The notion of playing the long game comes up often within the context of competitive sports. A long game may refer to a steady advance, a chipping away at a consecutive series of achievements or smaller wins all in the pursuit of a bigger goal or victory.

In golf, having a great long game, means success in long drives and these are used to critical advantage setting up the short strokes and, hopefully, easier puts. A good long game leads to fewer strokes and more eagles, birdies, and wins. In football, the long game plays out within a single game as an offense dominates the time of possession by methodically moving the chains versus a few explosive, yet far riskier, plays. When implemented well, a good long game can be used to strategic advantage.

A long game in business certainly has its challenges. The frenetic pace of commerce, on-demand and tech-enabled services, and rapid fire “here today, gone tomorrow” innovation, means few have the stomach or patience for the long game. Companies and brands are often focused toward short-term profit goals and quick wins. Employees, incentivized around annual or quarterly goals, may feel they have only a small window in which to make their mark. Why invest in a long game when we live in a “what have you done for me lately” reality? As a result, many organizations rely, perhaps overly, on straightforward Big Data analysis, some scrappy concept testing, and accelerated prototyping with a hurriedly assembled marketing plan to push out their new ideas and let the market decide. While this can lead to a big win, it more often results in a “me too” product or service. A highly debated, yet often cited, point is at least 80% of all new consumer products introduced in the market fail within their first year. Perhaps a less controversial fact is that about 75% of consumer packaged goods and retail products fail to earn even $7.5 million in their first year. To put that in perspective, $50 million in year one sales is considered the benchmark for a highly successful launch.

For those of us who have survived far too many of these painful projects, the tide seems to be changing. In the past year, I have seen an increase in client demand for, and interest in, the long game when it comes to consumer insight and innovation. Longitudinal learning programs, once a go-to approach for many classically trained market researchers, have come back into favor in a pretty significant way.

Longitudinal Research Defined - What is It?

So what do I mean when I say ‘longitudinal research?’

It is a learning effort where you observe and learn from the same set of subjects over an extended period of time. It allows for study of changes over time at both an individual and a group level. Context and depth of understanding is built in terms of both behavior and the influencers of that behavior. A window into cause and effect is established. It also affords the opportunity to understand the full surround of purchase decisions, particularly those whose frequency is much longer and more involved. It builds your own empathy for the person and people behind the metrics of sales dollars and year-over-year profit. At Ignite 360, we have led longitudinal programs where we engage a customer growth target in a series of quantitative survey waves interspersed with a sub-set of in-depth qualitative over a period of 6 months to a year. The insights obtained yield a treasure trove of life stage triggers, social and trend influences, seasonal shifts, and decision making considerations.

Long and short games can live in harmony.

The inclusion of a longitudinal learning effort does not have to be at the exclusion of fast-turn, quick-win tactics. Both can live together and provide different advantages, fulfilling different needs of the business. Consider speedier and more iterative customer learning approaches for closer-in innovation and for those final areas requiring some tweaking just prior to launch. Think about a longitudinal effort as the background music playing at a party where other social activities are occurring. It contributes to the atmosphere and ambiance (i.e. learning and context building) but it doesn’t interrupt other conversations from happening!

Long games are great to build growth target understanding.

Longitudinal learning programs can best be applied when you begin to place your bets on your brand’s next large customer segment or growth target. This could be a group of consumers that you don’t know enough about but trends and signs point to opportunity. It may be a growing segment of the population whose spending power is increasing. It may be a lost customer segment that has abandoned your brand in a significant way. Small, tactical studies will likely not give you what you need to truly address these customers’ needs and barriers. A longitudinal program works well to engage these customers and explore beliefs, values, needs, challenges — both attitudinally and behaviorally - over time AND in the context of their day-to-day lives.

Consider the long game a sandbox to explore closer-in ideas and questions.

Another great benefit of a long game is the ability to pulse in with very specific questions. Perhaps you are working on a line extension for a well known brand and you’re curious about how this growth target might react to the proposition and positioning. Bring in some additional questions within one of your ‘waves’ of longitudinal inquiry and see what they say. Avoid the temptation to make your longitudinal effort a mish-mash of quick-hit, tactical questions. Stay true to the purpose and don’t go overboard in your pursuit of the quick and easier answer.  

It’s an opportunity to train your team in empathy skills.

Finally, longitudinal programs, when framed up successfully, can also be leveraged as an insights training opportunity for your team. Do you have some marketers who struggle to truly understand their customer? What about junior insights staff that are just cutting their teeth on closer to consumer work? Bring them into the process and create opportunities for them to interact and build their own empathy and intuition. It’s perfect as a somewhat lower risk way to teach and learn.

5 Tips To Plan & Execute Your Own Longitudinal Program

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Before you embark on your own customer insights long game, keep the following in mind:

1. Have a solid game plan. Like all insights projects, you should start with a stated business objective and learning goals. Get very clear on WHO you want to learn about and to what end. Craft your game plan - define the length of time, type, and number of interactions. Designate a leader who can shepherd the project from start to finish. Make sure to get stakeholder buy-in and set expectations as to the level and type of learning and how it is going to be used going forward.

2. Account for attrition. Remember, you are engaging real people living their day-to-day lives and asking them to participate in your program over a lengthy period. Life happens and not all of those who begin with you will end with you. Moves, job loss, marriages, divorces, having children can all impact consumers’ ability to stick with it and keep engaged. Factor this in as you plot sample sizes and quotas. There are also fun ways to keep people interested and involved beyond the usual incentive. Lotteries, prize giveaways, and other tactics can be employed to great success.

3. Don’t just set it and forget it. Build in pause points and moments of reflection and interpretation during and throughout the program. Take stock in learning from wave to wave and share it back with stakeholders. Don’t present these preliminary learnings as definitive but rather use them to build out further hypotheses and additional questions to go even deeper. A good longitudinal program should provide insights from the very beginning but these insights will only get more salient and impactful as the program progresses.

4. Look for a mix of active and passive engagement. In our programs, we employ traditional tools of online surveys and in-depth interviews. But we also use passive techniques to learn. Almost everyone is active in social media these days so we ask to follow a sub-set of our sample on channels such as Instagram and Facebook to see what they like, post, share, and comment on. Yes, this may be the image they want the world to see but it is still a glimpse into their lives and views. It’s another data point and all data is good data.

5. Be realistic about the cost and budget accordingly. Keep in mind that a good longitudinal effort can yield the same, if not more, insight than a series of multiple, smaller projects. It can also be very high touch. A longitudinal program can easily reach 6 figures. Sample size adjustments, number and length of waves, types of interaction, and type and number of deliverables can impact and help to reduce overall cost. But don’t think this is a cheap effort. You get what you put in and money is a part of that equation. 

So, channel your inner Sergio Garcia and don’t be afraid to grab that 1-wood and knock it down the fairway. Keep at it and you might just hit a big pay day of empathy, insight, and growth for your brand!

For more information on playing the long game and additional ideas on how you can leverage a long game in your own business, reach out to us at and follow us on FacebookLinkedInTwitter or Instagram.