A few things I learnt working in insight at eBay

These days 10 years seems a long time to spend at any company, but especially in the tech sector. Working in insight at eBay gave me a unique vantage point across a fascinating organisation. I began by heading up research insight for eBay UK, and later became responsible for European research. During this time I also had the chance to compare my experiences to those of insight professionals in other companies, through organisations such as AURA, MRS and the Insight Management Forum - discovering in the process that I often wasn’t alone in my challenges.


1.  There’s always tension at the heart of a growing business

All businesses want to grow with limited resources, creating natural tension that plays out in the board room, in resource allocation, in re-shuffles – and potentially in a company’s cultural evolution. Insight teams shouldn’t shy away from tension: they’re perfectly placed to de-politicise it by being honest and factual, and taking the initiative to translate it into concrete (and financially appraised) in-market choices: Should we go after millennials, or silver-surfers? How do we balance the wishes of the long-term customer base alongside the desire to broaden appeal?


2. Colleagues will ask the same questions of insight, again and again

Those core business tensions could be found at the heart of many research briefs. I found that employees new to the business would commonly pose new variants of familiar, old questions.

Sometimes it was still worth doing the insight project, even if we could anticipate the answer to some extent, as we experienced many times that stakeholders needed to hear things for themselves. I came to the conclusion that it’s human nature and not a waste of time if research acts as the trigger to action.


3. Despite the amount of computer generated information to which we now have access, it’s never been more important for execs to get face to face with customers

During my time at eBay the quantity of data available increased exponentially. But data is never a substitute for spending time with customers – it’s detached, dry, usually uninspiring – all the things customers are not. The power of ‘hearing it for yourself’ is why I came to believe so much in customer immersion, as often as possible and for all levels of the organisation. I think it’s never been more important.

There's also an opportunity to deploy the best of the research industry’s ability to synthesise and tell stories, across into the field of analytics. Those adept at data manipulation and experimentation are sometimes not quite so adept at story-telling and engagement.


4. There’s no right place for the insight team to sit in the organisation

Sometimes people in insight worry about where they sit within a business, but I found it’s as much the informal alliances you forge across the business that matter, as the formal, charted ones. At different times at eBay we sat within Marketing, Analytics and Buyer Experience, and there were advantages and disadvantages to each. No clear winner, so best to worry about other things.


5. Few people working in insight have the time or skills to fully activate their work

Insight people are often under pressure to move onto the next project with a lingering sense that the work they’ve just delivered might go dusty on the shelf. In the new instant-data-obsessed world, it can take real resolve to argue that you need another few weeks (at the end of an already ‘epic’ 2 month research timeline) to work with teams to operationalise insight. But those extra few weeks can make every bit of difference.

One of the other reasons we don't activate insight well, is because no-one's ever taught us how to. It's most certainly a  skill involving both emotional intelligence / political sensitivity and practical tools. I'll probably write more on this in a future post.


6. Increasingly, insight people need to be selective about the topics they spend time on

Good research and insight folk can be victims of their own success if they’re not careful. The number of requests only ever increases, and the number of insight ‘streams’ outside the direct control of the insight team can feel like trying to drink from a fire hose.

Increasingly, client-side insight management and planning is about focused topic selection. We can feel like there’s an expectation to ‘know’ everything and we probably should do - but only for the topics with the potential to change business fortunes.

Matthew Gray