportunity gaps, but their greatest value will be the sense of engagement and empathy your team will build with their targets.

We have observed that teams who undertake connects in preparation for creative, brainstorming workshops don’t just have an empathetic connection with their consumers, they also have an enhanced determination to come up with relevant and inspiring concepts that genuinely solve the consumer problems.

That combination of empathy, enthusiasm and determination is priceless!

If you have a consumer challenge that you’d like to unlock, we’d love to explore how our proven consumer connect and insight harvesting programmes might meet your needs.

Please do get in touch, give us a call or connect with David or Joanna on LinkedIn

Written by  David Goudge