Five Minute Q&A
Ellie Hutton


After studying history and geography as an undergraduate, and completing a post-graduate in research analysis, Ellie Hutton, Senior Director, Customer Advocacy for Vision Critical,  joined the world of marketing research. Her current employer, Vision Critical, builds insight communities that help customers like Barnes & Noble College make better business decisions based on customer insight. We recently spent five minutes with Ellie on the occasion of her tenth anniversary at Vision Critical and discovered why she believes that when it comes to understanding research, people matter more than data, why she likes roller coasters, and how you can learn a lot about a group of Millennials when you take them camping.


What was your first job?

I started in high school with jobs in the food service industry, both at a tea room and then McDonalds — which is probably the most organized company I’ve worked at — ever! After university and doing a post-graduate, I became an insight professional, working in marketing research.

How would you describe Vision Critical, the kinds of programs you work on with clients and your role in the company?

We partner with customers to help them build insight communities — putting them in touch with the people they care about to ask questions on an ongoing basis. Insight from community members help our customers make better business decisions about everything from better marketing communications to improving customer experience to building better products. When I started here, I was a hundred percent involved in research, but now my role is more customer advocacy. I get to help our customers have a better experience with us and help them showcase their success.

What are you working on right now in your partnership with Barnes & Noble College?

The community Barnes & Noble College manages on our platform helps provide insight and information from customers on all the offerings the company is working on. It helps them develop new concepts that make the company be more than just a bookstore, which will hopefully chart the future direction of the brand. For example, their community helped them scope out a store-within-a-store concept for selling beauty products. Initial sales and feedback show this was a good decision for the brand.

In your view, what’s the biggest challenge facing both brands and consumers today?

I think all businesses are trying to get closer to their customers. They want to engage with them and they want to understand more about their customers’ expectations. Most companies today have overwhelming amounts of data on their customers, but one of the exciting things we help clients do is help them make sense of that data — and see their customers as humans rather than just numbers on a spreadsheet. People don’t want to be seen as a number. They want to engage with brands and work in partnership on the kinds of decisions that might affect them. It’s a win-win. Companies need to understand the why behind their big data, and consumers want to collaborate and give feedback to brands they care about.

As a researcher, what’s one question you’d really like to put to a student?

The more you work with Millennials and Generation Z, the more you’re struck by how very positive and hopeful they are, particularly considering some of the very significant problems they, and the world today, are facing. That fascinates me and I’d love to ask them more about that — and understand where that incredible and wonderful optimism comes from.

Your question reminds me of the most interesting project I worked on with Millennials. I was consulting for an outdoor retailer. We took a bunch of young people camping for the weekend, to get to know them, to talk about their experiences and learn from that time together. Basically a weekend-long focus group. It was so much fun and rewarding, too. Research shouldn’t just be about crunching numbers.

Is there a silver bullet or secret sauce you can share, common to the most successful insight communities you’ve helped build with your clients?

One of the biggest benefits of asking your customers to opt in and interact with you is that it becomes very much a two-way street, and you have the opportunity to share back with them what you’re doing with their insights. That can be empowering and works to create much stronger connections. To put that in perspective, traditional research response rates are typically low, less than one percent. In an insight community, it can be over 40 percent. The people who participate in a community are truly engaged and want to provide honest, authentic feedback to the brands they care about. They enjoy seeing how they make a difference and how the brand implements new initiatives based on what they heard from the community.

What future developments particularly excite you about the way brands might gather and use research?

Vision Critical has always been very cutting-edge and our vision is that a company should never be asking questions cold. They should be informed already and using that information to link to individuals and their particular activities. In that way, businesses are going to better know their customers and develop what we’d call a “relationship memory,” a history of responses you can use to grow and develop your brand.

What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?

I’ve actually always been drawn to the idea of accounting; making really sound business decisions based on that knowledge. I also love being a mum, I had no idea this could be so much fun, and I think I would have had more children and stayed at home if I’d started earlier!

What’s a characteristic you find most prevalent in Barnes & Noble College people?

The way we work with Barnes & Noble College, we’ve discovered their people are really forward-thinking and innovative — and that’s helped build substantial growth at a time when others in the space are struggling. With an audience of Millennials and Gen Z students, there’s also an expectation of creating a certain relationship with brands, and Barnes & Noble College is doing a fantastic job of understanding that relationship and how it can be used to meet customers’ needs.

Do you have a favorite book, or a book you’re currently reading?

The Boys in the Boat (by Daniel James Brown). The book follows the journey of a boy going from extreme hardship and poverty as a child to making the Olympic rowing team. I loved the historical setting of what life was like growing up in the depression of the 1920’s and 30’s. Very inspiring.

Where might we most likely find you in the bookstore?

For whatever reason I’m going in there, I’ll always find my way to the cookbook section. I also enjoy looking at the staff selections because you’ll always come across a great mix of genres.

Most valuable thing you’ve learned working in your industry?

I had the benefit, early in my career, of working face-to-face with customers, and I think a lesson I learned in general is that human connection is everything. The strategy might be slightly different, but despite the title or the background, everyone is basically the same and needs to be communicated to in a very human way.

Best day at Vision Critical, (so far?)

Today’s actually my ten-year anniversary here at Vision Critical, so it’s a good time to be reflective. I feel like this company has changed and it’s sometimes felt like a roller coaster as it’s grown, but I like roller coasters — and the ride has given me a lot of amazing best days.