Expert insight: Inna Yordanova, Senior Researcher at IPSE

Inna Yordanova is Senior Researcher at IPSE – the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed. IPSE is the largest organisation representing freelancers and self-employed people. Its 78,000 members are freelancers, contractors, consultants and other self-employed people from all sectors of the economy.

Lorna: Can you start off then just by telling me a little bit about your own background and how you’ve come to be working with data?

Inna: Yes, sure. I did my undergraduate in politics and international relations and we had a couple of modules using statistics and SPSS. From there I started developing a passion for it. Then I did a MSc in public policy and administration, which again had a lot of modules using Excel and SPSS. From there, I knew that I had an interest in data and in analytics that I wanted to put to use somehow in my career. Originally, I aimed to work directly in public policy but I ended up doing research as the two are so tightly linked. You can’t have policy without research – in an ideal world all policymaking should be based on evidence.

Lorna: What is it about research that you enjoy?

Inna: It’s the storytelling aspect of it. Most people ask me how I can enjoy looking at numbers for the whole day, but it’s not really about the numbers so much as it is about the story that they tell. It’s not so much about being good at maths or having excellent technical skills, although these things are important, so much as it is about figuring out what the numbers tell you, and that’s really what I enjoy the most.

Whatever it is that you want to know, whether it’s a policy question for a public sector body or a commercial question for an organisation, you can use data to get the information you need to tell you what you need to know. That’s what I enjoy most.

Lorna: Can you tell me a bit about your current role then? What your job title is and what you’re responsible for?

Inna: Currently I’m a senior researcher here at IPSE. I work on a lot of different research projects, both quantitative and qualitative. We often do surveys with our membership base to collect feedback on how happy they are with their membership and the products and services we offer. We also have a magazine that we publish and so we ask the members about that. We also commission external organisations to conduct research for us when we want to move beyond our members and find out more about the self-employed population as a whole. On the more qualitative side, we conduct focus groups and interviews.

As a researcher, one of my responsibilities is to inform IPSE’s future policy direction. We want to understand what the key priorities are, and then analyze the different policy areas as they relate to the needs of self-employed people. We want to understand what kind of support self-employed people need and to ensure that we’re acting on their behalf, giving them the support that they need and lobbying the government to work in the right direction.

I also work closely with our commercial team. As a membership organisation, we offer a wide range of products and services to self-employed people and one of my other responsibilities is to test different products and determine the willingness of self-employed people to pay for them, so we can provide them with the products and services they need.

Lorna: Can you talk a bit more then about specifically what kinds of analytics you’re doing?

Inna: Yes, sure. We use tools like Excel and SPSS to analyze the quantitative data we collect. We also sometimes collaborate with our marketing team and we use Google Analytics to analyze the performance of our own website and see how we can improve it. Sometimes we also use our CRM data to make sure we understand the composition of our membership base better. We have constructed different personas based on the segments we’ve identified in our data. We have tried to divide the self-employed population into different groups in terms of their occupation, gender, age and so on so that we can talk to them about the things that are most relevant to them.

Lorna: Are you doing using predictive techniques to understand who might not renew and things like that?

Inna: We sometimes conduct surveys with people who terminate their membership to see what their motivation was. Is it because they moved, for instance, from self-employment to employment, or because their needs changed and they no longer require the products and services we provide. We have done a little bit of predictive research to see what causes people to terminate their membership, alongside research to see what current members cherish the most out of the products we offer.

Lorna: Do you have any examples of how an insight that you’ve uncovered has led to a change in the way that the organization talks to its members?

Inna: Last year we did a number of focus groups testing people’s attitudes towards our in-house magazine. That ended up feeding into a rebrand of the magazine. We changed the name of the magazine based on the results from the focus group. We changed the structure of it, what type of content goes into it, the design, the layout. Our members gave us a lot of positive feedback after we launched the new magazine and were pleased to see that we had taken their feedback and comments onboard so wholeheartedly.

Lorna: Would you say as an organisation you are fairly data-driven? It sounds like you’re using data in lots of different ways. Is the insight that you generate driving the business?

Inna: Yes, I’d say so. We have a lot of different departments within the organisation and I think we’ve worked pretty much with all of them to help them use data and analytics to improve their performance and day-to-day work. I’ve already talked a bit about how this applies to our commercial and policy teams but it’s also relevant in much less obvious areas like our IT team who want to collect feedback on the website, and our membership team who want to understand whether members are happy with the customer service they receive.

We work with our marketing team and events team as well. We often do feedback surveys after our events to see whether people were happy with the experience, what kind of suggestions they have for future events. I don’t think there’s any area of the business that we’ve not worked with at some point. Of course, we do work with some more often than others but it’s definitely true to say that the whole organisation is data driven to some extent.

Lorna: Do you see any additional opportunities or other ways that you could be using data if you weren’t constrained by time and budget and all those kinds of things? Are there other things that you’d want to be doing if you could?

Inna: The main thing I’m personally interested in is to do more qualitative research. As things stand, we don’t have any specialized software for analyzing qualitative data so we’re looking at the data and identifying trends and attributing codes ourselves. One of the things I would want in the future is to purchase  software that enables more in-depth analysis of qualitative data that allows you to make the whole process easier and quicker.

The other thing I think we would be doing if we had unlimited time and budget is conducting more surveys of a wider audience, so that we can explore the opinions and views of both our members and the overall UK’s self-employed population as well.

Lorna: Do you have a particular project, a favourite project that you’ve worked on that has been particularly rewarding?

Inna: In the last couple of months, we’ve been working on a very substantial external survey. We commissioned an external agency to provide a sample of 1,000 self-employed people and the sample, as I mentioned, is weighted to be representative of the UK self-employed population by gender, age, region and occupation.

It’s a big survey with over 50 questions. We worked really closely with our policy and press team to determine which are the key policy areas we’re interested in, which areas we have data on already, which areas have been extensively explored in the past and where we need more information and we’ll be using the results to inform our policy direction for the next year based on the results so that’s been a really interesting project to be involved with.

Lorna: Do you have any advice for people entering a career in research? I’m particularly interested in the fact that you’ve not come from a traditional statistics background. I think a lot of people in your situation might not necessarily consider data or research as an option. Do you have any words of advice for people in that situation?

Inna: I find that a lot of people in the field of social sciences fear pursuing a maths-based career requiring sound technical skills. They may have done a couple of statistics-based modules as part of their degree, but they don’t feel confident using those skills in their work. To those people I’d really emphasize that the real value of research is about  the real-world impact it makes, whether it’s the commercial impact or media and policy impact or psychological impact depending on the type of research you do. Obviously the maths and technical skills are important but they’re not the whole of the job – the data storytelling part is absolutely critical as well.

What I would advise people entering a career in research is to keep that in mind when they’re scoping any type of project from beginning to end – that everything they do is ultimately about the story. When you design the research tools and methods and you write the questionnaire or discussion guide, you should think about the story it tells and the impact that story can make. That’s going to make it all very much more impactful when you reach the end point.

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