In the last decade, digital technology has exploded. There are now more people on earth with access to a mobile phone than to a toothbrush1. And these numbers will rise as the range of devices connecting to the internet soar.

Such technological changes have precipitated an era of wide-scale disruption that affects almost every aspect of our lives. The way we communicate, shop, bank and travel have all been transformed by digital technology. Nor have businesses been exempt. Digital has lowered the barriers to entry, changing the competitive landscape beyond recognition. Entire marketplaces are being disrupted as new, and often unforeseen, competitors emerge to threaten the market share of long-standing brands.

Challenging established brands

Take the hotel industry where Airbnb, founded just four years ago, is challenging established hotel brands. It uses digital technology to link travellers looking for a place to stay, through its website and app, with those who have rooms to rent. Since launch, a phenomenal 17 million people have travelled on Airbnb2 and, if this current growth rate is maintained, it will soon surpass InterContinental Hotels Group and Hilton Worldwide to become the world's biggest hotel chain3.

This phenomenon is not just confined to hospitality, parallels can also be drawn in almost every industry: from Uber in transportation to Instacart in grocery retail. We have entered an era of digital disruption, where even the most established businesses cannot afford to stand still. This is where agility comes into play. The term agile, meaning to respond and adapt to market changes effectively, has gained popularity recently because of its link to a methodology for developing software. At its simplest level, this approach breaks large-scale projects down into multiple phases or ‘sprints’ and at each stage a prototype is tested with customers. Their feedback is then incorporated and the prototype iterated accordingly, before the cycle begins again.

Its most high-profile applications have been in product development and marketing. But it is arguable that there is huge potential to apply agile principles to our industry, specifically to the way we approach qualitative research. A more agile approach to qual would involve rethinking where, when and how often insight comes to play in the innovation process. Many companies have moved from a product-centric to a customer-focused innovation strategy, but the product development cycle in most large-scale businesses is still a linear, lengthy process. It consists of a weighty, internal feasibility stage, often built on long-standing hypotheses and accepted norms, and a series of ‘gates’ which funnel ideas down to ‘The One’.

This approach is not only extremely high risk — ideas may be killed off after months in planning rather than trying to stimulate creativity to improve the initial concepts — but testing is also often left until the product has been perfected. At this point there is no guarantee that it will resonate with consumers or leave time for substantial improvement without significant cost and delay.

An agile approach seeks to minimise this risk by testing ideas with customers as early and often as possible, quickly tweaking the product to meet their needs and then retesting. It ensures as short as possible a timeframe between each ‘test’ to focus development on features that deliver the most value to consumers.

So how does this benefit brands? They don’t just end up taking the strongest idea to market, developing a competitive edge over disruptors, but the process also reduces the launch risk substantially as the product has been designed and refined to meet consumers’ needs. As for insight professionals, an agile approach to qual would lead to them becoming more collaborative. Collaboration — not just with customers but between cross-functional teams — is one of the core principles of agile methodology.

Fostering greater collaboration between consumers, different client teams and the various marcoms and insight agencies enables findings to be shared as and when they emerge, rather than on a project’s completion. Sharing key insights in this way means that both the research and the client’s strategy can be adapted accordingly, so that businesses respond to market changes swiftly and guard against disruptive challenger brands.

Specific methodologies can also facilitate an agile approach to qual. Certain newer digital techniques now allow us to test early-stage concepts with consumers outside of the focus group environment and gain feedback in real-time and in scenarios that are as close-to-real-life as possible.

This approach emulates the strategies used by some digital disruptors. Uber, for example, is currently trialling its Corner Store concept, a new delivery service, with a small group of customers before offering it to its entire customer base. This type of approach could help more established brands avoid making huge investments in manufacturing and infrastructure (and potential financial loss) before the product is proven.

Early testing benefits

As researchers we have always tried to encourage our clients to work in a more agile way, promoting the benefits of testing early, often and in collaboration with internal teams and consumers, even though such efforts can be stifled by internal processes, siloed teams and budget allocations.

Now, though, given the pace of digital disruption and its continuing impact on the business landscape, plus the nascent adoption of agile methodologies within marketing, maybe our message will resonate louder and these age-old barriers will be easier to overcome. And we will also have to become more agile so that our techniques, ways of working and delivery mechanisms equip clients with the right insight at the right time. Because if the likes of Blockbuster and Borders show us anything, businesses that fail to respond quickly enough to changing customer expectations and digital disruption may not survive.