MrWeb Podcast Series

MrWeb Series – David Garcia Pawley of Samsung on Samsung’s CMI on Keys to Managing a Successful Panel [A Brand’s Perspective]

My guest today is David Garcia Pawley, Director of European Countries CMI (Consumer & Market Insights) at Samsung. Established in 1938, Samsung is the world’s largest information technology company, consumer electronics maker and chipmaker measured by 2017 revenues. Prior to joining Samsung, David has held senior roles on both the agency and client-side at leading firms including LG and GfK. 

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Hey, everybody, this is Jamin, host of the Happy Market Research Podcast. In conjunction with MrWeb, I’ve had the honor of interviewing three of the leading custom panel companies. This is one of those three episodes. If you’re not currently subscribed to MrWeb, I just can’t recommend another resource. He gives you a daily update on happenings, whether it’s HR, M&A, technology releases, companies going out of business, companies starting. I mean there is not a single point of truth that I found to be more consistent and reliable than MrWeb. So check them out. They’re great and I hope you enjoy this episode.   


According to the GRIT report, there has been an increase in the number of qualitative based tools. This is centric to user experience, customer experience, and market research. However, as with all things, the actual research operations remains to be done and that happens usually outside of those toolsets. HubUx is a solution for that. You plug your tools directly into it; you enter in who it is that you want to talk to when you want to talk to them and HubUx literally does the rest for you. If you already have an existing customer list, you can just upload it directly into the tool. If you want to leverage social recruiting, that’s integrated as well. It is the single source for all of your research operations needs HubUx. Check it out. Thanks. 


Hi, I’m Jamin. You are listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. My guest today is David Garcia Pawley, director of European countries for CMI (Consumer and Market Insights) at Samsung.  Established in 1938, Samsung is the world’s largest information technology company, consumer electronics maker and chip manufacturer, measured by 2017 revenues. Prior to joining Samsung, David has held senior roles on both the agency and client side at leading firms including LG and GFK. David, thanks very much for joining me on the Happy Market Research Podcast today.


Hello. Thank you for having me here. 


It is an honor to have somebody like yourself. Of course, we love our brand guests. But before we jump into our conversation, I’d like to provide some context to our listeners. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about your parents and how they informed your current career. 


Well, from my name you can gather… It’s David Garcia Pawley. I’m half English, half Spanish. So I was brought up in Spain; that’s where my father’s from. I was born in England; my mother is English and I’m married to a Russian lady. So, actually, we’re very international at home and I think that’s pretty much a lot to do with my background. I’ve always had international schools, a bit traveling a lot around the world. And I think that’s a part of this curiosity, which has helped me to be very engaged with this industry, with this market research. I think that the curiosity is something that all researchers need to have to work is in this industry. 


What language does your family speak primarily at home? 


Well, mainly Spanish, but now I’ve moved over at the beginning of the year to take on this European role at Samsung. Now I live in the UK with my wife who just came over and we have a three-month baby. So I speak to him in Spanish, my wife in Russian, and whenever he goes into nursery school, English. So I think that’s the plan in terms of languages. 


Yes. That is going to be one adequately educated child in context of culture, for sure. It’s going to be exciting to see that child grow up. I tell you what, I think that having the international lens on at an early age is such a benefit to becoming well-rounded. Also, I think being humble because you realize that actually your culture isn’t necessarily the center of the universe. 


That’s right. 


Let’s shift gears. You’ve been in this space for quite a while. Tell me about the market research project that you are most proud of.


Well, after 23 years in market research and, as you mentioned, that’s in a different areas of work. I did start at Proctor & Gamble, which is a great school to be at. I’ve had both the client side as well as the agency side and both the multinational as well as small startup companies. So I think of two areas. I mean like a Proctor & Gamble, which is a learning place. It’s a wonderful to place to start on. So, you always remember your first occasion. So I was very happy doing our first ORS, which was how we called Off-the-Air Research Studies on evaluating advertising. This was back in Spain. So I think you tend to be proud of the first things you do as you become engaged in your first project. And so, I remember analyzing a piece of research on some advertising that we’re doing for Fairy Washing Up Liquid. That was a great thing, just being the first project. Actually, also from the agency side not long ago, I was involved in a project on launching Argentinian beef in Europe. So again, that’s a very different kind of project.  But we’ve spoken earlier about having an international project is something which is very appealing to me. So, again, it also leads to the pride behind those projects. Yeah. 


So is a point of pride centric to the international context of the research and really conquering the difficulties around that? Or was it centric to the outcome of the research or something else? 


Well, it varies. In the case of the P&G project, it would just be the first one.  It was advertising in the early 1990s, and there was the main investment was only on TV. And especially for Proctor & Gamble, we invest a lot on TV. Well, it’s a key piece of research being done. So it’s interesting to start seeing what consumers value. The work you do internally you think may be relevant to consumers and you don’t always hit the nail on the head. In the case of the Argentinian meat, it was interesting because it was a completely different category, interesting to relate to the product. It took the knowledge you acquire in relation to what is behind the meat that we eat. We probably don’t give that much thought where that cow comes from, how it’s reared, and how that impacts everything. It’s interesting how that industry works. So, and it’s something which is completely new and the fact of the impact that had in terms of the Argentinian economy. Out of the output meant I had to go to Buenos Aires to actually present to all the leading figures in agriculture in the country or the people who are leading the beef producers of the country. So it’s like a big consortium of different people on both the political and social level. That was a very interesting presentation. I have to give up the results. Sometimes you’re used to presenting to 10, 15 top managers.  Here I was presenting to over a hundred people in a hotel with all the people, as I say, from the political background, and it just made it a very interesting project. So I was quite happy to be there. 


I like how you’re weaving it into the impact, not just at a financial—actually not at all from a financial return perspective—but more on a social, socioeconomic or benefit to a specific region perspective. And I think that the more that we can make those connections with the work that we’re doing, then the more meaningful that work is for us and the easier it is for other people to be able to adopt the insights that come out of it.  


That’s right. I think that’s a key point. I think we see it in terms of evolution of market research and what is expected from us. I think the impact is key. I think we’re all facing difficult situations in all organizations, in all industries. We need to justify what we’re doing and the return on investment, which is a right approach. So even within our roles, we need to make sure that all we do is actionable and impactful. So beyond the love that we can have on the actual research pieces that we do because we enjoy doing it, there obviously needs to be a clear output to it and delivery to business, which helps enhance the image of customer marketing inside the market research department. 


So, it’s nice to have somebody that’s had a couple of decades inside of the space because you’ve seen the evolution that’s happened as we migrated from caddy and in mall intercept or paper-based surveys to a digital context to now, again, we’re seeing over the last few years the adoption of this term or maybe borrowing of this term agile research, taking it from the development or product space and applying it to consumer insights.  It has become, I think in a lot of ways almost trendy or buzzwordy. What does agile research mean to you and what do you see as the key differences? 


Now you said about the caddy and so on. Before starting in business when I was 17, I remember the first money I made.  So we’re talking about the eighties; we’re going back to the 1980s and I remember having to go to do face-to-face interviews at people’s homes and on a 45-minute questionnaire with pen and paper. And if these people were not willing to see you, there was a process you had to follow on who you should be interviewing if that person wasn’t available. There’s a whole methodology behind that. So it was interesting to see that. And now any company cannot give me results within a working week and then, you know, it’s not agile, fast enough. So I’ve tried I see things of yes, speed, adaptability. I think there are those traits that a lot of it as I think you’ve mentioned it. The digital environment means that everything is fast; everything is real-time. 

I didn’t know industries and again I think we will see that, as consumers, how things are moving. Market research is at the service of the organization. I mean marketing is evolving. So do we as an industry need to evolve in line with all that and be able to deliver insights in a more timely fashion. There’s the pros and the cons in that. There is an evolution: speed is becoming paramount together with cost effectiveness. I think they’re both linked together. The things that we would deliver, they said as fast as possible in a cost-effective manner. And sometimes that can be at the expense of quality or reliability. I don’t know. For us, we’ve been all these years in market research where we were so conscious about the sampling, the confidence level, the reliability of the data, the source of the data. I do get a feel that over these years that we have become, as an industry, a lot more lenient on this, a bit too relaxed on where the 80/20 rule seems to be a predominant like, “Well, I’m quite happy to sacrifice some quality or some reliability on this at the expense of having things and being able to take decisions a lot faster.” So I think top managers are aware of that; so are we. I think there are some occasions where that needs to be the way to move forward.


So, there’s a ton to unpack there. And just to level set because the majority of our audience probably doesn’t have more than two decades of research experience. But back in the day, (I sound so old) you would spend a ton of effort coming up with your sampling methodology. There were buyer decisions based on the quality of the sampling methodology, error rate and all that sort of thing. And then, the in-field aspect of the data analysis or the data project, I should say, was a big part of the end-deliverable. We called it a term and tally sheet, which helped identify where people were terming. The benefit from that is you’re able to size an audience. In other words, if you’re identifying that you’re having maybe it’s a 10% incidence rate when you’re in 12 different malls across whatever region that you’re targeting… if your incidence rate’s falling below that, then your term and tally sheet will tell you why and what assumptions that you made in your incidence tests that were frankly wrong. And to the point that you’re making, which is actually something that I don’t believe anyone’s brought up before, (and the audience will, of course, correct me if I’m wrong) but it’s a really important one. And that is that that amount of thoughtfulness created a lot of insights that were gleaned just during the fielding stages of the research that frankly now we’ve in a lot of ways lost access to.  


That’s right.  Yeah, I totally agree. I think that it’s part of the evolution. You let go of some things; you introduced some. I think there are some great things going on right now in the way we’re doing research and the impact we can have. And it’s amazing. Actually, I think the evolution of internet and into our industry, I think that’s a huge impact as most of the agencies are aware of that and have adapted into that. I think we have learned from, now it’s good to sit back and weigh some of these decisions that we’re making because I think there is obviously a space there for some reliable, detailed studies, some U&As where you invest the resources to get some clarity on what we’re doing. So, and I think it’s like most things in life — it has to do with the balance, getting the right balance on some things where you can experiment, come up with some basic, some fast areas of interest. And there are others which require and should have sufficient time and resources dedicated to them. So at the end of the day, obviously, when speed and cost is the only variables, then you, obviously, end up getting what you pay for. So I think from the client side now, we need to be conscious of that when we’re expecting from our partners, from our agencies to deliver in a cost-efficient and timely manner; however, that necessarily works both ways. So it’s a bit of a compromise there. 


I think that’s interesting. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the GRIT Report, produced by GreenBook’s Lenny Murphy. But in that he identifies industry trends; it’s a twice annual publication. One of the trends that he just continues to hit on is… It used to be the case “speed, quality, cost – pick two.” And we continue to see pressure really on all three. But I would completely align with what I’m hearing your point being, which is the reality is that you do have to make certain sacrifices and gives if you are really focused on quality or, sorry, price and time or just really pick the two. And we oftentimes don’t have the budgets to be able to support the large research necessary or maybe “necessary” isn’t the right word. That’s just the trade-offs that we make. And as we’re experienced, we can start understanding when it’s OK to cut and when it’s necessary not to. So we’ve been doing a series on community-panel technology companies and service companies. One of them is Verve, who I believe you’d done some business with. I was just curious as a user of these types of panel technology companies, what do you see as the role of a community panel for a brand? 


Well, I think some of the points we’ve just touched upon. I mean the right job, I think there’s the agility aspect.  Also, they’re so they’re faster, cost effective on an interview per interview base. And then from the service we’re getting from Verve, I think that excellent partners and a very important thing here is it has the capabilities. I think that works on both the client and the agency side. So in all this context and all this evolution that we’re seeing, the newcomers into the industry maybe missing some of these scientific approaches to research that maybe us people could be in a couple of decades in this probably have. On the other hand, we need to adapt to the new technologies that are developing. So I think it works both sides. The younger people may have all these digital views but are missing some of the expertise that some of us may have. 

On the other hand, we need to adapt to all the new technologies or the new digital-era tools available. So it’s getting that right balance. And I think in these community panels or in the case of Verve in particular, I’m quite happy in the level of expertise that they have in terms of research while they’re also balancing with the fact that they can be very effective and efficient in terms of being speedy with our demands and also being fair, having the assumption where speed is of paramount importance. We’re not the easiest partner to work for. As a client, we’re very demanding, I think it’s fair to say. And in this case, they have adapted themselves very well to our needs. So that’s something that I personally value very much. And again, this community panels have given us all this possibility of always being on. So it is a very quick way to react. We are aware of some of the changes that our competitors are doing, and we can immediately launch a study on a Monday and have some basic results on what’s happening in the marketplace by the end of the week. So we do something that our top management is demanding from us and which few companies can deliver. And Verve, through the community panel that we have with them, are able to do so.


Yeah, that’s, actually, such a key insight. It requires a long view in terms of an investment thesis, right? Because as opposed to it being a one-and-done or single use PO, you’ve got to know that or trust that, while you’re making an ongoing investment in the community, the payback is quite literally over time. And the benefit is that you’re shaving weeks off of those insights when you need to. What do you see as a user? Was there any surprises? Like, wow, I didn’t see that as either a benefit or potentially even a barrier issue with respect to having your own community?


Well, the community we have with Verve… Some of the panelists are our own consumers of our products. So that is quite well set up in terms of on how we use it. But one of the big advantages that we have is that we can be an international company. It’s easy that we can set these panels across countries. So it gives us a way to have an international view on international results and comparable across countries in a very fast and efficient manner. So the fact that we can have access to this at international level so that we can have a variety of projects, both tactical to more strategic ones, I think that’s important. And again, going back to this balance, we do use a lot this community panel, but we also do a lot of ad hoc research. So it’s basically knowing at which stage we need to be able to pull from one or the other, so each of them are offering some benefits and I think we need to look out for. 


So what are some of the bigger challenges that you face as an internal researcher in order to create, maintain the community panel? Was it centric to budget requests or maybe more operational considerations? 


Yeah, I think the budget is continuously our constraint in any organization these days. I think that’s pretty consistent wherever we’re working. I think in our case, we’re very fortunate in that Samsung invests a lot of money worldwide and in research. We’re very consumer-oriented and we give a lot of importance in terms of product development and communications. It’s very important for us. One of the key things I find for community panels, which I keep trying to improve, is the representativity of the panels and how these are made up. Obviously, as with everything in research, your data is only as good who you are interviewing. So we need to be very methodical and take a lot of care on what is the panel made out of, who is actually responding, any possible biases. I think that the reliability of the data ensure, that it’s there. And again, specifically for panels, I have mentioned that they are engaged.  Opposed to other research where it’s like a one-off. I mean the fact that this is a continuous panel where you have people there, you need to find the right amount of engagement. Don’t overwhelm them, but again keep them sufficiently engaged so that they will want to carry on being in those panels. So us offering relevant projects, but I can rely on our partner to make sure that they are offering the right incentives or if they are working for other clients with a given panel. But he does keep them engaged on a regular basis so we don’t lose them basically. 


Have you found that you’re spending time doing research on research, thinking about things like optimal incentives or frequency of engagement? 


Not that. What I do is I do regular checks on the panel structure. So in each case, Verve will provide me, I know exactly how many users I have, which is the talent which we have. We have our own unique panel for us and, depending on the project, we may also need to increase our sample in case we need it. And then, we may have to include other panels from outside our own one. And then in that, yes, I keep track on each of the European countries I’m responsible for: what is the size of the panel, what is the competition of that panel in terms of demographics, in terms of brand ownership to make sure that I’m fully aware on who we have and who is answering all our questions. So I don’t do research on research.   


Yeah. And Verve, it sounds like they’re providing that oversight to drive optimal outcomes. I guess one of the overarching questions for me is from a panelist perspective… So somebody as a respondent, someone who’s part of your panel, is there a motivator? Is it primarily centric to like money or points or does it feel like it’s more just overall engagement and opportunity to provide feedback? 


Well, I think it’s a bit of both. We do create panels in other organizations where I’ve been, where you try and get employees to give their own feedback. I think all of us are researchers at heart. In the same way as we ask our family members to give an opinion or I’m thinking of buying a new television, you may ask your friends and relatives. Everyone shares their opinions on things. I think even within each organization, we’re all experts in our products. So I’m sure we all have our opinions on the products we’re using. So there’s the possibility of doing that and getting engagement through the different networks that you have access to. So I think, yeah, I mean it’s a…


So, let’s say that you were sitting having a cocktail with a good friend, head of insights for whatever company. (Let’s say Apple’s iTunes.) And they were interested in starting their own community panel. What are three considerations you would tell them or three things that they should be thinking about as they embark on making that decision? 


Well, considering Apple is my main competitor, I don’t think I’d be sitting with him having a coffee. 


You know what? It’s funny you say that. I apologize about the bad taste on my part. 


Okay. Someone else in another industry. I mean… 


Not Apple!


The things I would think of for building a community, obviously, you need to give, as with every project, what is the objective? Why are you setting up a community panel? I think as with all pieces of research, you need to be very clear on the “why” and that should help you in deciding a sample. Who do you want to have in that community panel? Who’s going to help you best deliver the insight that you’re looking for for your business based on the people plus the raw material. What is it going to look like? 

Second, I think engagement. You do need to get your panelists engaged that keep the field interested in the project that you’re doing. In terms of rewards, yes, it can be money. Sometimes, the thought that you’re going to share the results with them could be an option depending on, obviously, the confidentiality or the project you’re running with them. People do like to share their opinion. Well, I think there needs to be a clear engagement done with a panel so they want to continue to be there because one of the key things about a panel, you need to look at it in the medium to long term. So creating a panel, you need to think of where do you see this panel in the mid-, long-term. I mean three, five years time. It’s not something that you can set up and close down. So that requires some thought or this is not just on a project basis. It’s like “What kind of use am I going to get out of it on an ongoing basis?” So again, that’s linked to the engagement you’re going to be able to get from your panelists. Having some quality checks as well:  Who’s going to be in? Who’s out? What kind of governance are you going to have for the way the things are going to work with the panelists in order to deliver the insights to the organization?


I like the last part. I like all of the points you made, but quality checks and governance is actually really interesting.  Do you see that as an evolution or do you expect that to be just like baked in on Day 1? 


I think quality is always an issue. I mean it’s a consideration, and it’s key for everything you do because, as we stated earlier on, I think that was a lot more ingrained in the research industry years ago. To insist, I think we’ve become very lenient. As we start seeing in the digital area, a lot of the big KPIs and methods are being used around the place, which as a researcher do not make much sense. Or you see some of the things that are being reported without having the sufficient methodology behind it to really understand what is going on. I think we’ve gone from one extreme to the other, and I think we need to start going back to really question some of the data that were sharing into the business. Where is it coming from? Is this something which is really happening in the world outside? Sampling errors. All these issues, I think we do need to have some kind of quality check on the data that we’re producing and the insights that we’re delivering as a consequence. So yes, I think you need to be clear about the governance. As soon as you start questioning the data, then you just question the whole methodology. I would start questioning the whole panel if that were the case. 


Yeah, for sure. And it is an interesting point that you’re making, and probably one of the more important things that we don’t think about ‘til it’s too late, which is trust is a slippery slope and once it’s broken and people start second guessing the data source, then you’ve got a material problem on your hands, especially from a vendor perspective. Then it also impacts our customers in terms of how they’re viewed inside of their companies. So, it’s just imperative that we pay… Quality checks and governance are kind of the… While it’s not sexy, I think it’s got to be one of the leading messages just to provide that overall level of comfort. I also wanted to just underscore this theme that I’ve been hearing among my brand guests, which is this validate a point of view or a theme based on outside data. So, like Microsoft is a great example of a company where you can’t just go in and present primary research. You’ve got to have that research backed by auxiliary sources, whether it’s third party or behavioral or whatever. 


Yeah, I think actually there’s been a history where we talk about qualitative and quantitative research, and I think there’s always been the discussions inside the brands. “Well, I went to these focus groups and there were two people who said whatever.” You need to put things into perspective. You need to validate this is quantitative and so on. I mean qualitative, when you think analysis, I mean the repetition of the point of what is being said is what validates the idea. So I saw that two people… It’s when you do half a dozen groups and you get the same overarching idea is present, you know there is something in there. That’s how I feel a lot of the Twitter and Facebook and all these social platforms. Although it’s a great way to express are like huge focus groups, I find it a bit harder to get metrics out of some of these tools or measuring of sentiment. As I look into the different European countries, everyone has their own language and the value of humor and sarcasm plays a different role in different countries. So if you could measure that and quantify that… So I think we do need to be aware of how we’re using those tools. And I do like to look whenever we’re doing a launch or a follow-up or something’s happening in the market, I love to read all the tweets and to read for like 20 minutes. That’s going to give me the overall idea of what is going on. I don’t need to know whether the sentiment is positive or negative at 17% or 37%. I will get the overall idea based on what I’m reading from consumers. So I think that is another thing to bear in mind in terms of the reliability of the data and the sources that we’re using. 


Yeah, social media is interesting. There’s been a lot of effort that was made over the last five years to create like these sentiment scores and etc., etc. But still it hasn’t been adopted at scale by researchers. You know, it definitely has found some purchase. I’m not saying it doesn’t have a role, but I don’t think it’s achieved what the original thesis was: ultimately, driving the sentiment for a specific brand as expressed on social media. The other thing that I want to unpack a little bit before we move on is this point about qualitative and quantitative. Quantitative, of course, allows us to extrapolate a point of view on an audience at scale, whereas qualitative allows us really to get to more of the uncovering the “why” or humanizing the results: that discoverability and connection with the data. Are you seeing tools come out right now or do you expect to see tools come out over the next three to five years that allow you to conduct qualitative-like research but at a scale that then allows you to extrapolate to a larger population?


Well, I think the first thing, I think that the biggest change we need to do from a brand’s point of view, we need to get out a lot more, a very basic thing. But I think the trend is research, but I think that should never be a substitute for common sense. And I think what I find in many organizations is that we’re all stuck inside offices and we don’t go to the point of sale enough. We don’t speak to consumers informally enough. I think we need to get out. Even self-moderating, I mean this is not against real research Institutes who do with professional moderators, but I think it’s interesting in several of organizations I’ve been to, I’ve even given trainings on teaching marketing departments on how to moderate. What I mean by moderate – how to ask a question, how to listen to consumers. And I think it’s good for clients to actually be able to sit around a table or go shop and go do shop-alongs. A lot of the ethnographic research… That’s been there for ages, but I think we need to do a lot more of that. Rather than just read things, it’s actually get out and talk to people, listen to people. It’s not so much inventing new things, but going in some cases back to basics to learn about those things. We’ve just mentioned also about social media. A lot of the time that is spent and a lot of the purchase decisions that are made online and through social media requires us to try and improve our measurement, our listening, how to drive business impact through these channels. So I think anything along those lines, we probably need a lot more evolution as where we are right now. I think it’s moving such a pace that it’s hard to catch on, but I think that is where most of the work I think needs to be done. 


Yeah. That’s so interesting. So, you’re the second guest I’ve had that has made this point. Estrella Lopez-Brea, who’s the head of insights for the cereal partnership between General Mills and Nestlé, had the exact same point and I can’t remember, I think it was on her podcast, but it might have been a separate conversation. But the framework is them as researchers and even like outside of the research function, they’re helping others connect with consumers and really with the intent of not just consumer insights but also just empathy with their constituents. I do think that this is a trend that we will see materialize. I can’t quantify yet, but I’m going to start incorporating it in more conversations and see how it materializes. So thanks very much for bringing that up. So, my last question, what is your personal motto?  


I haven’t really thought about that. I think there’s a balance. I like to think about work-life balance. I do take my professional career, obviously, with great importance, but now that, as I mentioned the beginning, I’ve got a three-month baby and you put things into perspective. I think it’s applicable to both work and the personal life, but I think it’s a matter of balance. If I were to think back in my life, I think one of the best decisions has been to spend my life traveling. I’ve been to over a hundred countries throughout my life. And I think that helps you to understand the people a little bit better. This is such a global environment we’re in even more so now that you have to work with the multinational companies.  It doesn’t matter where you’re based. I think you need to be islands and be able to listen to all the different points of view and try to improve on communication. So, in terms of motto, I would say, or an attribute, a value, a balanced person, I think, can go far. So yeah, I think that would be it – probably the area I would focus on.


My guest today has been David Garcia Pawley, director of European countries, CMI. That is Consumer and Market Insights at Samsung. Thank you, David, for being on the Happy Market Research Podcast today.


Thank you, Jamin. It’s been a pleasure. Thank you very much. 


Everyone else, thank you so much for your time. I truly appreciate it. If you found value, please take a moment. It takes about 60 seconds: screen capture, post on Twitter or LinkedIn. If you tag a Happy Market Research or myself, we will be give you a special gift. Ah, how’s that? And I actually have 300 stickers. So if you do a tag me, I will send you a sticker. I’ve never done that before either. I have a great rest of your day.


According to the GRIT report, there has been an increase in the number of qualitative based tools. This is centric to user experience, customer experience, and market research. However, as with all things, the actual research operations remains to be done and that happens usually outside of those toolsets. HubUx is a solution for that. You plug your tools directly into it; you enter in who it is that you want to talk to when you want to talk to them and HubUx literally does the rest for you. If you already have an existing customer list, you can just upload it directly into the tool. If you want to leverage social recruiting, that’s integrated as well. It is the single source for all of your research operations needs HubUx. Check it out. Thanks. 

Happy MR Podcast Podcast Series

Ep. 232 – Aji Ghose – How Sky is Using a Mix Methodological Approach to get a Complete View of the Customer, and How You Can Too

My guest today is Aji Ghose, PhD in computational cognitive modeling, and is Head of Research and Data Science at Sky. Sky is a media and telecommunications conglomerate owned by Comcast and headquartered in London. Sky is Europe’s largest media company and pay-TV broadcaster by revenue with 23 million subscribers and more than 31,000 employees as of 2019.

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On episode 232, I’m interviewing Aji Ghose, Head of Research and Data Scientist at Sky, but first a word from our sponsor. 


This episode is brought to you by HubUx.  HubUx is a productivity tool for qualitative research.  It creates a seamless workflow across your tools and team.  Originally, came up with the idea as I was listening to research professionals in both the quant and qual space complain about and articulate the pain, I guess more succinctly, around managing qualitative research.  The one big problem with qualitative is it’s synchronous in nature, and it requires 100% of the attention of the respondent. This creates a big barrier, and, I believe, a tremendous opportunity inside of the marketplace.  So what we do is we take the tools that you use; we integrate them into a work flow so that, ultimately, you enter in your project details, that is, who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, whether it’s a focus group, in-person, or virtual or IDI’s or ethnos; and we connect you to those right people in the times that you want to have those conversations or connections – Push-Button Qualitative Insights, HubUx.  If you have any questions, reach out to me directly. I would appreciate it.   


Hi, I’m Jamie Brazil, and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. My guest today is Aji Ghose, Ph.D., in computational cognitive modeling, grounded semantics, machine learning, Head of Research and Data Science at Sky. Sky is a media and telecommunications company. It’s owned by Comcast and headquartered in London. Sky is Europe’s largest media company and pay-TV broadcaster by revenue with 23 million subscribers and more than 31,000 employees as of 2019. Aji, thanks very much for joining me on the Happy Market Research Podcast.


Thanks for having me.


I’d like to start out with getting a little bit of context about yourself. Tell us a little bit about your early days, your parents, maybe how they informed your current career.


Sure. So, I grew up in Vienna, Austria, and my mom was a math teacher. So from quite an early age, I was used to seeing a lot of numerical books around the house and just got a sort of flavor for numerical puzzles and those kinds of things. And my dad was retired. Both are retired now. My dad was a diplomat for the U.N., so was pretty much in civil service for about 35 years and was more interested in politics and diplomacy, etc. And for me the contrast between the world of diplomacy versus math was quite straightforward. I found one really boring, and I really liked other. Clearly, I went for the more mathematical route. 


Thinking about like math, a lot of people would… I say a lot of people; maybe a lot of my kids think of math as kind of the boring subject in their life, which is funny because about 80% of my life is centered around math as a professional. What was your connection into mathematics? 


So, in addition to my mom, I think the main connection to math was that I had a really good math teacher growing up. Her name was Ms. Salmachi.  She introduced us to math in a really fun, exciting way. Math wasn’t this boring dull thing you did inside a classroom. Math was something you did in the real world. You explored things: how rivers streamed. You just had fun. So the way I got engaged with math was more as a way of just we would go outside. Yes, we‘d learn a few things, but I would really have a lot fun. So in many ways it was actually better than gym or anything like physical education ‘cause you had a lot time to just explore things, ask questions and the emphasis wasn’t “Oh, look at these dry equations and try to figure it out.” No, no, we would try to find the real world with numbers.


Oh, that’s such a great point about the importance of engagement with a subject and the role that the teacher plays. Do you keep in contact with her at all? Does she have any sense of her impact on your life and the success that you’ve had? 


Yes. Well, not recently, but after I got my bachelor’s in psychology quite a few years ago, I reached out to her and said, “The main reason why I opted for all the math and statistics courses (which is quite rare. Most of students have a tendency to avoid those subjects.) was down to her teaching” and that of another one, Mr. Selvincy, who was my technology teacher. And he got me more sort of into computer science and the code side of things quite early on. I was like eleven. So I reached out to both of them. In fact, now that I’ve got my Ph.D., I was planning actually to reach out to both of them.


And congratulations on the Ph.D. I really don’t have a sense of context in terms of when you achieved that. Joaquim Bretcha the president—I call him El Presidente—of ESOMAR, he mentioned on Twitter that I should tell you “Congratulations.” 


Thank you very much. To use his words, “very much a fresh Ph.D.” I literally passed my oral exams on Monday. 


Wow. So quite literally. Wow. That’s amazing. Yeah. Congratulations. Full-heartedly You’ve experienced a lot of… Just accomplishing your Ph.D. is a pretty remarkable challenge. But when you think about some of the biggest challenges that you’ve overcome, what would one be that stands out for you, either personally or professionally, and how’d you overcome it? 


So one of the things that I had to personally overcome, probably the hardest thing, is having my dad diagnosed with cancer almost six or seven years ago.  I’m in London but he’s based in Vienna, Austria; so, there was a lot of distance between the two. How do you cope with that? My father still is very proud, a very traditional man, who doesn’t usually share a lot. So, he wouldn’t, for example, share details of him going for therapy or surgery, etc. So I would always find out after the fact. And he would go, “Oh, no, I was all fine.  No need to worry about it.” That was quite tough over the last few years, especially working full-time and at the same time, doing a Ph.D.  


Yeah, that’s a heavy lift. How’s he doing now? 


Yeah. He’s doing well.  With the condition he has, it’s a little bit difficult to tell, but it’s stable now.  So that’s the main thing.  


The issue with the parent transition is actually something that I’m terrified about addressing to be honest. My father is 81 years old and similarly to yourself. I don’t know what if it’s like generational or what, but he was also diagnosed with cancer and didn’t tell my sister and myself until after everything was pretty much in hand and sorted out. I think you’re right part of it is just this pride thing. Like this is my burden to bear, and I don’t want to leave it on my kids, but as I think about like how it has informed me as a now parent, I’m definitely more in line with sharing, I think, maybe a little bit more in, in context of those struggles for preparation, etc. But it’s definitely, I think, a generational shift. 


Yeah, absolutely. My dad is 77, I think. He grew up in India. The cultural shift or generational shift is quite a significant. Similar to you, I don’t have any kids yet but let’s be open and upfront about everything. 


There you go. So let’s shift gears a little bit – machine learning. Talk to us a little bit about what machine learning is. That’s probably a really good place for us to set a baseline. 


So machine learning is really the study of using algorithms, which are essentially recipes for performing a range of tasks, etc., without explicitly telling the computer what to do. So the machine learns typically through a lot of examples what we want it to do and what failure typically looks like as well. So, a good example would be classification. Instead of assuming a certain type of relationship, it all comes down to teaching a machine to figure out from multiple, many examples what right looks like or what the two different types of people, five different types of people look like. So that’s machine learning. To just contrast machine learning to traditional programming, traditional programming: You have to sort of tell the computer what to do, and in many ways, you need to be the architect of the algorithm itself. It’s really the human intelligence traditionally encoded in the machine, whereas in machine learning, it’s based on a lot of data and the machine gradually learning some representation that’s useful. 


When I think back on my statistics background in the late nineties or mid to late nineties, I was doing a lot more segmentation analysis and regression and kind of basic stuff like that—modeling out projected impact on product adoption in markets and whatnot. We would use math to basically create at a basic level of histogram. Right. And then apply some art, I guess, to the segmentation piece of it. It sounds like the application of machine learning here is really more of a standing position where it’s always in that process of understanding and segmenting. 


Yes, so that’s a really interesting point actually. So it’s a bit more dynamic than traditional … We’re talking about machine learning, obviously. For a lot of applications, traditional statistics is still the right way of doing things. But the way machine learning sometimes approaches a problem is instead of a human analyst having to encode or recode variables in certain way or combine variables (there’s some fancy name for that is called feature engineering), instead of a human analyst having to do that, a lot of machine learning algorithms, not all but a lot of them are really good at doing that bit, which actually people like me in the sciences, we have like stats courses all about feature engineering. These days with some machine learning algorithms, you don’t really do much of that feature engineering as you sort of have to do with more traditional algorithms.       


So from your vantage point, where are seeing it intersect with modern market research and how are companies using it to help inform their decisions? 


So, one of the use cases of machine learning, especially in market research in particular, is understanding unstructured data. You can use machine learning for any data set, structured or unstructured, with structured typically being simple, tabularized data that we’re all used to. You can use machine learning for everything. However, for unstructured data like text, images, that’s where machine learning can really start looking at the patterns and start identifying trends that you‘d be very hard pressed to find in using standard statistical methods. So a simple example would be if you have a video with a bunch of different objects, you can’t really identify what’s going on. But with machine learning it’s very easy to segment a scene.  “That’s a table; that’s a person; two people are talking.” And those kinds of things are quite useful for market research purposes as well because, all of a sudden, automatically start tagging videos or looking at intonations in voice using advanced speech analytics. And, more important, you can start integrating multiple types of data as well. So I talk about speech, for example, and I talk about images. We can start integrating the two, and start understanding, is there overall narrative structure that’s developing in a particular video clip? And across different types of video clips are there different narrative schemas that are used. Those kind of things can be done, codified and start saying, actually, for these kinds of videos, campaign A might form really well, whereas for the scheme of this, then actually campaign B or C might work pretty well. So those kinds of things have historically not been possible with standard methodologies, but machine learning can help decode those hidden patterns in very complex data sets. So, image, text but also sensor information. We at Sky don’t make that much use of, but I know others in FMCG areas do. 


Yeah, it’s an interesting use case. One of my theses, evolving thesis in the space is that one of the biggest opportunities in front of us is triangulating truth. And triangulation is really a misnomer here. But what I mean is we have a survey or whatever, data collection and IDI etc. and that’s really an isolation of a feedback without context. And the way that we can provide greater context is by incorporating into that, the self-reported data, whether it’s behavioral or transactional or just the longitudinal points of view that that person may have had over time. But you’re taking it even a step further by being able to process the environments,  literally, from the video perspective of the environments that the people are giving the feedback in, which is important maybe in the framework of the way that I’m going to respond on a bus ride is probably different than at home before bed. 


Exactly, absolutely. So, my Ph.D. was all about looking at visual scenes and trying to understand meaning that’s embedded in the visual scene itself. And one of the things I’m really passionate about working at Sky is to collaborate with the quality headed up by Sergio, my equivalent on the qual side. They connect rich data sources from people watching Sky or connected to services from the comfort of their home. All my data at all times doesn’t really get utilized. After the research was done, we move onto the next project but what if we started slowly looking at how behaviors change over time, taking those images and then learning what those associations are about.  That is potentially quite a rich source of information. 


That’s actually one time I did a… This goes back a couple of years, literally two years. I did a study where I was…  I can’t remember any questions, 10- to 15-question surveys, so short. At the end of it I said, please take a picture of a video of your room where you’re giving me the feedback. And I’ll never forget one lady took a picture and she had these little kids and they were running around like Lord of the Flies maniacs. It was hilarious. And, all of a sudden, it really dawned on me that I could be missing a lot of information. If I just made decisions based on this one mom in the context of how her day was going, when she was providing that feedback, I may be in trouble. Of course, on average we assume everything works out. Just like on average everybody has 2.3 kids. So…


Exactly, yeah. 


How should we be training the modern analysts and the data scientists that are entering into market research now? 


Yeah. For data scientists and analysts in particular, I think one main focus should initially be on communication. Yes, that might sound odd ‘cause you might expect me to say math or coding, etc. But we have a lot of people who already are really interested in data science and they’re pretty good at coding and their pretty good stats and usually they’re quite interested in math as well. But what they really struggle with is communicating their findings, understanding what the problem is in the first instance, especially junior data scientists and analysts might have produced exceptional models that are sophisticated, etc. But actually you’re like, are you really solving the problem that you’re trying to address?  They’ll very quickly jump from models but not really engage with clients or stakeholder or internal stakeholders. So then communication is definitely something that we in the industry need help data scientists and analysts improve but also in universities. There’s something about just recently the University of London, which is for people who are doing MSE programs and things like computation, making sure that they can present their work. They can present really complex ideas in fairly simple, simple terms.

Comm is one. The second one, I’ll say statistics. A lot of people are starting to ignore statistics, especially people more with a computer science background.  They do one course, etc. or even a degree program, and they just assume if they can run a machine learning algorithm, A, B, and C, that’s it. That’s data science. They don’t need to worry about things like probability, standards, distribution and all those traditional types of statistical methods.  And that’s really problematic because in order to interpret the output of the machine algorithms, actually statistics is very useful. So, stats is definitely a focus area, I would say. Thirdly, algorithmic thinking. So I’m not saying coding. A lot of times people go on a course and think, “OK, I can run a couple of scripts, and that’s it.  I’m great.” Whereas I’m talking about algorithmic thinking, which is what is a business? What is the business problem? What are the key components? What do we need to focus on? How do I create a model or a set of models that really addresses a question I’m trying to answer. And that can only be done if you move away from that mentality of “Problem 8 equals recipe C.” A lot of times, I see data science being run that way where people automatically say, “Oh yeah, that’s just another neural network.” etc. We kind of have to move away from that. Becoming problem solvers should really be the goal.  The final one I would say is “Learning to learn.” I’ve been in the world of data science for about 10 years now. I’ve used all sorts of different languages from basic MBA: SaaS all the way to things like R, Python, NetLab. The only caution that I’ve come across is I’ve never been too wedded to a single algorithm, etc. I’ve always had to develop. If you don’t have that “Learn to learn” mentality, data scientists will find it increasingly harder to do their job in the future.  


Going back to the first point that you raised about the importance of storytelling and really building out a narrative that people can relate to, that ultimately provides action to the organization as opposed to just knowledge:  How are you training? Like is there a set of courses like that for the masses? How are organizations helping the people that are highly technical. I think what you’re talking about in data science a lot of ways is analogous to developers, which from a cast perspective have been seen as maybe not the best. They’re not the marketing guy, right? Or gal. So, how are they able to… Like if I want to develop myself in this way and pull the skill out myself, do you have some recommended resources? 


So I don’t have any recommended resources in terms of structured courses, some more formal training, but I’ve found it quite useful at Sky and places like Kantar Media, was basically through buddying up very technical people with quite non-technical people or in many cases, buddying up someone who is, for example, a content research expert but hates analytics with someone who dreads talking about content research but is very familiar with the latest machinery and techniques. And getting them to work on a project together. So, initially, it’s difficult and they may not realize that the other person’s skills are useful. At Sky, I had a quant research and data science and all the time I’m sort of a translator between the two. But over time when you do buddy people up with very different skillsets, they start seeing the benefits and they start learning.  The non-technical person will start to understand when regression might be more useful than a cross-train. A data scientist might actually realize that, “Oh, there’s a reason why the quant RM decided to simplify the narrative because otherwise the stakeholder would really have no idea what they’re talking about.”


That’s right. I mean that’s like a two-fold benefit, isn’t it? When I started Decipher, Jamie Plunkett was really the math brain of the business. I learned a lot. In fact, I learned 90% of my stats from him despite the fact, of course, I took the classes in college, but the point is that we saw benefit with really cross-training each other and, and shoring up those skills that may not come naturally to the individual. 


Exactly. And for me, it’s an ongoing process. I love engaging with my peers whether it’s head of insight or head of strategy. And start understanding they start integrating that information in their role and how does the head of global brand strategy, for example, start making decisions on back of that. I think that should be applied across all levels and experience bands because it generally helps everyone to do their job better. 


So, tell me about the research project you’re the most proud of and it may be your thesis.


Actually, yeah. It is for me the research project for sure that I’m most proud of so far. So my Ph.D. thesis is called “Grounding Semantics in the Real World.” It’s all really about understanding how much meaning is there in the visual world. People, obviously, talk about analyzing text is important, but in my thesis and research I’ve shown that actually in a simple photograph of like an office, you have books that are related to tables or desks and computers. The fact that all these objects are co-occuring in the same scene actually says something. It says that these are really related in a specific point in time and space. That is very similar to how text analysis is done as well. Text analysis has traditionally looked at what are the types of words that co-occur in a particular document. Because of that, you can start understanding what key themes are. My research is probably the first to do the same but in the visual world. So it’s not really decoding the themes and the topics and the meaning that’s in real life. And, as an example of how can quite useful, one of my chapters in my thesis was looking at gender bias. So people typically will understand that, “Oh, yeah, gender bias is an important thing.” And in texts clearly it’s quite likely to have a lot of gender bias.  However, people normally don’t think about images and how much bias there might be in images? One of the things I looked at was traditional terms like professionals like teacher, doctor, nurse, CEO, etc. I just scraped the web and just downloaded a bunch of images. And then using my algorithm, I looked at the scenes and then codified that information computationally. Based on that, you had women that were very close to association with nurse and teacher and very traditional male associations with CEO. There was a real divide in the sort of semantic space, derived from the real-world visual environment. So that finding was interesting, but it was also, obviously, also very worrying because it shows that when you train machine-learning algorithms using techniques, you’re also encoding the biases of the real world. And that’s something that a lot of people haven’t really paid attention to until very recently. 


That’s probably the most important point that anyone’s ever made on the podcast. Right. So we almost could have this—and I hadn’t actually considered it—You almost have this like self-reinforcing bias that’s being generated by the algorithms that are serving us up the content in the way we want it because that’s sort of the way that we’ve been fed it. 


Exactly, absolutely. From a lot of my Ph.D. work, I’ve noticed that in fact I’m building on many people’s work here.  Other people have found similar things in language. These algorithms not only encode the biases but, in fact, in some cases they amplify the biases. So they really… It’s almost like they’re creating a caricature bias in a statistical model, which is even worse. 


That’s so interesting. Which kind of gets back down to one of the reasons understanding the math is so important because, if you’re just accepting the outcomes, then you could really be the puppet, not the puppet master. 


Yeah, yeah, exactly. 


So, market research has gone through a lot of changes. What we’re talking about is a pretty material change. How do you think the space is going to be different in the next five years? 


I think the top change around market research training in next five years will be around increased automation of all the repetitive processes across functions: quant research, data engineering, data science, etc. and people having to be comfortable with idea that things that they have always done manually, it’s just going to be done automatically. And that’s something they’ll have to get used to, and that’s a real culture shift. Secondly, I would say there’s going to be more of a transition from data processing to data engineering. So instead of having big departments, and I’ve definitely experienced that at Sky in my own department. Then instead having big teams of people that turn out tables for researchers and data scientists, you’re going to have people that focus more into an automation of systems to enable unfettered access to data. So quant research and data scientists create their own paths quite easily instead of going through the quite archaic process of “Oh, someone has to create tabs and then that has to be codified and so on and so on. Some Wizard NDP has to go through some code and long list etc.”  So I think that will start disappearing. And people in data processing will start, hopefully, retraining in the field of data engineering. So yeah, that was something that we noticed across a few different companies as well. 


Are you seeing companies that are doing this? So, for example, I know Microsoft has a team where they’re taking the disparate pieces of data that they have (telemetry data) and now they’re codifying that into a schema, and then the next step for them and their process is to combine the self-reported data that’s coming in from, whether it’s qual or quant, into that schema so that it can be processed in a streamlined manner as opposed to having to be done by hand every time, which is tough. 


Yeah, no, exactly. 


My question is are you seeing like… Is this innovation coming from within the brands or are you seeing it being empowered from outside? 


So I think it’s being empowered from the outside because a lot of these kinds of things require technical expertise that companies like Sky or at least in their research area or data science area typically don’t have in-house. So I know, for example, companies like IBM are working a lot on creating very helpful, higher level schemas to essentially help non-technical people automate as much of their tasks as possible and to add value in different ways. So, IBM’s compu services is a great example of integrating vast amounts of data in nuanced ways and ways that humans can still shape. But then once you went through a couple of different paths, the algorithm started learning what sort of automation is required and then, it can actually do that for the humans. So you don’t have to have knowledge engineers as you had in the 80s, having to codify all of this manually. You can do it a few times and then systems like IBM and, you know, Google has done it as well… can just do it automatically. 


Yeah, I mean it’s so funny to me like even at a basic level, we still ask gender in surveys even though it’s vastly known right at the respondent level; especially if you’re using third party panel, it’s always known. That’s just one example. I think I did a study once on it and, on average, you’ll see about 80 to 90 questions in a survey, of which about 17 to 20 are data points like ethnicity, etc. that are actually known about that respondent. And what’s funny is those are the questions that are used oftentimes in screening criteria, which then creates this like mass repeat. So if somebody’s trying to take a survey, they’re going to get asked that again and again and again. And, I mean this is like the simplest example I can think of where there could be a lot of benefit in that integrated data schema. 


Yeah, I know, absolutely. 


So, AR didn’t come up, augmented reality; voice didn’t come up, which I thought was interesting for you. Do you see those as playing a big role in market research in the next five years? 


I think voice is going to play potentially more of a dominating role. However, at the moment, the main stumbling block is quality of data. So either there isn’t enough data or the data is such poor quality that, even if you use off-the-shelf algorithms, you don’t get that much information out of it. In fact, we’ve had both of those situations at Sky where you have a lot data to capture, but some of the quality isn’t there. I think also the algorithms for analyzing voice have to go quite a long way in order for it to be fairly insightful for very large organizations like Sky with very sophisticated insight functions, that span some 100 people etc. But for a very small company, I can see voice being very useful and might provide quite immediate insights, but I’ve not really seen it being done at scale except for a few particular companies, at least one startup that I know of called Verbalization, but we haven’t used them at Skype so far. But I know that they, for example, codified voice and text in terms of like 300 or 200-300 dimensions, psychological dimensions and then using those that can add much more value at the insight level using voice data. But I think those are the kinds of things we’re still not seeing enough of. The gap between data and so what are you going to do with all that information? 


Awesome. I really appreciate the lead on that company. I’m going to see if I can get them on the show. I just checked out their website. It’s pretty cool. And I’ll include a link in the show notes as well. So biggest issue. What is the biggest issue that either you’re facing at Sky or like the thing that you wished that, gosh darn it, somebody in this world would solve this particular problem and make a market research much better?


For me, the biggest issue is not getting the balance right between market research and other types of insight generation. So that can include Big Data analysis or AB testing or econometrics, not just Sky—pretty much most companies I come across through lecturing at the Market Research Society. Companies fall between two extremes. On one extreme, they do only AB testing and they don’t really value market research. On the other side, you have people that love market research so much they don’t care about CRM or Big Data, etc. And the problem is that people rarely find the right balance of market research and other types of data for free exploitation. And a lot of times that leads to market researchers getting a bit of a bad rep because market research agencies especially will always pitch proposals, etc. without understanding their real deep, deep in business context. And that can be quite frustrating for internal stakeholders. So, if I was at any other market research agency, the main thing I would focus on is getting market researchers to really understand how businesses operate right now, how that‘s changing, how big companies have huge infrastructure invested already in Tableau or other sorts of dashboards, etc. and that market research has to wedge itself into that ecosystem as opposed to being a standalone because that’s usually when market research is ignored a lot of the time. 


Yeah, that’s a really interesting point. You’re talking about a couple of things there thematically that have popped in the interviews that we’ve done here with major brands. It sounds like what I keep hearing is there’s a constant need to have deep partnerships for the actual agencies and the people that are servicing the brands to truly understand the business context of the insight and then partner perhaps a little bit more downstream with how that insight is going to get played out in the broader organization. 


Yeah, exactly. 


It’s interesting. That’s one part of it. And the other part of it, I think, that is, gosh, it’s so interesting. This is a fascinating point to me. So, I just presented at Facebook a couple, last week. (Maybe it‘s two weeks ago now.) And in the presentation, I talked about how many people were Ux researchers or market researchers. And the majority were centric to data science and, well, Ux first and then data science and then market research. So I thought that was really fascinating, right? And it wasn’t just that there were a lot of, there were a lot of companies, Google and others that were represented in this audience. And so, what I find so interesting is they are all doing similar types of research, but it feels like there’s a re-inventing of the wheel that’s happening inside of these newer disciplines that market research has kind of been doing for decades. And yet, there isn’t this like cross-sharing or the Venn diagram hasn’t quite, you know what I mean? There, there’s not the knowledge transfer that exists.


No, no. That’s something I’ve noticed at quite a few MRS conferences depending on the type of session especially if you’re at digital native live, like your Google and Facebook. A lot of the time they’re re-inventing techniques that market research addressed many years ago but at a more strategic level and yet people sort of bucket all of market research as that’s just asking questions, right? And simplifying market research into just “You ask questions; you get answers.” They sort of ignore the fact actually that a lot of the AB testing methodologies that  actually stem from market research.


That’s a great point, such a great point. 


So, people create these artificial divisions between.. The same thing with machine learning versus statistics. People love sort of separating things into buckets. I feel there aren’t enough people that try looking for the overlaps between all the different areas and try to truly get the best combination of solutions for whatever business problem there is. 


Do you think there’s a role inside of big organizations, more of this product manager for consumer insights? I don’t know what the title would be, but if that makes sense.


Yeah, no doubt. Yeah. I’m not sure what the optimal title would be, but yeah. Some translation role as well. 


Yeah, Lenny Murphy shared a list with me of technology companies centric to market research and there’s over 600, which actually surprised me. I thought it was closer to 200. So it’s a massive amount and the amount that’s spent—Now, of course, you have like the Qualtrics is in there. So you’ve got 400 and some odd million dollars—but the sum of monies that they represent is in excess of $12 billion, which is a meaningful amount of spend that’s happening. And so, we’ve entered into this time where consumer insights is… It’s really never been easier to get the voice of the consumer or a person’s point of view. But at the same time, it’s probably never been easier to screw up the implications of that and walk away with a bad point of view or incorrect point of view of what that data actually means. Because you don’t necessarily have the… Just because it’s easy, doesn’t mean you should do it right. A scalpel in the hands of a kid is a big problem. So,  the broader point is just because everybody has a license to do a survey, does that mean that that’s acceptable and should brands think about that broader role of…? Again, I don’t know what the title is. “Consumer Insights” keeps coming to mind, but I feel like that might be too narrow. So anyway, that’s what I got. That’s my soapbox. What is your personal motto?


My personal motto is a famous quote from Isaac Newton, which is “If I’ve ever seen further, it is by staying on the shoulders of giants.” And that’s been my guiding principle all the time, which is try finding established studies or academics or anything you can get hold of and then see…  Instead of reinventing the wheel, what can I develop on top of the existing literature to address a particular business challenge or academic challenge. 


That’s a perfect way to go out. My guest today has been Aji Ghose, Head of Research and Data Science at Sky. Thank you sir, very much for being on Happy Market Research Podcast today. 


Thanks for having me.


Everyone else, if you found any value in this, I would greatly appreciate it if you took the time to screenshot it, share it with your friends, and as always, your reviews are greatly appreciated. You can always reach me any time through email as well as the handle Jamin Brazil on any social media platform. Have a wonderful rest of your day. 


This episode is brought to you by HubUx.  HubUx is a productivity tool for qualitative research.  It creates a seamless workflow across your tools and team.  Originally, came up with the idea as I was listening to research professionals in both the quant and qual space complain about and articulate the pain, I guess more succinctly, around managing qualitative research.  The one big problem with qualitative is it’s synchronous in nature, and it requires 100% of the attention of the respondent. This creates a big barrier, and, I believe, a tremendous opportunity inside of the marketplace.  So what we do is we take the tools that you use; we integrate them into a work flow so that, ultimately, you enter in your project details, that is, who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, whether it’s a focus group, in-person, or virtual or IDI’s or ethnos; and we connect you to those right people in the times that you want to have those conversations or connections – Push-Button Qualitative Insights, HubUx.  If you have any questions, reach out to me directly. I would appreciate it.  Have a great rest of your day.

MrWeb Podcast Series

MrWeb Series – Paul Lawson of Verve on Applying a Consultative Lens for Bigger Impact and Better Storytelling

My guest today is Paul Lawson, Executive Director at Verve. Based in London, Verve is a market research technology company offering solutions for agile insights and custom panels. Prior to joining Verve, Paul was a Research Director at Synovate. 

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Hey, everybody, this is Jamin, host of the Happy Market Research Podcast. In conjunction with MrWeb, I’ve had the honor of interviewing three of the leading custom panel companies. This is one of those three episodes. If you’re not currently subscribed to MrWeb, I just can’t recommend another resource. He gives you a daily update on happenings, whether it’s HR, M&A, technology releases, companies going out of business, companies starting. I mean there is not a single point of truth that I found to be more consistent and reliable than MrWeb. So check them out. They’re great and I hope you enjoy this episode.   


According to the GRIT report, there has been an increase in the number of qualitative-based tools. This is centric to user experience, customer experience, and market research. However, as with all things, the actual research operations remains to be done and that happens usually outside of those toolsets. HubUx is a solution for that. You plug your tools directly into it; you enter in who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, and HubUx literally does the rest for you. If you already have an existing customer list, you can just upload it directly into the tool. If you want to leverage social recruiting, that’s integrated as well. It is the single source for all of your research operations needs HubUx. Check it out. Thanks. 


Hi, I’m Jamin Brazil. You’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. My guest today is Paul Lawson, Executive Director at Verve.  Did I say it right? 


You did yeah, Verve. We often get asked that question, but it is Verve, absolutely.


Perfect. Based in London, Verb is a market research technology company offering solutions for agile insights and custom panels. Prior to joining Verve, Paul was a research director at Synovate. Paul, thanks very much for being on the Happy Market Research Podcast today. 


It’s a pleasure. I’m happy to be here. 


We’d like to start with some context for our audience. Tell us a little bit about your parents and how they have informed your career. 


Yeah, sure. So, we’re based in London, grew up in England. So that’s the first bit of context. It was interesting thinking about this actually, and I had a chat to my parents about it last night, funnily enough. My mom had a whole bunch of different jobs, mostly I guess what you’d describe civil-service type stuff. So she worked for HM revenue and customs in the taxes department over here. So that’s the kind of money kind, not the wield kind. And she also worked for the National Health Service.  So she had a job in a hospital in an eye department. And when I was thinking about how it influenced me, I thought it was interesting because the jobs that she did often meant she was interacting with people who were probably quite stressed and potentially were having kind of times where they were quite vulnerable. And she actually got me a job at the hospital that she worked in one summer. And I always remember noticing firsthand how well she was able to empathize with people who were going through often tricky situations but also at the same time move them through the process because ultimately moving them through the process in the system was part of what she was there to do. And I always thought that it was really interesting how she managed to balance those two things. And I think the big one of those, obviously, for me is about empathy. My role in the business I work in means that I have a lot of conversations, with people that I’ve never met before. And in all of those conversations, it’s obviously, really important that you’re able to empathize with people and that you can connect with them as human beings and understand things from their point of view. And, ultimately, I suppose that helps on both a personal level, but it also helps on a business level because if I can understand them and their point of view. Then I’m more likely to be able to have a proper conversation about how we as an organization might be able to help them.

So I think that kind of empathy that she was able to display in her role was definitely something that I’ve brought forward into mine. My dad’s career was very different actually. So, my dad’s a carpenter by trade. One of my colleagues when I was talking about it the other day said, “Wow, he can make things with wood,” which I thought was a great thing to say. It’s something that has completely passed me by. He’s a brilliant carpenter, but I’m not competent in that sort of area at all. He started out in a local carpentry firm in Birmingham basically in the Midlands in England. And then he got a carpentry job with the local authority, and the local authority was actually in Coventry where I was born. And so, after a while he did the carpentry work and then after a while he moved through the local authority, through a whole bunch of different roles and got promoted basically. And he ended up working as a contracts manager and he was on the housing side of things. So effectively the local council has a whole bunch of housing stocks that they place people in. And his job was to manage the contracts with suppliers who would come in and do work on those houses and maintain them and make sure that they were up to scratch and were able to house people in the way that the council needed to. And one of the things, and not recently, but I’ve had a lot of conversations with my dad about work and one of the things that I’ve always noticed when he talks about it is how much for a large chunk of time he was there. He really, really enjoyed it. I think a lot of the people that he worked with, he was genuine friends with and still knows a bunch of them to this day, but also those kind of friendship groups extended out to their broader families as well. 

And they worked hard, but they really enjoyed each other’s company. And he has loads of stories about them, genuinely having good, fun times at work. And I think probably as he got promoted, he might’ve lost a bit of that along the way because it’s a bit of a cliché but that’s what people do. But I do think, again, one of the things that that has kind of stayed with me about that is you spend a lot of time at work and you may as well do your very best to enjoy the time that you’re there. You know? And I think if you can work with a bunch of people who have a sort of shared goal and everybody’s working in the same direction to that shared goal, which luckily enough I have a Verve, then then all of the better. But I do think that you can kind of make it a choice to be positive and enjoy your time at work because, hey, you’re going to be there anyway, so why not try and get the most out of it? 


I really appreciate you going into this detail about your folks. There’s a saying here in the States with carpenters (I don’t know if it’s limited to the States) but it’s “Measure twice cut once.”  And it’s this sort of aptitude of attention to detail on the front end will save you a bunch of work on the backend, which is, of course, a big part of the narrative of consumer insights and market research specifically as we think about informing the business decisions that enable really a lock revenues for our customers. And the other thing that kind of struck me listening to you talk about your mom is this combination of empathy and movement is also centric to insight professionals because we can’t just dwell and exist in this single plane of understanding the customer. We have to then process and apply that to action for our customers. So it’s really interesting to me you sitting in the role that you are in your storied career in consumer insights with of this broader application of or maybe characteristics that you’ve drawn from your parents. 


It’s interesting, isn’t it, when someone else plays it back to you actually what you hear and I think you’re absolutely right. I think, funny enough, one of the things that probably my dad gets frustrated with me about when I try and do DIY with him is my lack of attention to detail because I don’t enjoy it. I try and rush to the end. And he says, “You got to slow down.” But you’re absolutely right in the context, and this is something we talk a huge amount about in our world is:  so we talk about agile insight a lot and kind of working in smarter ways. One of the primary things about that is slow down to speed up. So, basically, agile people often think fast. It doesn’t mean fast right at the beginning. It means that you’re spending a lot of time at the beginning working out what the whole process is. What that means is when you get to it and you repeat it, you can do it better and better and better because you’ve put all of the hard yards in up front. So yeah, absolutely right. We talk about that a lot. And, equally, it’s interesting when you frame it that way ‘cause, equally, what we’re talking about with empathy and movement…  One of the kind of premises of our business is the idea of actually engaging the consumer in the process. So we want people to enjoy the process of taking part in research. We don’t want them to do it because they’re paid to do it or because they get points or anything like that. We want them to value participation. And so, actually, empathizing with them and understanding what their experience is going to be like and, therefore, trying to create a better one for them—that’s really important. But, also, you can’t spend your whole time on that because, as you rightly say, the kind of purpose of it is to create insight that can help clients make better decisions. So you’re absolutely right. Empathy and movement is a really key thing. I might’ve found a new way of characterizing what we do.   


Yeah, it’s funny. I’ve had a lot of conversations, most of which have been documented on Happy Market Research Podcast, and I’ve actually never heard it said exactly like as we’re riffing on it right now, which is you do have to go slow in context of agile. It’s almost like we’ve injected some level of stress on the time frames, which are requiring a feeling like we need to cut down on. And in some ways we do—on the silly work—but cut down on the prep side of it. But we actually can save a lot of steps if we’re smarter there. So anyway, I’m going to shift gears a little bit ‘cause we have a lot of things to talk about. But the last thing I just had to pull out was the…  In preparation for the show, one of the things that I do is I check out Glassdoor, and Verve has probably one of the most vibrant, I would say, portrayal of culture that I’ve seen on the show. 

And I’ve had (I can’t even tell you like the size of companies), like big companies and small companies too. And you guys really are shining. It’s interesting, as I was reading some of the open job descriptions and looking at the pictures, I literally thought to myself, “Gosh, if I was 10 years younger, I’d want to work at that spot.” It comes across very attractive and like a fun place. You know? So, I know this is probably sounding a little bit propaganda-ish, but when you think about the company culture, how would you characterize it at Verve? 


Do you know what? It’s interesting. There’s a couple of words. So we absolutely are entrepreneurial, and I’m not sure that people would sort of immediately relay entrepreneurial to something that was fun and engaging for the people who were there all the time. I think entrepreneurial can sometimes have a kind of slightly negative connotation, but we’re absolutely entrepreneurial. But our boss, Andrew, the founder of our company—and he’s still in the business running it today—absolutely believes in the idea that we want to build and grow a great business, but we want to try and have fun along the way. One of the things, to be honest, we say is that we’re called Verve for a reason. We want to get out of bed and we want to go to work and we want to enjoy doing stuff when we’re there. We want people to feel open to challenge processes, people to ask, “Why do we do it that way? And are there different ways of doing things?” So we want it to be a place where people can get on and grow and learn and do new things, but at the same time be part of a commercially successful growing business. And it’s kind of those two things. And I think if we don’t ever profess to… We don’t want it to be comfortable all the time because actually entrepreneurial businesses shouldn’t always be comfortable because you should be moving forward and doing new things. But we DO want people to be inspired and enjoy the process and have a good time while they’re there.


Yeah. Verve, of course, is vigor, enthusiasm, etc. Right. Yeah. Okay. Good. So let’s shift gears a little bit. Talk to me about Verve. How are you guys fitting
into the overall market research ecosystem? 


As I mentioned in the upfront a little bit. So we’re agile insight and community panel providers. So we deliver our research, our insights in two broad ways. So we run long-term community panels and through those we’re delivering multifunctional qual and quant and data-integrated research programs. And then we also deliver short-term projects or programs via our pop-up communities and panels. So those are the two main mechanisms for how we do what we do. In terms of what Verve is about and how we fit in, we use a range of different technologies and approaches to help us develop what we think is better insight basically. So we integrate a lot of behavioral and transactional data into the research process. So the presence of data and the emergence of all of this data that exists to help clients make decisions nowadays, I think, in some places is seen as a risk to market research. But we absolutely see it as an opportunity. So we really love data, and we integrate a lot of it into the research process. Like I say, we also really like making sure that the people who take part in the research, the consumers, take part because they enjoy it, not just because they’re getting paid to. It’s really a key part of our proposition, which is about engaging the consumers who take part in the research as well as engaging the clients and the stakeholders who were working for. Another key part is getting closer to the experiences that we’re trying to understand. So technology nowadays enables you to do a really good job of actually understanding why people are making certain decisions or how they feel about certain experiences in the moment. And that’s a big part of what we do. And we also give consumers lots and lots of different ways of sharing their feedback. So we use video; we use voice, text, links to other content, group discussions—lots of different ways of getting people to share their stuff or share feedback about the experiences that they’re having. So I guess that’s a part of the functioning of what we do. But what’s really, really important about all of this is that the technology, I think, only gets you so far. So where the real alchemy and magic happens is that we’ve got a really large team of experienced, knowledgeable researchers and broader community experts, who know how to create the right tasks, moderate them in the right way, create the right questionnaires, analyze the data, do all of that sort of stuff. That means at the end of it all our clients get information, insights and outputs that help them make the decisions that they make. So very much at the center of technology and people because it’s the people who make the technology powerful, I think. So that’s I guess what we’re doing. Ultimately, in terms of where we fit into the ecosystem more broadly, the great thing about the approach and the reason for saying all of that stuff is that, ultimately, we’re not really limited to one particular area or another. So we were in communities that are all about innovation and product and service development. We run communities that are all about customer experience and journeys and user experience. We run communities that are all about brand and communications and understanding how to make that stuff better. And we run lots and lots of communities, short- and long-term, that are about all of those things and more. So the real beauty of the approach, I guess, is the use cases for it are many and varied. And I think really in terms of communities nowadays, I think more and more clients all the time are seeing them as a really core tool, an asset in their insight armory and the reason to have it there is really dependent on what the needs and wants of the particular client is on any given day or period. 


Yeah, the asset framework, I think, is really, really interesting and accurate. So much research has done on an ad hoc basis. If you think about building out that respondent record over time, then you have an opportunity to get to know somebody in a much deeper way. And then, of course, incorporating that behavioral transactional data adds yet another layer. I’ve actually been really surprised that there hasn’t been a product that has entered the space that has an ad hoc survey and then tethered to that as an add-on, you can get some chunk of relevant behavioral or existing self-reported or whatever offering. 


Yeah, and actually not necessarily as a product, but, absolutely, that’s something that we do. So even with an ad hoc service, even in a scenario where we’re not running an ongoing community panel and all that sort of stuff, the technology exists to enable you from within a survey to actually get people via redirects to, as long as they kind of give you all the appropriate permissions and stuff, to then share with you behavioral data from a previous set period of time, which is incredibly powerful because obviously there’s this kind of perennial question in terms of research about what the kind of remembered versus the actual experience is and post-rationalized responses and all that sort of stuff. I think one of the things about the future of research is actually about really integrating and bringing in those sorts of data points and then just changing a little bit what the makeup of research project is. So in your scenario, which we do by the way, you basically take a survey as part of the survey. You actually grab some behavioral data and then you can use that as part of the analysis or what it might also be is a trigger for future activities with the same people because you’re then starting to interrogate, “Well, how do we make sure they have the same behavior next time? Or how do we try and influence them to have a different behavior?” – those sorts of things. 


Yeah, it is really interesting when you start pulling back. So are there concerns around like at a privacy level… Are you seeing that… And there’s been a lot, of course, of webinars and education that are happening in the public and private sectors, as it relates with individual tracking. Are you seeing that negatively impact your ability to be able to garner this behavioral or otherwise outside data? 


Not really. I mean, if you take a scenario where we run long-term community panels and what we often do is we link up with data in those scenarios. Now we have a double opt-in process with… So, obviously, in Europe we’re fully GDPR-compliant. And we’ve worked with big organizations; we work with big banks. We have to be all over this stuff. But, actually, the number of requests that we get from people to delete information and that sort of stuff is incredibly small, basically. And I think the key thing about it from our perspective as an agency, and I mean more broadly as an industry, is that I think we all just need to be very clear on what the purpose of collecting and asking people for that information is and, to the point I was making earlier, in a way, making them understand what value they get out of this time for participation. And I think if you can create that sort of value exchange. And there’s another reason why you need to start thinking more broadly than money. If research continues to just exist on the basis that people would do stuff for us because we’ll pay for them, then I think you’re in trouble. If you get people to kind of see the value in participation and understand why a brand is trying to understand and explore your behavior in the data and then understand why you made the decisions you made, then, I think, for the most part, people are up for that. People understand their role as consumers nowadays and they understand that brands want to get close to them and understand them so they can provide better products and services. 


Yeah, I mean, this is such an important point. At Decipher, I analyzed… So, we used to send tremendous amount of customer supplied lists, emails, soliciting people, customers, for payback. And I analyzed over 215 million invitations that we sent out in the subject lines. And what I found was that subject lines that connected sharing of information and community, actually, had oversized open rates versus those that were driven by a monetary return, whether it was sweepstakes or guaranteed. And so my takeaway there is, as you think about what are the true motivators, these intrinsic “I want to see the world be better and I, actually, want to learn stuff” can have a much bigger impact to driving your overall participation rate and engagement.


Absolutely. And you know what. It’s one of the founding principles of our business. Basically, when Andrew founded our business 11, 12 years ago, whatever it was, one of the founding principles was we want to do research with people who participate because they want to and see value in the process. And we believe through that we’ll get better information from them and we’ll get better response rates and we’ll pay less incentives. But in a way, the first one is a lot more important than the second two. 


All right. So, thinking about motivators, let’s talk a little bit about… I’ve been interviewing a lot of people relative to communities. What are you seeing in the marketplace right now for brands to, actually, their motivators to want to invest in building communities? And then, as a separate point, what do you seeing as the bigger barriers for those brands adopting communities? 


Yeah, I think it’s interesting when you think about shorter-term versus longer-term communities and there are lots of benefits in motivation that are similar for both, but that some that are different as well. One that’s kind of similar for both is certainly the ability to do great quality, in-depth work in a more scalable way. So we were in global pop-up communities that mean you can do international qualitative research in a centralized way. And, ultimately, doing it in a centralized way means less cost. That’s a good thing. Now as long as our clients understand and we make sure in what we deliver that there isn’t a compromise on the quality of what you were doing, then that’s a massive thing. And, actually, the technology that’s available nowadays enables us to do really, really good work, work that genuinely explores motivations and behaviors in an in-depth way. But we can do it internationally and in an internationally scalable way as well. I think that’s a huge part of it. Organizations whose businesses go across geographies and who want to be able to deliver research kind of internationally in a centralized way, but ultimately need to reach audiences who are across the globe – l think that’s a really big thing. I think the data point is an interesting one as well. Not for everyone, but certainly you think about organizations who have a lot of data… I think a motivation for building a community panel can be that actually a community panel enables you to integrate multiple sources of data in one place and kind of make the result of it greater than the sum of its parts. 

So at a simple level, you can put it in the transactional and the behavioral data; you can gather profiling data when people join a community. And then, every time they give you some feedback, every time they respond to an activity—all of that information kind of gets put into the database as well. Now, when you’re then building out projects, you’ve got loads more information with which to understand what is happening and then what you can start to do is just use your research to understand why and what you should be doing about it. So I think maybe a need to try and integrate more data as part of the research process is definitely a motivation for having communities and community panels, certainly the longer form variety. I think there’s one thing that you can’t avoid, which is that they do enable you to respond more quickly. And the only reason I say you can’t avoid it is because, ultimately, we’re very keen not to just make agile and fast the same thing because they absolutely are not. “Agile” is the ability to respond in a kind of iterative way, the ability to be nimble and flexible and to get really good information but via a process that’s lean. “Fast” is just fast. But, ultimately, we can still, if the processes are there and we’ve set it up in the right way, we can deliver responses in hours. We can make hours this sort of high watermark; we can make days the standard product. So the ability to get out there and ask questions in a more nimble and more agile and quicker ways is definitely a motivation. I think as well there is increasingly a desire for people to be able to work in a slightly different way. 

So the great thing about communities is that they can kind of support a more iterative and collaborative working style. So moving away a little bit from the old kind of bookended approach of brief, proposal, fieldwork, analysis, report and moving to something that’s a bit more: Let’s get a larger group of stakeholders; let’s agree on a set of outcomes that we require; let’s run some activities; then let’s pause; and let’s understand what we’ve heard; let’s actually understand whether that feedback changes what we want to ask next then; and then let’s adapt it and change it a little bit; and then let’s run a few more activities. And I think that sort of working style is kind of more in line with this agile transformations and stuff that a lot of businesses are going through nowadays. 

So I think the ability to work more in that iterative, collaborative way is a motivator. And I think the big one that sits across all of this is the ability to be able to service multiple different objectives under one roof. So the ability to be able to do quant research, qual research, the ability to be able to link the two things together and the ability to be able to service innovation, product and service development, brand comms, customer experience, journey mapping, UX, whatever else it is, all of the things that I described earlier — the ability to be able to service all of that in one place with a whole bunch of different kind of ways of doing that work is absolutely a huge motivator. 


So, okay, that’s really interesting. What I didn’t hear you say is cost and so it sounds like… Because for me, ad hoc research is expensive. It costs money to get people to take surveys. So why not assign a certain proportion of my spend to this more renewable resource, which is the community. Do you see a ROI motivator or is it predominantly (and I’m not suggesting that it’s not entirely worth it, by the way) but like is it just centric to the added value that you get from a time and a quality perspective?


Do you know what. It’s interesting isn’t it? You’re absolutely right and it absolutely is a motivator. When I made the point at the end about the ability to do all sorts of different kinds of work under one roof with lots of different kinds of approaches, the natural thing that goes with that is actually in to be able to do all of that for less money. And yet, absolutely right, ultimately, doing ad hoc research is expensive and actually the idea of clients going and paying to access their own customers via our access panels is kind of oddly expensive. And so. yeah, you’re absolutely right. ROI on your research program is a big, big deal. And, actually, I think, particularly in the kind of uncertainly… There’s obviously a lot of uncertainty in the UK and Europe and stuff at the moment in these slightly straitened times. I think the ability to get more bang for your buck in terms of your kind of research budget is a huge thing, absolutely. I guess it’s interesting from my perspective; I left that off the bottom. I think if you’d asked me the question ten years ago, I think probably the first thing I would have said to you is cost. I suppose the thing about it is nowadays there is a huge number of benefits that come with having these communities and missing off cost isn’t the right thing to do. I guess the point is that it’s not just about cost anymore.


One of the themes that I’ve seen materialize over the last two years is this rise in insights enablement across the organization. So, the way I frame it is that it used to be the case that market research was where people would turn to for consumer insights. But now technology has really democratized access to the consumer. How does technology influence the work that you guys are doing? 


I mean, absolutely and in a huge way. I suppose the one preface I would make to what I’m about to say is, as I said earlier, I think that it’s always important to remember that the technology alone doesn’t… We don’t think the technology alone gets you there basically. So we are a kind of research services business who use a lot of great technology, but, that said, the technology is a massive enabler of what we’re able to do. So if you think about a lot of the themes that I’ve kind of discussed with you today, the ability to actually pull… If you take a long-term community, the technology enables you to take a single person or our technology enables you to take a single person and basically collect all of these multiple data points around that person. And then you can target individual activities based on any one single data point or any combination of those data points. Actually, the kind of potential of that is pretty profound. And the collection of all of that data has huge potential as well. So we’re working on use cases where say we work for a retailer and we’ve got community panels that got really large numbers of people on them and if we do pieces of work where we ask people how likely they are to buy a certain kind of product, what we can then do over time is actually go back and check how many of those people actually bought it. And then you can do really interesting things. So you can go back to groups of people. And because you’ve got all the permissions in place, you can go back to groups of people and ask a certain group of people, “Well, you said you were going to buy it, but why didn’t you? So, was it because you didn’t know it was available? Was it because you couldn’t find it in your store? Was it because actually when you got there you didn’t think it was the right thing for you?” So you can do really interesting things with that data. Even over time you can start to think about working out what is the correlation between what people are saying they’re doing in research and what they’re then doing in real life. Obviously, a thing for the future because you need big data sets in order to achieve that. But, actually, starting to bridge that gap between what people say they’re going to do and what they actually do—that’s a pretty big deal in market research, I think. So the ability to collect and use all of this data is a huge thing that the technology enables us to do.

Quite simply, and I guess this harks back to a point I think we were talking about before: it does mean that you can deliver more for your money – the ability to do international qual, basically. Everybody knows about international qual and everybody knows about the revolutionary impact of panels 15, 20 years ago and online panels and the impact that had. But, actually, we’re certainly seeing that with qualitative research as well. We do fantastic, culturally relevant, in-depth qualitative research in China and Russia and all over the world from our offices here in London or our offices in Chicago. Ultimately, doing that in a centralized way means you spend less money on it. I think also the big thing that the technology does is it enables us to get much closer to the consumers that we’re trying to understand. Mobile phones have been so revolutionary for the work that we do because effectively they are carrying around with them a way of us interacting with them everywhere they go. This has so many advantages: the ability to actually get them to give feedback much closer to those experiences that they’re having, which means we’re able to get past some of this post-rationalized stuff, but also the ability for them to use that technology to share their experiences there and their feedback in really interesting ways and their ability to just record a video or share a picture or link to some content that somebody else shared or you kind of share a voice message or just upload something in text. All of these different means that we can give people to explain their attitudes and their behaviors and their experiences, that’s what the technology does for us. And, ultimately, the really interesting thing is actually then the platform that gives us as an agency and the content it gives us to try and create better insight communication. So we think insight communication is a big, big deal. And, actually, a lot of that is about using all of the content that consumers share virally via great technology in better ways to create insight communications that that are more emotionally engaging for stakeholders. 


The framework of agile—and we started here in context of going slow to go fast—has been borrowed from the tech sector and product sector, and I actually think it’s exactly how we need to be framing our… Regardless of what we’re doing, which is we need to be close to the point of decision as insight professionals so that it addresses a time and a space and an overall value to the company, to the organization. When you think about the actual ROI on research, how do you think that market research can do a better job of ensuring that the insights are, in fact, used in the organization?


Yeah, it feels like a perennial question, doesn’t it as well? And I think it’s a really interesting one. And every time you go to a conference and that sort of stuff, people are always having these debates around it. And this question around how can market research do a better job of getting a seat at the table, that’s one of the things I hear quite a lot. And I think from our perspective it’s about a couple of things. One of the things that I hear quite a lot is this idea that market research needs people who can act as consultants; so they’re not just deliverers as of data and deliverers of information. And I completely agree with that. We have to be able to act as consultants to businesses. But I do believe that there are plenty of people in market research… I think market research is full of people who can act as consultants or there’s certainly a lot of them anyway. And we have those types of people within our business. I think that the challenge there is how do you get there. It’s fine saying we need people who can act as consultants but the fact that they can doesn’t mean that they do. And I think that’s all about having the platform. And I think from our perspective, it all comes down to partnership, basically. So the only way that you’re going to get a platform when you’re genuinely going to be able to act as a consultant is if you are trusted by clients and trusted by their stake holders. And so when you talk to people they listen and then what that means is that the information you are sharing with them is more directly impacting the decisions that they make and, therefore, more directly linking into ROI and all those types of things. 

And, actually, I think certainly long-term community panels… Our experience certainly of it is that the community panel relationship can give us that platform. The reality of running community panels for us is that we sit in our clients’ offices; we hear them talk; we get to know their problems like the ones that they put in the briefs, but also the ones that they don’t, which are really, really important. And the really, really critical thing is that we talk to their customers all the time. And so when you’ve got that combination, you know when you’re there and you’re working with them and you understand them as a business, but you get to a point where you are the person who understands their customer and their consumer, then that’s a real partnership. And I think at that point and our experience is that at that point, you start to have that seat at the table and, when you talk, you get listened to. I think the other big thing that as an industry and that we can do and certainly what we are focusing on a lot is how we communicate the insights that we generate. So I’m a huge believer that there is a lot of really fantastic research that gets done, an insight that gets created that potentially doesn’t have the impact and value that it should do because of the way that it’s communicated. What we do is focus on the communication much more as part of the process. And again, to the point we were making earlier about slow down to speed up, it’s actually about starting at the beginning and saying, “Well, I need to understand the stakeholders in your organization. I need to understand who we are trying to influence. I need to understand what sort of information and content and experiences they’re most likely to respond to.” 
Some people want data; some people need to be able to more emotionally engage with the consumers. There’s lots of different kinds of ways that people can be influenced. And so, we do a lot of work up front on that and on understanding those stakeholders. And then, when we create these research projects and we generate all of this great content and information, what we’re then able to do is take all of that stuff through and build more emotionally engaging outputs. And I think if we can emotionally engage stakeholders, if we can get them to understand that this isn’t us, as a research organization, standing there telling you to do something. This is us, as your partner, and giving you the viewpoint of your customer and showing you in an emotional way why it has an impact on the experience they have. I think we are more likely to influence the decisions that they make. 


Yeah, I totally agree with that. I think the other thing that really can be powerful when you’re thinking, again, in context of a community, is you, as a researcher, get to know that group of people in a way that makes the storytelling less transactional and more community-oriented, which, again, we know that the better story, then the better the opportunity or the improved opportunity the organization has to adopt those insights. I call it the water cooler effect. It’s not about how well I tell the story; it’s what story is told after I tell the story. Right?


Well, absolutely. Yeah, and we like to think a bit of a sort of more immersive approach to the way that you communicate insight, and it’s applying that to all of the insight communication that you do. That there’s a client that I have who… It’s her phrase. I’m not going to tell you who she is, but it’s her phrase. I’m not going to pretend it’s mine, but she had a great phrase. She always said that basically insight tells you what to do; immersion gives people the emotional context and the emotional reason to do something about it. And I love that because it’s basically creating those stories and creating that emotional connection, which means when they’re at the water cooler and when they’re talking to other people, they understand and share why it’s really important that you do something about it. 


Yeah, that’s great. OK, well, we have, this has been a fascinating episode and I’m going to have to move into our last question even though I’ve got so many more for you. What is your motto?


So yeah, I’ve thought a little a bit about this. And, actually, do you know what. When it comes down to it, I actually think it’s something that’s really simple and it’s influenced by the stuff that we talked about upfront in terms of what my parents do and it’s influenced in terms of the role I do at work and my whole career. I think it’s really, really simple. If you’re going to do something, commit to it fully and show people that you care about it. Market research is an incredibly crowded marketplace, and we have lots of conversations and we go through lots of pitch processes for programs and projects and all that sort of stuff. And there’s loads and loads of reasons why we can and can’t win stuff. In most of those things, it’s hard to always be in control of. You have an idea; you try and communicate that idea; and there are going to be certain reasons why that does or doesn’t become the one that wins. However, I think the one thing that you can always be in control of is how passionately you respond to people and how committed you show that you are to trying to create a relationship with them and wanting to work with them. And I think that’s the thing that you can always be in control of. And I think that is also something that you can pretty easily apply to your sort of life outside of work as well. You know if you’re going to do something, connect to it and show you care about it or don’t do it at all. 


My guest today has been Paul Lawson, Executive Director at Verve. Thank you, Paul, very much for joining me on the Happy Market Research Podcast today. 


Pleasure to be here. Thank you. 


Everyone else, if you found value in this episode, please take the time to screen capture, share it on social media. It would mean the world to me. As always, your five-star reviews help us bubble to the top for other insight professionals to be able to find this content. We’ve got over 50,000 listeners and growing. Really appreciate the ongoing support. Have a great rest of your day.

According to the GRIT report, there has been an increase in the number of qualitative-based tools. This is centric to user experience, customer experience, and market research. However, as with all things, the actual research operations remains to be done and that happens usually outside of those toolsets. HubUx is a solution for that. You plug your tools directly into it; you enter in who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, and HubUx literally does the rest for you. If you already have an existing customer list, you can just upload it directly into the tool. If you want to leverage social recruiting, that’s integrated as well. It is the single source for all of your research operations needs. HubUx, check it out. Thanks. 

MrWeb Podcast Series

MrWeb Series – Stephen Cribbett of Further on How Insights Embedded in Full Market Context Ensures Success

My guest today is Stephen Cribbett, Founder and CEO of Further. Established in 2007, Further is a team of consultants, strategists, researchers and technology experts that support organizations in becoming more people-centric, empathic and instinctive. Prior to starting Further, Stephen was a managing partner of Landini Associates along with an expensive consulting experience. 

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This episode is brought to you by HubUx. HubUx reduces project management costs by 90%. Think of HubUx as your personal AI project manager, taking care of all your recruitment and interview coordination needs in the background. The platform connects you with the right providers and sample based on your research and project needs. For more information, please visit


Hey, everybody, this is Jamin, host of the Happy Market Research Podcast. In conjunction with MrWeb, I’ve had the honor of interviewing three of the leading custom panel companies. This is one of those three episodes. If you’re not currently subscribed to MrWeb, I just can’t recommend another resource. He gives you a daily update on happenings, whether it’s HR, M&A, technology releases, companies going out of business, companies starting. I mean there is not a single point of truth that I found to be more consistent and reliable than MrWeb. So check them out. They’re great and I hope you enjoy this episode.   


According to the GRIT report, there has been an increase in the number of qualitative-based tools. This is centric to user experience, customer experience, and market research. However, as with all things, the actual research operations remains to be done and that happens usually outside of those toolsets. HubUx is a solution for that. You plug your tools directly into it; you enter in who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, and HubUx literally does the rest for you. If you already have an existing customer list, you can just upload it directly into the tool. If you want to leverage social recruiting, that’s integrated as well. It is the single source for all of your research operations needs HubUx. Check it out. Thanks. 


Hi, I’m Jamin, and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. My guest today is Stephen Cribbett, founder and CEO of Further.  Established in 2007, Further is a team of consultants, strategists, researchers, and technology experts that support organizations in becoming more people-centric, empathetic, and instinctive organizations. Prior to starting Further, Steven was a Managing Partner of Landini Associates and along with an extensive consulting set of experiences. Steven, thank you very much for joining me on the Happy Market Research Podcast.


Pleasure to be here. Jamie. Good morning to you.


Yeah, well, hey, thanks very much. And thanks for being patient with my poor reading skills at this hour.  


I’ll let you have that.


So let’s start out setting some context so the audience has an opportunity to get to know you. Tell us a little bit about your parents and how they informed your career


My parents, I guess the way that they informed my career was actually kind of helping me choose what I didn’t want to do.  So most of my family are involved in the automotive industry in one way, shape, or form. And when I was going through college, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do at that point. So I just studied engineering, which I thought was the family way. And lo and behold, within less than a year, I very quickly decided that engineering wasn’t my thing, but I needed to pursue something a little bit more creative, I suppose, kind of more right brain if you like. So the precision and the structure of engineering didn’t suit my personality. So that’s really what my parents granted me, aside from our love for all things and drive and a focus on doing what I really, really love and enjoy, which is obviously what I’m doing right now. 


Now, where are you located? Where’d you grow up actually, and then where are you located?


Yeah, I was born in the UK. I’ve lived in the UK pretty much most of my life, traveled extensively with all the work that I’ve done. But you mentioned at the beginning there a company called Landini Associates that I worked with, maybe 17, 18 years ago now, I think.  They were in Australia. I was down in Australia working with those guys, helping grow their kind of design and a brand strategy business, and up popped an opportunity for me really to bring that business back to the UK. I was offered a partnership by the managing director, the owner of the business. And that was really my kind of entry into entrepreneurship, if you like — so quite coincidental, not really planned.  I kind of fell into it, if you like.


Yeah, it’s funny that that is a theme I’ve seen across basically almost every interview, not every but almost every interview I’ve done.  It’s also really interesting that story of stumbling into research is kind of how I’ve started framing it. If you look at the Insights Association, they have an active forum, and it’s actually a great source of knowledge and an active community.  The number one thread on that insights forum is how did you wind up in research, and I think it’s so interesting that we really don’t get to that through most of our conversations, and yet it’s probably one of the favorite stories we like to tell, and then also on the other side of it here, ‘cause it is most of the time people are very unconventional in terms of their entry point.


I think I’m really pleased you brought this up actually because it’s a conversation I had just this week and actually it’s something that’s really important to me as I look to bring talent into the business. I actually make a very specific beeline to try not to hire people that have fallen into research, but actually we hire a lot of very rigorous and academic professionals that have come through academia through the social sciences and consciously who have wanted to understand people, their relationships, their behaviors. And I guess going back to where I came from, having worked in the design and the brand strategy world for 15 years, I think it was, then a large part of certainly on the design and the creative side of things, it was really quite unstructured.  It was in an era where the style, the design, the results that came out of it was very sort of led by a creative director. And I kind of describe them now as aging rock stars. You know, it’s really whatever goes: there was no structure to it; there was no rationale; there was no insight that was informing their design. And that irked me. That was something I felt uneasy with. I thought there must be a better way of going into a pitch and saying this is why we’re proposing this solution rather than just relying on our fantastically lucid presenter, who could just tell his own story without any rhyme or reason. And so, that’s really what got me into insight. I think it was from the design worlds. Human-centered was, I guess, back in those days it was called ergonomics, and it was designing around the human form and the human body.  That soon moved into user- and human-centered design. And then from there, moving into the practice of gathering and garnering the insight and how we craft that and then helping creative teams, which is what we work with a lot, understand how to then activate that insight and use it whether it’s in the design of a new product or service or whether that’s, really just informing a new brand strategy or positioning. 


Those two things that pop for me there, and I think it’s really important what you’re saying. One is the ROI on data is overwhelming, right? Like if you’re using data to make decisions, you will have a positive outcome versus a random outcome. And one of my go-to examples of that recently is I was…  (I won’t say the name of it) It’s a top three media company. And when they pitch (or advertising company, excuse me), when they pitch their customers, they used to go in with this big deck and fancy presentations and whatever and story and case studies. But they added one slide to their presentation that increased their close rate by 60%, and that was a quadrant map that showed where the customer is or the potential customer that they’re pitching is relative to their competitive set. And then they mapped a set of assumptions that would move the needle obviously to the top right or their point to the top right of that quadrant map. And, obviously, it’s a data-informed position and because they’re approaching it from…  They’re starting with data point of view. Now all of a sudden everything is centered around measuring the subsequent outcome of the brand investment, which is something that is big differentiator even today when you’re thinking about advertising spend. So, it’s really interesting to me that we’re seeing these just absolute examples. Gosh, I mean the Watermark is another really interesting company where they’re a consultancy. They do an analytics on the S&P500. The companies that are data-centric or making decisions based on customer feedback outperform the S&P over the last 10 years by 45 points.

 But the really interesting thing is the people that don’t — the organizations that don’t — they underperform by 75 points. And by the way, it’s a majority of companies. So now you think about the growth opportunity inside of our space is profound.  And the second thing I’ll point out is as we’re seeing this, like this evolution in consumer insights, and it becoming more and more important, Estrella Lopez-Brea, Head of Insights for the partnership with Nestlé and General Mills, cereal partnership, she had this great quote in my interview with her a couple months ago, which was the boardroom is rolling out the red carpet to insights. So, when I was going through college, there really wasn’t a marketing research degree that I was ever aware of.  The closest would have been getting a doctorate in like experimental psychology or something along those lines. Right. But now you see a host of programs. There’s 12 in the U.S. alone, top schools that are offering market research master’s programs. So you are seeing this… You can be intentional in the last three to five years with your education if you want to go into consumer insights.


I think what we try and really hard to do we talk about human insight, less so consumer insight because I think we are consumers for only two or three hours of our day. What the reality is to understand what people really value in their lives. You have to understand all of those tensions, those contextual factors, the artifacts that are shaping the decisions they make, the relationships they have with the brands and the products and the services that are used. And so, we really marry up those social scientists and psychologists with the business strategists. And I think that’s really what differentiates us in that sense. So we go in and talk about the human story and the narrative, rather than the data.  Of course, we’re collecting the data to infer that story and to craft that story back for the client. But we’re very much about trying to humanize brands and bringing it back to a very human level so that they create these kinds of solutions for people that are harmonious with their lives and the tensions that they’re fraught with. There’s a huge difference between doing a focus group and going into someone’s home and understanding that they got to take the dog out for a walk in the morning. They’ve got to catch the bus, they got to pay for their mortgage, they’ve got to take the kids to school. All of those things create a very different reality and a very different human truth. And really that’s where we focus and our energy is very much in that kind of exploratory research space, which is fun. We love that. We’re fascinated by people.


You’re in the right job. That’s exciting. And that’s why you’ve had so much success. You started your career, at least according to Linkedin, in really entrenched in marketing. And then in 2007, you started Further your current business. Why the leap into entrepreneurship?


Well, again, going back to what I was talking about earlier, I fell into entrepreneurship because I was offered the opportunity to open a satellite office by the guy that I was working with at the time and his business, which was very successful and had been going for a number of years. It wasn’t something I had thought about. I hadn’t prepared for it. And my first port of call was a close friend of mine at the time, who was a serial entrepreneur, and I was always in awe of the things that he’d achieved and said, “Look, let’s go out for a coffee. Let’s have a chat about this. What do you think? Should I do this?”  And he was a very positive, upbeat character, and he was like, “Yeah, absolutely. Go for it.” You know, make mistakes. That’s the important thing. There’s no rule book; there’s no guide in terms of how to be an entrepreneur. You’ve just got to learn to fail fast. Don’t be afraid to make those mistakes, but take those opportunities. And so that was something I did. I came back to the UK after that, opened a satellite office. We very quickly picked up some very big contracts with big UK retailers. Harrods was one of them. We did a lot of brand strategy work, but also a lot of a retail design work for them. We built a whole new store for them, which they hadn’t done for many, many years. So it was a really prize contract to win. So I did that for a couple of years, and that got me the bug really for building and running my next business.

But actually at that time, social media was happening:  This thing called Twitter was emerging. And people were going, “What is this? What’s a blog?” I remember one Saturday morning, I think I was visiting my parents and I remember getting up early ’cause I was so intrigued by this new world. What is a blog?  And what is Twitter? What can it do? And so, I felt that it was a good time to get out of owning a business but maybe take a little bit of a gap year and learn a little bit more about digital and social. So that’s what I did. And I was also working during that period for an e-commerce business, actually doing some consulting work.  That was fantastic; taught me all about SEO and PPC and social networks and social media. And I could see how combining social media would… or the way that you could use social media to engage in audience at a distance, first and foremost. That was where I saw an opportunity. And, having been involved in some research projects, up to that point, it felt that actually we can be doing big international research studies:  understanding why people are doing what they’re doing, what their relationships are with brands, without jumping on a plane and using the earth’s resources as well, but doing that much, much quicker. So we set about designing our first piece of technology, which is still very much what we use today. It’s iterated a number of times, but it’s a social media and engagement platform that’s used for qualitative research. And that’s really how we got into that. 

And then combining that with training and helping researchers on how to use it to their advantage because the research was completely new at that time.  In 2007, the term “research communities” didn’t exist; MROC’s, no one was talking about MROC’s. We didn’t have a pigeon hole that we could even go into. That was quite scary? We had this thing that we were trying to talk to researchers about and qualitative researchers, in particular, and they were terrified of it. They didn’t understand it. Well, it’s not that I didn’t understand it, but they were really threatened by it. They were like, “We do focus groups; we do ethnography. That’s cool. We’re happy with that.”  But this whole new world was about to roll over them. And it took a good couple of years for us actually to get some really good traction with the business. But, obviously, looking back is the best thing we did. We stuck with it and then two or three years in, things started to happen. Pigeon holes appeared that we could be put into and that just helped us market the business much, much more effectively. And this helped us to get where we are today.


Yeah. And, of course, because you made the investment and had patience, you were able to take a dominant position in SEO and knowledge leadership or thought leadership inside of the sector once it actually gained purchase and interest in the category. And we all know the end of the story, well, sort of.  We’re still in it, but social media now is by far and away the most impactful communication channel.


Yeah, yeah, It’s interesting though, I feel like we’re at a point in time where I know certainly I am, and I can’t say I have the answers to this, but I’m looking for what’s the next revolution?  There‘s something else around the corner that’s going to shake things up again soon. Mobile came along when we first developed our technology. Mobile smartphones weren’t really entrenched within society; so, when kind of apps and mobile connectivity really grew, that was a big change for our business. There are other societal and technological changes, I think, around the corner and we’re trying to keep our eye on what those things are. Obviously, analytics and AI and automation is now starting to make a difference and it’s really how we combine and mash up all of those things in a very human way. 


From my vantage point, there’s really two things that we’re in the very beginning.  It’s like 2005 or about 2006 kind of a repeat for me, relative to social media. And that is voice. So you look at the lift in voice-based devices, whether it’s Alexa or Google Home.  It’s astounding right now, the adoption rate across the world. And the use cases are still very narrow, but you are seeing… I think there’s at least five companies that I’m aware of that are entering into the analytics and data collection in those environments. And the second one is augmented reality.  The Google glass becomes more of a contact. Now, all of a sudden, I can walk down the street and see Yelp reviews on where I want to go to lunch or whatever (directions, etc.). And so, just really continues to expand the amount of data… an opportunity for us to be able to get to the heart of the consumer, kind of that real time ethnography. Conversely though, you have this rise in privacy concerns, which is very important for us to address. And so, you know, there’s definitely a lot of tension right now and we’ll continue to escalate in that space in terms of what we actually have access to and the rights to be able to leverage. 


I think there’s a counter movement to this as well, which is actually consumers or us as people are actually being a little bit more a discerning about what we give our attention to or how much we let computers do the work for us. So, great idea, walking down a street with Google glasses on, giving you all the information you want, but do you want that disrupting you? Do you want that to have your attention at that moment in time? And so there’s a growing affinity with nature and spiritualism happening at the same time. We’re actually buying back more of humanity and more of our lives. So with the technological changes, there are some big social changes going on as well that, obviously, will have an impact on consumer businesses, but also in terms of how research is done and how that needs to be much more harmonious with people’s lives and how they choose to give you their time and the permissions they give you.


Yeah, yeah, point taken.  We could debate this point, and I would love to have a deeper…  We need beer. That will happen by the way at some point. The snapchat phenomenon is really interesting:  how one of their big motivators is to maintain consistent connection inside of the platform for their users or these streaks. So, when you look at the younger audience, the teens…  Gosh, in fact, just this week I was at Michigan State presenting to their Masters in market research cohort. Every time I speak in front of an audience, I do a quick poll on social media utilization.  Almost a hundred percent, (there was one person that didn’t) so out of 31 students, one didn’t use Snapchat. It was the dominant platform, right? I mean Twitter had whatever it was 16 out of the 31, if memory serves.  So, you’re seeing this. I don’t know. I think that they’re doing a good job of connecting the endorphins, which is terrifying to the point that you’re raising. So it will be interesting to see how that continues to evolve and if there will create this tension of people that separate themselves ultimately from technology, I’ll call them the new Amish. 


It’s consciously uncoupling, right? 


Yeah, exactly, it’s making a decision on technology and the utilization of technology on how that’s actually going to impact you, right?  Such a fun conversation. Anyway, I’m going to divert though ‘cause I want to talk about some other things, and that is specific to your two key platforms, Tandem and Together.  Maybe you can talk to us a little bit about them.


Sure. So, and actually I should point out I’m involved in another business called Signoi.  So there is a third platform I’ll tell you a little bit about because that’s very new and having some great success, and it might be of interest to your kind of…


Yeah, yeah, please.


So the two technologies that we have at Further:  the technology that we started out life with in 2007, which was the research community platform.  It’s called Together. We’ve done a name change on that. You may have known it, some of your audience may have known it as Idea Stream. We rebranded the business a year or two ago and changed some of the mnemonics around that. So, that’s what we call a research community platform, but research communities, as you probably know, mean different things to different people. So to us, when we talk about communities, we are really talking about human connections and bonds that emerge between the facilitators, the moderators, the community managers, and the participants. Because for us to really get under the skin of what’s happening in their lives and their relationships, we have to get to know them quite intimately in the same way that you would within a focus group. So the communities that we run are highly interactive. They’re much more qualitative in nature. What I mean by that, it’s not a series of structured questions and polls. They’re much more creative activities and exercises and conversations that we’re having with them. They tend to be more short term in nature. So, again, I differentiate that from what I know the likes of Vision Critical or Toluna might call insight communities. So these aren‘t big panels and with huge sample sizes.  These are quite small, very intimate. They can range from 30 people up to a few hundred people, consumers.


And just for clarity. Are these more like short-term type communities or are they like a six months to a year?  


Yeah, there’s a combination.  Another way of thinking about them is some of them are very put together specifically for a project, to answer one particular question, whereas others are used and built so they can respond to several different questions and challenges that the organization has.


So when you think about, from a community perspective…  Communities, I think, are very interesting to me right now.  I really think that you’re going to continue to see a massive growth in this particular segment in this type of work over the coming years. We’re seeing some data quality issues inside of the professionally managed panels.  Like one way of thinking about communities is just speed to access or speed to insight, right? So it’s kind of like I got these people, boom, I get an insight right away. I don’t have to worry about the screening per se, right. But it sounds like really in your use case as much more of a digital ethnographic type, getting to know them at an intimate level as opposed to the “I have access to this group of people.”   


Yeah, I think that’s an accurate description and actually a good way of illustrating that. So, our research director, a lady called Dr Marie-Claude Gervais, she was teaching qualitative research methods at the London School of Economics, so very highbrow institution. She was a traditional qualitative researcher for many, many years, run thousands of focus groups. And when research communities emerged, she started working with those and understanding the dynamics.  She is somebody with that kind of academic rigor who ran a lot of tests to look at the data quality, but also the emotion with the real picture of what’s actually happening in people’s lives and how it gave them the ability to be very open and honest and truthful about what’s happening, but also allow the researcher to see their lives from a number of different lenses. So they could see it’s not, obviously, not just about what the participant is saying, but what we’re observing that’s going on in that picture that allows us to then forge the insight.

 So it’s not just access; for us, it’s access to the inner workings of people’s lives. It’s technology-enabled, but it’s actually about the design of the activities and exercises that we create. And it’s about the quality of the relationships that we forge with those participants over a very short space of time. And so, we have a number of really established methods that we use. And, in fact, because we work with brands and agencies, a lot of our work is developing the capabilities of research teams so they understand that when they’re running the type of communities that we’re talking about here, they know through our training how to get that sort of relationship, how to get that depth.  Because when you’ve got people that have fallen into research, they won’t get in the same way. There are a lot of psychological hacks that we use. There’s a number of different tricks and methods that we employ to getting people to really open up and to forge that trust in the relationship really, really quickly; and then different ways of seeing the context of what’s actually taking place because we all know consumers lie. 


We do. 


We’re terrible witnesses of our own history and our own a behavior. So we don’t rely on that. We don’t rely on video insight as a way of seeing what’s actually going on. I think that’s just a data capture tool. I don’t think there is such a thing as a video insight in my understanding or my kind of world. I don’t use that language.  Insight: It’s forged; it’s fraught with tension; it’s hard; it’s difficult; and often it’s a struggle to get there. It’s a struggle working with the clients to help them really realize and actualize the insight. But it’s incredibly rewarding when you get it. And I think the communities can really deliver on that. But again, I don’t necessarily think of a community, a research community, as a method on its own. I think it’s really just a way of engaging people so that you can do different things with them. And that’s very different.  I think some people kind of prescribe a community and think, “Oh, it’s this.” Well, actually there are 1,000,001 things we can do within a community. It’s just really a way of having a great active and rich conversation with a target audience. 


All right, so break it down for me. I, by the way, completely agree with your assessment of video. I had Affectiva’s COO, Tim Peacock, on the show a while ago. They’re the number one video-based platform based on their analytics. I might be misremembering the exact quote, but it was something like either between 80% or 90% of actual communication is happening below the chin. So, if you’re just doing this, like what you and I are doing right now, you really miss…  Well, fortunately. I’m doing this with my hands, which they look really big when they’re close. But you know what I mean? You’re right. I think there’s this over-indexing right now on video as kind of the…


And that to me, I think the video stuff is used in a very tactical way, and I think that’s fine; that’s good.  But the work that we do, the type of briefs that we work on there, big strategic projects… And you wouldn’t just rely on kind of video insight.  There’d be a much more blended approach. 


All right. So take it down. So we’ve got three platforms now that you’re talking about, right? Would you just give me like a quick description, a snapshot description of each one?  And then after that, I want to dive into a centric-use case that maybe we haven’t touched on yet. 


Yeah, so sure. So we talked about Together being the kind of qualitative research, community technology.  And newest lovechild child, if you like, is Tandem. So that’s something we released just over a year ago. And that’s a kind of a much more thoroughbred, mobile ethnographic tool. So, whereas the community platform is about participants interacting with one another as well as with the moderators, Tandem is really just a one-to-one communication tool, very specifically about understanding moments and observations as well as adding more structured response to questions that are built in a sort of drag-and-drop way on the technology itself. And both of these platforms…  We focus a lot when we build this technology on two particular user bases: obviously, the participants and their user experiences of tantamount importance; but on the other side, it’s building it with the researchers in mind. So understanding that journey from data to insight is really crucial for us. And I think with the feedback that we get a lot and with our net promoter score that bears this out, which is about 77, then it understands how the researcher works and that’s what people like a lot about our technology. It makes their lives easier and gives them that license to focus more on the analysis and the reporting and the strategy derivation than the moderation and fussing around with the data-collection piece. 


So, in both of those platforms, they’re DIY-based. You also have services associated with that? 


Yeah, so we’re a bit of a hybrid, if you like. So we have clients that just license our technology and use it.  We have clients, people, our insights consulting who’ve used it for many years. All of their research communities were hosted on our technologies for a long time. But then we have clients who we might provide some fairly basic services or training and support for those clients or what we call sometimes just optimizations. So they might pass over their research design or their activities and guides, and we‘ll help break those apart, optimize them to get really good levels of traction. Sometimes just simply too that they make sense. You know, you have that plain English test, if you like.  Would your mom understand what you’re asking him to do, if I presented that to her? Sometimes you’ll forget that. 


Such an important point!


That’s the kind of a type of client. And then on the other end of the scale is the full service. So a lot of our clients ask us to partner with them to do the research from beginning to end, and we’ll deliver a debrief or a report to those clients.


I think that approach is…  Certainly, at Decipher that was the winning strategy for us. I launched the business with intent of it being a DIY platform but quickly learned that in order for it to get adoption, I was going to have to do both:  full service, not in the way of like report writing or analytics, but just in a way of programming the surveys, managing the sample, the project management, kind of the research ops side of it, right? So you’re obviously taking it full circle. Okay, got it. So you’re working with both brands and agencies? 


Yup, that’s correct. 


Is there a difference in dealing with those two segments, those two customer types? 


Always, always. The relationships look very different because, obviously, the stakeholder groups that you’re working with are often quite different. Some of them, the well-seasoned insight professionals; some of them less so and so we have to guide them and walk them through the process a little bit closer. Ultimately, we’ve all got the same endpoint. I think when we work with agencies, we tend to be focusing on the insight. When we work with the brands and the clients, we tend to be looking at how we can then activate that insight and really create some value from what we’ve learned.  I’d also say, I suppose when we work with agencies, a lot of the work is acting as a creative catalyst for them. So it’s not necessarily getting down to answering a question or making a decision for them. It’s saying, “This is a framework or the opportunity space that you can work with. So you have to go away and then develop whatever that solution is within that framework.” And that’s the kind of work that we really, really enjoy: working with those creative agencies in that particular way. Again, different ways, sometimes depending on the design solutions that we’re working on, it could be if it’s a product or service design, often we’re working in sprints. So the way that we set up the way of working with those stakeholder teams might look different too when we’re working with the brands. But again, it depends what the problem is that we’re working on:  whether it’s a major strategic shift in the business or whether it’s just a product iteration. 


Right. The economy globally has been in a tremendous amount of flux in the last couple of years. You’re seeing more of a movement towards…  I’m not sure if the right word is “nationalism,” but borders are closing, obviously. We in the US anyway, we’ve been seeing consistent growth inside of the tech sectors, but other sectors are actually struggling. When you think about the…  I can ask this question to you because you and I are, I think, of similar age; so, we’ve gone through a few different economic transitions. Where do you think we are right now? Do you think there’s going to be…? Are you seeing…? Do you think there’s going to be more growth in our sector inside of the brands, or do you think there’s going to be more growth inside of the agencies over the next three to five years? 


It’s a really good question, and I think it’s something we debate and look at a lot. I think where we do well is we employ smarts in our business. So these aren’t people that can do good research. These are really people that can arrive at an endpoint very quickly that satisfies what the client needs, or it can create a huge amount of value for the client. I think just telling them what’s happening or telling them what’s happened isn’t good enough. I guess the type of organizations we work with range from the big international brands and agencies, but also we do a lot of work with startups. What’s great about working with the startups:  they’re kind of user- or consumer-centered from day one. They’re not hindered by that kind of history or legacy that they have. However — and I think we will see this no matter what market we’re in — a lot of these digital startups start off with great intentions. They find it hard to become really profitable despite significant funding and then end up getting subsumed by some bigger corporate some where down the line. That’s what’s happening ‘cause the corporates are buying the innovation. Fine, but that the startup hasn’t been able to monetize that in a way that they’re… 


At scale.


That’s quite interesting if you think about what that journey means for the researchers and taking a very user-centered approach or consumer-centered approach to the solution, but then sometimes having to kind of retrofit what the business needs and what the business model looks like overlaying that solution. So, I think, of course, technology has democratized research. We know that. Anyone can pick up Survey Monkey, Qualtrics, whatever it is and start doing some research. That’s what I love about qualitative research. It’s a science, right? You really do need some good training, and it’s not just about having a conversation. And when we work with smart marketing directors, they know that; they get that; they understand it.  There’s a lot more to it. And that’s what we love and that’s the kind of work that we specialize in. 


Now, I am going to push back a little bit.  I do think that… 


I’m not saying…  


All right.  That’s fair. That’s fair. But, to your point, there’s so much sophistication and science around a well-crafted question in context of a live discussion versus something else. And you have that same rigor though in quant.  


And I think actually you made the point there about the right questions, but it’s the right questions of the right people. 


Yes, that’s right. 


That actually is almost the hardest bit of the sampling because access to Joe Public is quite easy now.  There are lots of organizations in our world that give you access to people and the technology and some training on how to write a question. But I just still think there’s a lot of people that don’t know who they should be asking the questions of. So that sample design in qualitative research, because we’re working with smaller samples, is SO critical. It’s so important to get that right. And a lot of the conversation and the debate we have with our clients starts with that sampling. And it lasts quite a long time. I’m always amazed, but I enjoy the fact that we love that discussion. We love that argument because for us that is absolutely fundamental in doing good research. It’s the right questions of the right people at the right time in the right way. 


Yeah, it kind of gets back to, at least half of it gets back to Doctor Who: Ask the right question. So do you have a…?  I know you do. What is one or two favorite projects that you’ve worked on? 


For me, there’s a project…  stands out every time and, and really for the simple reason that a lot of people talk in research about changing lives, but this was a piece of work that we collaborated on with someone who’s now our research director. So at this point in time is a few years ago…  This is working with Dr Marie-Claude Gervais. She was a client, and this was looking at the lived experience of ethnic minority people and black people and old people in the UK, people living with cancer. The objective there was to understand the inequalities in cancer care services amongst same audiences and, subsequently, what that different experience of living with cancer looked like with them. So, the client was Macmillan Cancer Support, which is a big UK charity over here. That was, I think, two months we followed them, observed them, engaged these people, small cohorts of people around the UK, and these are transgender people so often. So you can’t even imagine how difficult it would be to get them into a focus group facility, let alone find them in the first place.  So therein lies some of the big advantages of communities. This project was… When I think about it, the hairs stand up on my arm now still. And I get goosebumps because really what we did is we changed the lives of those people in so many ways. The project was, of course, to develop some new insights for Macmillan. But fundamentally what it did, it led to changes in government policy. But also, we had participants, and this happened not so long ago.

One participant, a lady who was living on the bread line…  Life was very, very difficult for her. She was very despondent, and it actually changed her life because she realized there was a support community that she could create herself for other people in a similar situation through getting to know other participants in the community. And what happened after that community, the online community, happened is this woman in particular created a new support community for cancer patients, black people. And that’s given her a new focus in life. And actually, about two years after the project, this lady turned up at one of the presentations we were giving — unannounced to us — and came up to us at the end of the presentation and really just thanked us for changing her life.  And that’s where market research really is very special, I think. And so, for me that was one of the projects where the research itself and the depth we were able to get through that community was incredible. You just wouldn’t have been able to do that any other way. But how that fundamentally changed government policy, access to services for people in often fringe groups on society was quite special. So yeah, that for me is a project I’ll always remember fondly.


Ah, that is a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing it. All right. I have a tactical question and they’re going to get to my, the last question. But when you think about like qualitative and quantitative, we’ve hinted around this couple of times so far in our conversations…  Quantitative is just a really bad conversation, right? Surveys are just terrible surrogates for our conversation at scale. I often times joke that nobody after a date does an NPS with the person that just went on a date with. Right. So again, we actually have human ways that we interact, not 11-point scale, starting with zero. One of the benefits potentially of artificial intelligence is it can enable us to have conversations at scale and then, subsequently, potentially analyze that data in a meaningful way because the data accessibility has so far on open-ended data or unstructured data has been just impossible to penetrate. But now you’re seeing movement in there with sentiment and natural language processing, etc. So do you think that you’re going to see…?  And I guess this is somewhat bias, but do you believe that it’s going to be a lift proportionally in qualitative utilization? When you think about the global market research spend?


I think we’re seeing it already. For us, qualitative research started a renaissance a couple of years back, and we’re seeing that continue to grow because I think clients want the human story and they’re building human brands now. I think consumers can easily sniff out brands that are completely tone deaf to what’s actually happening on the street level. And that’s where qualitative research, I think, plays out very, very well. So I’d say that’s happening. We ourselves and I alluded to earlier one of the other businesses I’m involved with, which is called Signoi.  We’re also able to analyze large volumes of unstructured data. And that’s for meaning and cultural insights. So, if you think about how that might apply, if you want to then think about doing qualitative research at scale… So, for example, using bots for moderation so you can engage bigger, bigger samples of consumers in a shorter space of time, but then have the means to analyze that and get something quite tangible out of that very quickly. That’s still qualitative research for me, just using technology to speed up the process in terms of data capture, to focus in the human analysis. I don’t think we’d ever go on the results that the black boxes are giving us, but it certainly allows us to look at the right thing.  So that’s happening and that’s something we’re experimenting with and using on some of our clients. And I think that’s very, very exciting. But the human side of research and qualitative, it’s already experiencing a significant uplift, certainly here in the UK. And we do a little bit of work in the US but, you know, qualitative is much bigger here in the UK than it is in the US anyway, I think.


Yeah, you’re absolutely right to that point.  I think one of the reasons why is, well not geographically, but one of the reasons, just broadly speaking, you have such a growth in quant is it’s just easy to execute to your earlier kind of stab. You and I, or our moms could program a survey and Survey Monkey and launch it quickly. It doesn’t take a tremendous amount of sophistication. But I really think it’s interesting too as a practitioner of research to see how you’re taking the science of qualitative, which is hard by the way, and seeing it morph and move into the statistics that are normally associated with quant.  And it’s going to be fun. It is fun right now, and it’s going to continue to be fun to see this evolve over the next three years. ESOMAR‘s report’s going to be fun. 


We feel we’re in a good position for that because sitting at the intersection of research, insight, and technology allows us to play with these tools. We understand how these tools work. We can stitch them together very easily. We’ve got a team of developers and engineers. So yeah, it’s exciting times.


Yeah, for sure. All right, we’re going to end on this question. What is your personal motto?


Oh Gosh, good question. I’ve got two actually. So, I’d say both relating to entrepreneurship, but I think equally about research and the process. So, I don’t think there’s ever such a thing as win or lose. For me, it’s always win-or-learn — how everything is a learning opportunity. And I think that’s important to think about that. The second one really is just about resilience and never give up.  Fight that fight to get that insight across to the client. You know there’s always naysayers, but stay resolute, have resilience and keep on with that struggle.


My guest today has been Steven Cribbett, founder and CEO of Further. Thank you very much, Steven, for joining me on the Happy Market Research Podcast.


My pleasure, Jamin, and thanks very much.


Everyone else, if you found value in this episode like I did, I hope you will screen capture, share it on social media. That is how other people like you are able to find this content and, as always, your five-star reviews are always appreciated. Thank you so much. Have a great rest of your day. 


According to the GRIT report, there has been an increase in the number of qualitative-based tools. This is centric to user experience, customer experience, and market research. However, as with all things, the actual research operations remains to be done and that happens usually outside of those toolsets. HubUx is a solution for that. You plug your tools directly into it; you enter in who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, and HubUx literally does the rest for you. If you already have an existing customer list, you can just upload it directly into the tool. If you want to leverage social recruiting, that’s integrated as well. It is the single source for all of your research operations needs HubUx. Check it out. Thanks.

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MrWeb Series – Graeme Lawrence of Join the Dots I InSites Consulting on Ways Agile Research Fails, and How to Ensure You Don’t

My guest today is Graeme Lawrence, Managing Partner at Join the Dots I InSites Consulting. Established in 1998, Join the Dots is a global consumer insight agency that helps companies make better business decisions through a deep understanding of people.

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Hey, everybody, this is Jamin, host of the Happy Market Research Podcast. In conjunction with MrWeb, I’ve had the honor of interviewing three of the leading custom panel companies. This is one of those three episodes. If you’re not currently subscribed to MrWeb, I just can’t recommend another resource. He gives you a daily update on happenings, whether it’s HR, M&A, technology releases, companies going out of business, companies starting. I mean there is not a single point of truth that I found to be more consistent and reliable than MrWeb. So check them out. They’re great and I hope you enjoy this episode. 


According to the GRIT report, there has been an increase in the number of qualitative-based tools. This is centric to user experience, customer experience, and market research. However, as with all things, the actual research operations remains to be done and that happens usually outside of those toolsets. HubUx is a solution for that. You plug your tools directly into it; you enter in who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, and HubUx literally does the rest for you. If you already have an existing customer list, you can just upload it directly into the tool. If you want to leverage social recruiting, that’s integrated as well. It is the single source for all of your research operations needs HubUx. Check it out. Thanks. 


Hi, I’m Jamie Brazil, and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. My guest today is Graeme Lawrence, Chief Client Officer at Join the Dots.  Established in 1998, Join the Dots is a global consumer insights agency that helps companies make better business decisions through a deeper understanding of people. Prior to joining Join the Dots, Graeme served as head of sales for several leading firms, most notably Harris Interactive. Graeme, thanks very much for joining me on the Happy Market Research Podcast today. 


Hi, nice to join you.  I’m really, really excited about having a chat.


It is an honor to have you on the show. I’ve been following the merger/acquisition. We’ll get into what that looks like more specifically in just a little bit, but I like to start off with creating a little bit of context for our audience. Tell us about your parents and how they informed what you do today.  


Well, my mom and dad, Norman and Rena Lawrence, were born in Edinburgh and in war time, in the Second World War time. And they had a fairly tough upbringing actually in Edinburgh, Scotland, and, they’re from quite a working-class background. And my dad left school at 15 and went into printing as an apprentice and stayed there his own his whole career but then was hugely successful I guess after, I don’t know, maybe into his mid-thirties, something like that. Became quite a key business leader in a couple of good companies. Actually, one of them became part of, got bought into the Signage Group, which I know a number of people in marketing know. So, when I was brought up, my dad had the aspiration of kind of learning that he maybe didn’t have and wanted me to go to university and all that, but he was a little bit pressured on me being an accountant and wanted me to be a money guy. I don’t know it just didn’t feel like me. I kind of fell into market research and marketing, which I know a number of colleagues and friends in the industry have done as well over the years.  I guess for a number of years, he really didn’t understand what I did, I don’t think.  We didn’t really have much of a relationship on it, but I guess it’s only been in the last five, ten years where we’ve ended up coming together to talk about running businesses because that’s what he ended up doing in the printing world. And I guess that’s what I’ve ended up doing with there being a kind of a corner affair of Join the Dots and somebody who went through a management buyout and buying out the original founders of Join the Dots, etc.  So it’s only been the last year I think we’ve probably had some things in common around the business side of things and once he got over the fact that I wasn’t a charted accountant. They’re great people, and I’m fortunate that both of them are still with me. They’re old and gray now, but they’re doing good, and they’re always inquisitive and looking to understand a little bit about where the whole marketing and the branding and they try and get into that a little bit more recently.


I just turned materially gray in the last 24 months. I’m terrified. Like I don’t know what’s going to happen in another 24 months. I was just reminiscing with my wife on that point. I think that you definitely earn the…  Getting older as a male and having some sort of connection with your father and him being able to provide some sort of value into your business — that can be a material point of bonding between the two of you. I’m interested though, is there a specific piece of advice or some sort of value that he contributed that helped you along to creating a successful outcome?


We’ve always had a love of football, soccer I believe you guys call it. And we’ve always had the love of football together, and teamwork has always been something that we’ve always spoken about. And I was kind of interested when he was talking about how he ran the printing businesses that he ran, about the right people being involved at the right time, overall, and that being a key component of everything. And that is something we’ve definitely worked very hard on at Join the Dots around having the right people in combination. I’m a great believer in bringing together strengths of different people within an organization is the right way forward.  For those people that know Quentin Ashby, who was ex-CEO of Join the Dots, him and I are very, very different guys, but the combination of us is something that’s been really powerful, I think, over the years. So yeah, I guess that teamwork thing was a big point, and a sense of loyalty to that teamwork aspects as well. 


There is something to fighting in the trenches, using the wartime analogies that creates a profound bond throughout the organization. It’s actually a really, really powerful way to concatinize [sic] (I don’t know if that’s the right way of saying it) but join brothers and or people in arms, excuse me.  So, that’s pretty cool. All right, well, let’s get into… You guys have had a lot of news, right? A lot of news. So, January, 2019, earlier this year, you launched the Insight Ecosystem. I’m dying to know. Tell me about the Insight Ecosystem. What has that brought to the market? 


I think for us about this time last year, we were really feeling like we’re an online research community business primarily.  So, I don’t really like the acronym of MROC, but I’ll live with it for the sake of people understanding what it is. Principally, the bulk of our work has been in research communities since about when we first started out in probably 2008, 2009 and these are long-term sort of structured ongoing communities on behalf of clients as a full-service agency. And I guess the coming out with a relaunch at the beginning of 2019 under this kind of banner of Insight Ecosystem was a little bit of a response to how we feel that the research community market is changing and has changed and needs to change on behalf of clients.

Look, if I tell the story of what I think has happened in the MROC research community market, 2008, 2009, 2010, that kind of period was the sort of early innovators in that space:  some of them coming from more of a panel side of things; some of them maybe being slightly more qualitative, but those that I guess backed the methodology of an opt-in sample working on an ongoing basis on behalf of the client and we put our chips then on the table at that time around that and it was hugely exciting around the aspects of…  It was the web 2.0 time. It was researched 2.0. It’s participative; it’s collaborative; it’s working with consumers. It’s not a lot of what I was doing on the conference stand. There was old research was parent to child. This research is adult to adult. This was a hugely collaborative embracing the times, if you like. Now what happened here? Like as globally. Certainly what happened here in Europe around 2011, 2012 with the banks crashing and the market’s going belly up and was that the nature of these research communities got shunted and got moved, which was really disappointing in many respects because it got moved very much more to a speed and a price aspect rather than a quality of methodology that collaborated with consumers.  Really disappointed me and, when I look back at it, there’s still a bit of me that finds it a bit upsetting. But I guess that’s what happened that it went a bit very much into the “Ask questions; quickly get responses. And can you do that for me quite cheap ‘cause I can’t afford much more because of the market; we haven’t got the budgets, etc.” from the client side. And I think we went through quite a number of years that that had such a big influence on the market, that clients were playing it that way. We re-emerged from that, I would say somewhere in 2014 and 2015 onwards, but I don’t think we ever quite got the excitement or buzz around the way we had maybe in that kind of participative research 2.0 space that existed, if you like.  And us launching the Insight Ecosystem was almost like trying to regenerate that in a way because we wanted to say, “Look, let’s get away from thinking that the answer to all of our client’s problems lies in asking questions and our methodologies and our tools that we use are way beyond that.” I’m coming in different shapes and sizes and guises around that. I know the launch of our Insight Ecosystem was really around this kind of mantra about “asking, listening and observing” being the key way forward. 

And we very much put that out there as our thinking around how communities should be viewed and should work in a way to say, “Look, you’re not going to get great insight, and you’re not going to get great commerciality from just asking questions, asking questions, asking questions.” They’re not the best observers of their own behavior, blah, blah, blah.   All the stuff that we know from the behavioral science. So it was us of going repackaging, going back out there. We’re trying to sort of energize clients’ thinking around what a structured, ongoing community can be about in a way to highlight that it’s got an ecosystem, got a number of different tools that you can combine. Dare I say it: Join the dots?


Yeah, right. When you think about the value prop, obviously, it sounds like it’s one part building a real connection with the community as opposed to more of a speed or efficiency, cost-savings point of view. And then the other part of it that I hear you saying is it’s centric to incorporating new methodologies or tools into the data collection. Is that what I’m hearing? Is that right? Or… 


In this period of the last three or four years, we’ve known that when we’d been at our best, we can provide a combination between speed, price, and quality.  it’s the trilemma, the whole kind of…


Yeah, the three-legged stool. 


Can you live in that tension?  Well, one – I want to think at the end of the day that we have to live in that tension because if you’re going to be a successful insight supplier… 


You’ve got to be there. Lenny Murphy, every grit report that he produces, he continues to come down with the fact that at the end of the day innovation is driving those three things. 


Yeah. And, as you say, innovation is being driven in that way, regardless of whether it’s a research innovation, is innovation in the kind of commercial world as a whole. So, yeah, it was a way of reframing that to say, “Look, it can be done. Sometimes we’ll do it quick. Sometimes we’ll ask questions quickly. Sometimes we’ll make quick observations on consumer behavior, and that’ll be nice and cheap probably. But sometimes we will actually take a bit longer over this to bring a better quality into it. We’ll be more immersive. We’ll do more observational work. We’ll have various stage gates.”


How big are the communities that you manage for companies? What’s the range? Small and big. 


Yeah. We’ve honed in on a kind of a…  It depends on the nature of the client. Yeah. But if you’re a one-brand, one-market service provider, say, we would potentially be working with 2,000 or 3,000 people.  We are getting responses, which vary between 30 to 50 people on something that’s in depth and immersive through to a couple of hundred people on something that might be more survey-based, asking-based dynamic. And that’s the kind of scale size that we can kind of play in. But they do vary: we’ve got so much more small intense ones; we’ve got a few bigger ones that because they’re multi-brand so, but it is that kind of territory that we play in


On July 2nd this year, just a few months later, InSites Consulting announced its acquisition of Join the Dots. That was a big deal in the space. Tell us what in the world…  What was the thesis? 


Yeah, I think we’ve known each other for a long time. You mentioned great fellow gritless people.  I’m heavily involved with ESOMAR, people like Niels, who’s been ESOMAR president recently. We’ve seen each other on the conference stand. As agencies, we both feel we’ve given back a fair amount in terms of bringing clients to the conference stand and showing case studies and highlighting our innovations in such a way that we think it helps everybody move forward. In the first instance, there was a contextual backdrop of like-minded agencies and like-minded agencies with a slightly different global footprint, with them being really strong in Western Europe, us being strong in UK and Asia, them not being in Asia. So there was a kind of global footprint. The interesting part as well, which in terms of client situation, our largest clients weren’t theirs and vice versa. So there was a really nice and neat fit there. And, more importantly, a very similar outlook when it comes to communities and the importance of ongoing online communities, structured programs, and similar tools but, us having some that they don’t have, them having some that we don’t have and in terms of some nuances. So just like a kind of a really a nice fit overall to be a situation where we feel we can have a situation where we can be a scale proposition for global brands. We both work for big global brands. We’re both working multinationally. And we are only wherever we are six, eight weeks after deal or whatever. But it’s beginning to…  We’re getting some really interesting sample already about how that’s beginning to play out. 


So it sounds like the one-plus-one-equals-three scenario here is you’ve got little overlap on geography. So, in other words, you’re growing the global footprint. You’ve got complementary customers; so, there’s no cannibalization happening there. And you have complementary technologies in many cases. Both of you have done consulting, do consulting for your customers. So it’s not just a strict technology platform:  use it and then use somebody else to do the consulting. The consulting services also complementary or are they very similar in…? I guess the real question that I’m trying to get to is: Has the value prop — obviously, it’s expanded ‘cause you’ve got broader reach immediately, and then also obviously on the technology side there’s some benefit — but is the consulting also bringing an additive benefit to the customer base?


Yeah, massively. We’ve got big hopes for it on that part. I think I would give you a couple of examples, which would maybe help you see those. We’ve talked about us launching this sort of ecosystem around “ask, listen and observe.” And that wasn’t something that they were doing in terms of a framing exercise for their clients. And so, we were doing, I guess, a research methodological framing and mechanism there, and, interestingly, insights.  We’re doing a lot more framing around understanding things like key specific areas like branding or innovations on behalf of their clients that we were doing a lot of work on, but we didn’t necessarily have the proposition kind of framed that way or necessarily kind of put out to market and not in the same way. So there’s a really interesting bringing together of some nice consultative minds, who are methodological short-category. We were heavily kind of invested in our sectors in terms of our clients’ sectors and understanding sectors. One of our big dots in the dot joining of the dots was the culture-and-trends unit that we’ve got. We’ve got a team of ten that have always been looking — we’ve had in place for about four or five years now — looking at secondary information, secondary data, looking at desk research for the common times, if you like, for the common digital age. Those guys have sort of done a bit of that, but insights didn’t have it framed the same way as us to have that kind of, “This is what’s going on in sectors and trends that are happening in sectors.”


And incorporating…  This is a theme, by the way, across all the brand interviews that I’ve done.  It’s just no longer the case that you can go forward with a primary piece of research. You’ve got to be able to triangulate that against — if it’s going to find purchase in the organization — against behavioral data or some other secondary data sources just to again set the context and help aid in the overall storytelling and narrative.


Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And we’d been working hard on that.  InSites have been strong in that as well, but not necessarily plugging it in quite exactly the same way. So that’s an exciting two different ways for us to do it. They’ve been very good on almost a sort of slightly academic side of brand and brand development, whereas we’ve not been quite as strong on that. So there’s really nice consultative pieces that are beginning to come together on them on sort of web projects that we’re doing now to bring the organizations together. 


Yeah, that’s great. That’s great. Congratulations by the way. 


Thank you.


That’s a big deal. 


It’s interesting. Yeah, we did a management buyout as a leadership team back in 2017, and  that to some extent we didn’t know where that was going to go and we were fortunate to do a deal with our original founders that we managed to make happen and didn’t necessarily think this would happen as quickly as it has, but there’s a real right-time feeling about it.


It’s interesting is the…  You kind of like canvas. Obviously, I’ve been heavily involved in M&A over the last five years in the space with Decipher to Focus Vision and Focus Vision doing the acquisitions that it did, primarily under Eric Grosgogeat’s leadership and, framing that out now where the market is, it’s become much…  There’s always been acquisitions, like that’s always been part of the ecosystem, but it feels like the roll-up acquisition and the combining of forces is becoming, in a lot of ways, a strategic advantage for companies, uniquely creating moats and filling out capabilities. We’re seeing a lot more of it now than we did even three years ago. 


Yeah, we obviously have.  We all do, don’t we. We all keep an eye on the market and especially within our own regions about what positions that are going on. And, as you say, there’s been a number of changes to the dynamic of that, whether it be, obviously, trends…  We have trends very much in the UK and around sort of marketing services companies buying research agencies and research tech agencies. And then it moves to things more like the management consultants buying and also situations now where we’re seeing things like Big Data companies who are maybe taking on agencies, research agencies or research tech agencies as well. So there’s been a real sort of…   You could see the trends ebbing and flowing on that. I guess it’s bizarre. Not bizarre, but I guess this is slightly telling that we brought together like-minded people that we’ve known for a long time rather than going to bed with them where they need those kind of scenarios. I mean who knows what’ll happened further down the line. But I think the coming together of O and O agencies that look similar is quite rare. So then when those kind of opportunities come up, I guess if you can get them to slot together, it is something that you’re going to look at.


Yeah. So, post acquisition, right? You guys have gotten a lot of press, I mean a lot of press. What are you guys offering? I know it’s a breadth of things. I want you to really focus in on one offering. What is the thing that you’re offering that’s getting some purchase right now and some material lift inside the industry? 


We were getting some really good movement on the aspects around the “listen and observe” and moving it away from “ask.”  And I think InSites have been doing the same: so, things like the sort of digital ethnography, more immersive stuff and trying to combine that with things like social listening and trend analysis.  We were talking offline before we started about innovation. Everyone’s desperate to innovate. All the big brands are looking at innovation opportunities ‘cause there’s so much disruption going on from smaller organizations that they feel that they need to be part of it. Big global brands have found it hard to play in that space. And that’s why it’s interesting that they often end up just buying the startups. But I think that they’re all beginning to feel like we need to get our acts together around innovation processes. I’ve just had lunch with a big, big FMCG player about how they’ve had to reappraise their innovation and milestones and aspects of how they reframe the whole research process on innovation. And disappointingly, we’ve not been involved but we just missed out on it. But it’s very interesting to hear. 


We’re playing the long game here. 


Yeah, exactly. And it’s interesting here too.  I think this is where consumer immersion, understanding people and aspects is a phraseology that both sides of our joint organization is very intrigued by, and it adds to me that’s trying to, in terms of the three-legged stool that you talking, it’s kind of just trying to keep remembering that don’t just do the two-leg cause you’ll fall down.


That’s right.  You need to pay attention to all the legs.  


Because I think agile speed is priced agile-speed price.  You can throw a hundred ideas against the wall. But if you don’t spend enough time working out the quality aspects of it, it’s just not going to work. And I think we’ve got to be careful about going too quick.


I totally agree. Quality is one of the legs and at the end of the day we are the rudder of action inside of the organizations that are making, in some cases, $100-million or billion-dollar decisions on market research data. So we really need to be thoughtful from a tool empowerment perspective and consultative perspective to ensure that methodologically…  Like that rigor is really important. 


I’ve heard a bit of a…  This is probably a bit of a British phrase: bee in my bonnet.   I’ve got a thing for many years around how I failed the future of market research and consumer research and understanding consumers has… We’ve let ourselves down in many respects in terms of how we have that interaction with consumers:  length of surveys, all that stuff. It’s just kind of wrong, and I think it’s got to be back on the consumer’s terms. And I think you have to go back to your original question. Give me a couple of examples. There’s really some things that already the joint organization around sampling, which I think is interesting. At the end of the day, some consumers are, I think it’s Forrester’s work, which says 98% of good validation people to speak to in research 90% are good curation people and 1% are creative. Now, the InSites Consulting Group bought ICurve, the creative panel company, which I’m sure you’ll be aware of and others out there will have hear of. Fascinating to have such a creative panel out there to go to for co-creation in our space and I think that’s exciting.  InSites have been doing great work with employees and stakeholders. I think employees and stakeholders at big brand organizations can play a big part in the curation part. They know both sides of the fence, if you like, rather than just us getting caught in big samples of the validators that aren’t going to get you anywhere necessarily. They play a role; of course, they do, but I think there’s aspects around sampling and getting the right people to interact with you in the right way at the right time is something that our… I’m excited by what we’re thinking about here. 


That’s really interesting. I completely agree with the point of view that we need to start at the fundamental level of respondent quality and make sure that we are getting the right… one – real people and then secondarily — or maybe additionally primarily — the right sample frames lined up. What do you see as the biggest issue that is facing today’s market researchers?


This is a fascinating question, but I think we need to keep challenging ourselves around the combination of the right tools with the right people and being open- minded. You mentioned rigor before. I’m a big fan of a lot of what’s been cornerstone of our industry, but I’m also at the same time that the other side of that coin is the spin, excuse the French:  There’s been a lot of shit done. An interesting area, for example, is to what extent are we truly understanding the threat from things like Big Data and social media analysis, etc. We’ve got to work out how we’re playing in that space and how we’re part of that landscape. 


Yeah, give you some real data here. According to ESOMAR, you’ve got fairly flat growth inside of the global market research spend over the last few years. Meanwhile, customer experience — which some people would argue is inside of market research or should sit inside of market research, and we all know it doesn’t now — it is projected to be a $23-billion space in 2023 growing at a 23% CAGR, which is freaking insane. So when you think about… and you look at the types of research that are being done…  In fact, I’m participating in (I’m fortunate enough to be a member of a user-experience research Google group in the Bay Area. That Google group recently created a list of about a hundred terms that are used inside of, I’ll call it research, customer experience, user experience and market research. And they’re trying to define that and then also identify which pieces fit into which disciplines. So it’s just fascinating to me that the one big piece of differentiation is the nomenclature inside of those three disciplines. But the actual execution or the work that is being done is, for all intents and purposes, it’s the same type of stuff.


I’m not surprised. I’m not as close to that stuff, but I’m not surprised by that kind of commentary. And I think it’s about…  I don’t know if we call ourselves being in the traditional market research spaces about us embracing and breaking laws. Though we were involved for a long time in user-experience stuff and usability research and it ended up becoming almost a slightly separate discipline here in UK and Europe and still kind of is.  And I think you’re right: I think CX is kind of spun out of that to some extent as well. But, ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s about understanding people and understanding why people are doing things such for a commercial outcome and what our industry should be about. And you will get marginalized if we’re not careful. 


Yeah, that’s right. And that’s why I think if you actually look physically at how the organizations that are structured to leverage insights quickly, right, they have the insight function sitting really close to, in a physical proximity and from a hierarchy perspective as well, to that insight professional, right? So product is sitting or UX researcher is sitting by product. for example, right? That’s the thing where we as researchers need to make sure that we are outside of our pseudo-kingdom and making sure that we are actively integrating and integrated into the decisions that are being made. And the other thing that’s interesting to me from an opportunity is that like Facebook has over 600 user-experience researchers, which is a big number, and they have far less than that market researchers.  Well, there’s an opportunity for researchers to be mentors to this division. I think that as we see ourselves as enablers and really creating a safe framework for insights inside of the organizations, then we help secure our future inside of this growing space.


I haven’t thought of it like that before, but I think that’s an interesting way of seeing where the opportunities lie on the client side.  We’re seeing a lot of examples now of clients that the old market research, the good parts of the old market research principles are beginning to decay on the client side and not be kind of there. I don’t want to sound like I’m an old traditionalist on that, but the best parts of it, you want to be in the mix. 


Let’s do that. 


I’ll give you an example actually as well. About two years ago we were looking to hire a research director, classic research director, to work on our communities, classic market research, lots of validation. You kind of work a bit of the immersive work blah de blah. And I met a woman who had been working in social media listening but was a traditional researcher by trade, but she’d been in that space for a couple of years and then the organization that she was working for, she didn’t know where her role was going next. So she thought she better look back to her past.  And I was talking to her. I was really intrigued by her passion around what we now term “social intelligence” because what she had done in her role in this quite boutique company was actually to bring the principles of market research to social media listening, which I haven’t seen much. I haven’t seen much of, and I haven’t seen done very effectively and, personally, had a little bit discounted social media listening as part of the mix of an agency like mine, like ours, spend more time with the sort of work that she was doing and when… This is fascinating when you link it back to the issues I’ve thought about it before about sampling and whether you’re getting the right data and how you’re making that join up as part of your list, your sort of understanding of consumers, we’ve really integrated into Join the Dots excited by having it in Join the Dots/InSites consulting as well because I think it’s a really interesting new area.  I call it a new area; it’s been going on for ages: scraping, text analytics, sorting, but doing that with a big qual head and some qualitative principles of understanding our own analysis and some kind of neat methodologies around analysis from our kind of part. What a lot of people would call our past, if you like, is bringing some really interesting results. Now, we’re not doing it in isolation necessarily; we’re then moving it onto consumer dialogue and getting consumers to work with some of the findings and vice versa. So joining the dots on the kind of things that are going on there. But I think now some example of how our industry, I saw loads and loads of social media analysis, conference papers. We scraped; we texted; and we did text analytics. And it said, “24% of the people don’t chew gum in Seattle.”


Yeah, the application of that. 


Well, well done you. Yeah, but where’s the insight in that, you know?  And so, bringing back some of our principles and trying to layer them in clever ways with the technological basic collection aspects…  I understand the people that run those social media scraping companies. The best way for them to make money is on the tech. And the best way for them to make money is to get the analytics out and to get data to big organizations. I get that. But if you want to be a consultant, do something else with it slightly. 


I think application of the insight, right? 


Exactly. And I think there’s some interesting things going on in that space. The question you asked is what’s the biggest issue facing.  The biggest issue facing is us not adapting with our old principles in the right way, but also the biggest opportunities as well. And there’s two sides of the same coin. 


All right, last question. What is your personal motto? 


If it looks wrong, it is wrong. That is a kind of a nice start point. I think I do like that one as a kind of thinking about it from an analysis perspective when I still get involved in analyzing client stuff. And the other one I kind of really, really like is the…  I guess I don’t know if it’s a motto, but I guess the one is around this: I’m a big believer in qual and ethnographic work, and it’s bizarre that I was brought up on ad tracking quant, but market research started by observing. That was where it starts with anthropological stuff and all that kind of thing and…  Let’s understand people. Let’s watch them. Let’s see what they’re doing. Let’s make that a big part of what we’re up to because if we don’t have a window to people’s lives, we’re not giving true consultations to our clients, I don’t believe. That’s the nature of a sort of agency I want to be involved in and want to be involved. So, I’m not quite sure it is  a motto, but I guess it’s a kind of a belief.


Perfect a way to go out. If someone wants to get in contact with you, how would they do that? 


I guess they would email me or look me up on LinkedIn. So, it’s Graeme, G R A E M or just look me up on LinkedIn. Reach out and maybe leave a message to say you’ve heard this.  Happy to see anything I would’ve been saying is a load of nonsense.


Unfortunately, I don’t think you’ve said anything that’s particularly contrarian. That would have been, actually, a lot of fun. We’re all fairly like-minded.  I do think as I frame out this episode in my head right now, I continue to see one of these last points that we’ve been discussing of the growing change inside of the insights function, cross Venn diagram of UX or whatever, right? That could be something really interesting for people to get your perspective on. You’ve dealt with many of the largest brands in the world.  So I’ll do my best to create that sort of conversation on LinkedIn. My guest today has been Graeme Lawrence, Chief Client Officer at Join the Dots. Thank you, Graeme, very much for joining me on the Happy Market Research Podcast. 


Thanks everyone, take care. 


Everyone else, if you found value in this episode, please take the time to screenshot, share it on social media. It means the world to me. Our audience, we’ve now exceeded 50,000 downloads. I really appreciate the ongoing support that we get as we post these episodes. The only way that people find it is either through social media; obviously, water cooler as well as your five-star ratings on whatever platform you’re using.  Have a wonderful rest of your day.


According to the GRIT report, there has been an increase in the number of qualitative-based tools. This is centric to user experience, customer experience, and market research. However, as with all things, the actual research operations remains to be done and that happens usually outside of those toolsets. HubUx is a solution for that. You plug your tools directly into it; you enter in who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, and HubUx literally does the rest for you. If you already have an existing customer list, you can just upload it directly into the tool. If you want to leverage social recruiting, that’s integrated as well. It is the single source for all of your research operations needs HubUx. Check it out. Thanks. 

MrWeb Podcast Series

Ep. 231 – MrWeb Series – Isaac Rogers of 20|20 Research on Benefits to Investing in ResearchOps Automation

My guest today is Isaac Rogers, CEO of 20|20 Research. Established in 1984, 20|20 believes in the power of giving consumers a voice, and has spent more than 30 years finding ways to simplify connections between brands and consumers, enabling the consumer to share their stories. Prior to joining 20|20 in 2008, 20|20 has developed methods and tools used worldwide for qualitative and hybrid research studies. 

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This episode is brought to you by HubUx. HubUx reduces project management costs by 90%. Think of HubUx as your personal AI project manager, taking care of all your recruitment and interview coordination needs in the background. The platform connects you with the right providers and sample based on your research and project needs. For more information, please visit


Hey everybody, this is Jamin, host of the Happy Market Research Podcast. In conjunction with MrWeb, I’ve had the honor of interviewing three of the leading custom panel companies. This is one of those three episodes. If you’re not currently subscribed to MrWeb, I just can’t recommend another resource. He gives you a daily update on happenings, whether it’s HR, M&A, technology releases, companies going out of business, companies starting. I mean there is not a single point of truth that I found to be more consistent and reliable than MrWeb. So check them out. They’re great and I hope you enjoy this episode. 


According to the GRIT report, there has been an increase in the number of qualitative-based tools. This is centric to user experience, customer experience, and market research. However, as with all things, the actual research operations remains to be done and that happens usually outside of those toolsets. HubUx is a solution for that. You plug your tools directly into it; you enter in who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, and HubUx literally does the rest for you. If you already have an existing customer list, you can just upload it directly into the tool. If you want to leverage social recruiting, that’s integrated as well. It is the single source for all of your research operations needs HubUx. Check it out. Thanks.


Hi, I’m Jamin, and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. My guest today is Isaac Rogers, CEO at 20|20. Established in 1984, 20|20 is a global consumer insights agency that helps companies make better business decisions through deep understanding of people. Prior to joining 20|20 in 2008, Isaac has done a host of things, but really, I think, sir, you really came into this research space strong inside of a well-established business, and it’s an absolute honor to have you on the podcast today.


Oh. thanks, Jamin. And I have been looking forward to this. It’s always a pleasure to get to talk to you. 


So, I like to start out with this contextual question. Tell us a little bit about your parents and how they informed your career. 


Sure, this was a dangerous question to think about.


Yeah, ‘cause you may or may not see them for Christmas. 


Yeah. So I think I will be seeing my parents for Christmas this year. So Mom and Dad, if you’re listening, don’t take offense to this. My parents’ careers, they were both in the health care field. They had wonderful influence on me as a kid, but there is something just outside of my parents and kind of what they did for a living that I think was really instrumental for us. For the last 15 years of my upbringing, we had a cattle ranch.  So, we lived there; we raised about 150 to 200 head of cattle and that was what I did. Starting at about the age of 12 or 13, I had a pretty instrumental role, and then I was running the place by 14 and 15. And, Jamin, and there’s something about being raised on a farm or on a ranch that gives you some very unique characteristics, and I’ve met other senior leaders and executives over the years, and it’s amazing to me the percentage of them that grew up on a ranch or I grew up on a farm somewhere.  But that thing, the fact that we’ve done it our life around this farm that we had was I think one of the more instrumental things in making me who I am as a unique individual. My parents had all sorts of wonderful positive attributes in other ways. But really being raised on a ranch, I think, was a really special thing for making me who I am.


How big was the ranch? 


About 500 acres.  So, a pretty good size. 


Not huge.


Not huge. So it was outside of a little town in Arkansas, Hot Springs, Arkansas, and primarily a place where it was a working cattle ranch. It made money, but it wasn’t like one of these giant operations. So we raised Brahma cattle, which was an interesting thing to do and it was a lot of work. It’s big enough that it was a ton of work, but small enough that our family could manage it and not have to bring in a bunch of people to do it. 


Did you guys go through lean times?  So, 500 acres is a lot of acreage, but cattle require a lot of space, right?  So it’s not like farming. You don’t have the same ROI on 500 acres as you would in farming, for example, right?  It’s a totally different set of economics, meaning that like were you guys susceptible to market shifts in price, that sort of thing. Did you have lean years as a family?


Not overall as a family because my folks had other income streams that helped buttress.  I mean if we were totally dependent on the ranch, there would’ve been some really lean years. Cattle prices on the beef side fluctuated a lot in the late eighties, early nineties and so that would’ve been a challenge. So there’s an extraordinary amount of fluctuation. There were times where we didn’t really have an opportunity to sell any cattle in a given year because the prices were so depressed. You just had to wait. And the cost when we got into raising cattle was fairly low. But, frankly, as fewer and fewer ranches existed and were in operation, things got a lot more expensive. And towards the end of my shift on the farm, which would have been late nineties, I still worked when I went to college, but it wasn’t nearly as intense as in high school.  

We got to a point where in order to find the folks who could keep the equipment running and do those kinds of things, the real specialized stuff, it’s hard to find those people. And so, for looking back…  And now my folks are at a point where they’re contemplating selling the farm, and my son and daughter are a little disappointed about that. But they’ve really gotten to a point where they can’t make it make much sense anymore.  So it’s sad to see those things go because you get so many… Like the life lessons that come at you on a farm are so incredible. Like the idea of being so self-aware of what’s going on, trying to plan for things weeks and months out, you don’t think about those things when you’re in high school in the eighties and nineties growing up.  That’s not something you… Normal kids didn’t have to think about that stuff. And so, having been raised around that, it was really, I think, very formative in me thinking about how important it was to plan and think and then also be able to do almost anything you needed to do yourself. 


Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. It’s the ingenuity aspect is probably my biggest takeaway from being raised in a rural environment, right.  It’s not do or die, but it’s definitely the case: you’ve got to figure stuff out like how to repair a diesel engine or whatever. And this is pre-YouTube.  Thank God for YouTube.


Yeah, and most of the things you end up doing, you’ve never done before. If something breaks and you can’t get somebody there to fix it and it needs to be fixed, you’re going to figure that out. And there wasn’t plan B and there wasn’t Postmates. And so, I think those kind of lessons were extraordinarily influential in who I became. I reached a point in my career where there was some negative sides to them that I had to get rid of. I was the kind of person who would…  One of my worst character traits is I’ll just get in and do it myself. And as you get into a bigger and bigger organization and need to work through the folks in your organization, that’s a really bad trait. And so, I had to kick that off a little bit. Took me a couple of years, but I think I’ve got most of those things in check.


Was there a specific point where you as a leader where you faced…  (And we’re going to shift our conversation just a little bit towards leadership style and advice for aspiring leaders.)  Part of our audience are kind of the early stage startups in the market research space. So they might have groups of 10 or 20 or even 50 employees.  And I think this is probably a really important lesson that you’re hitting on here. And, actually, it’s surprising to me that this hasn’t come up on the show before. Having the capacity to do it all plays really, really well when you’re a 10-person company.  But to your point, it is your ceiling. Like you cannot advance beyond that unless you can give up that sort of… Did you have a pivotal moment where you’re like, I got to just let it go? 


Yeah, I kind of got told to.  So a lot of folks in the industry know Jim Bryson, our founder, my partner.  


And probably one of the best, best human beings of all time.


The best human beings on earth.  So, I was taking more and more of the reins of 20|20 about three or four years ago, and I was having trouble letting go of some things.  I became the bottleneck, and I wanted things to run through me. And I had made some strides myself, but, man, I wasn’t moving fast enough. And so, Jim worked with me:  We brought in a business coach, and he really had one thing that he’d said he wanted to focus on and that is teaching me how give up on certain things and realize working through people was better than trying to do it myself. We started off the coaching process with a really great book—What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.  And it’s a book that turned some people off because it’s very focused on sales leadership and sales people transitioning into other roles, but I think the lesson is super important and that is that these qualities that you get really, really good at over the first 15 to 20 years of your career… 

Being willing to say, I’m not going to get to exercise that muscle anymore. Like I’m not going to be able to be the rock star on that thing because I’m going to step aside and let somebody else build that capability or let somebody else handle that in a way that may be slightly different than the way I would. That’s a really, really challenging transition when you make it. I think there’s a point where you have to make it.  There’s a certain point where a founder or early stage company executive, when you’ve got a team of four or five, six folks underneath you, they’re going to have to take some of that load from you or you are going to be your company’s own scaling bottleneck.


That’s right. Yeah, well said, well said.  And I think there’s two things there. One is we’ll link in the show notes to the book that you just referenced. I hadn’t heard of that and I will read it also. Thank you for that. And then the second part that’s really important is…  Well, I actually there’s two parts to it: one is having an outside influence that you respect — So, the mentor that can point these blind spots out — and then having the humility to seek outside professional, paid-for support on addressing or shoring up those weaknesses. 


And then what I’ve learned in the intervening three or four years is that because I’m not doing those things and I’m working through my people, I have a lot of jingoisms or a lot of things that I’d fall back on when I’d think about how I’m supposed to be structuring my day. And so, one of them is when I took the reins of CEO, I said my job is to have the right people, give them the right resources and help them make the right decisions. And I bring a lot of conversation of our organization back to that. So that’s a great tool for me. And when you’re jumping from fire to fire, doing things yourself, you don’t get to develop those rubrics that you’re going to apply to your organization; so, you don’t get the consistency inside your teams. You don’t get to really take a step back and look at how some of your structures and how some of your leadership processes are working. That probably took a year or two before I realized, wow, with all of this extra time, what allows me to do — and it’s a little bit uncomfortable because it doesn’t feel as active — is to say how well are these things working and what do I need to adopt more of and what do I need to let go of? It almost becomes like a snowball, where you’re letting go of more and more and you’re getting really good at two or three really focused things.


Well, hey listen, congratulations on your patent. 20|20 blockchain led Opinion Data Marketplace. I saw that post on LinkedIn a few days ago. 


That one was actually for another one.  So, we also…


Oh, is it really it?


Yeah, that we have been investing in virtual reality and as it’s going to relate to qualitative research in the future.  That’s actually a VR-based patent. But there was a blockchain patent issued as well.


You know what?  You and the patents.  So, I want to talk about that, but not yet. I want to be centric to the blockchain.  And by the way, let’s pivot one more time in the conversation. Your LinkedIn is in the top echelon of LinkedIn profiles and activities. You get a lot of engagement on your posts. Super interesting. Do you have any tips for aspiring LinkedIn people that want to grow their LinkedIn audience and connections?


Yeah, I get asked that a lot, actually. So, I started it because…  I don’t want somebody like you to take this the wrong way or there’s folks out there who do some really great work, but I sat back and I kept going…  It felt like we were losing the voice of the industry in some way. I just wasn’t hearing from some of the folks that I know had some really great ideas; some of the folks that I knew where they needed to know or they knew where the industry needed to go.  And I was talking to Heather, our Head of Marketing, one day and I remember I was just getting frustrated and she said, “Well if you’re so frustrated, why don’t you do it yourself.” And I was like, “Huh, well, maybe she’s got a point.” And so, it started kind of small and modest. And it’s grown out from there.  And I think what we focus on or what I focus on is I want to be real honest with people. I don’t put a lot of polish into the things that I personally put out there much to Heather’s chagrin. I don’t overthink it, but when something comes up (and again it’s ‘cause I have that time as a leader now to watch and look and think) when I see a trend that other people may miss because they’re busy getting the things done here at 20|20, that gives me an idea to write about.  I published something the other day about meetings, and it’s amazing to me how many people have never stopped to think about how much meetings cost, like actual value of the time of the people you’re putting in the room, how to structure a meeting. And so, I take those tidbits, and I usually test them internally with some people and I’ll run the idea by and they’ll be like, “I’ve never thought about that.” And then, I just publish it and I listen for feedback and, if people like it, I take a little mental note that that’s the kind of thing people want to hear about and, if people don’t engage on it, then I write about something that’s a little bit different. But it came from the fact that I think as an industry I don’t…  There are so many amazing people with so many amazing things to say, and I don’t see enough of them out there doing that not in a self-serving way, but as a way to highlight what our industry brings to the table. And so that’s how we got started. And then we’ve tried to be as authentic as we can and keeping it going.


Yeah, that’s a great point on meetings.  It’s a great point on, I think, the white space or the opportunity for marketeers inside of our space as well as CEOs just to add their voice and create value inside of these platforms. The actual ROI in a meeting as…  I would do a calculation and after, as the company scales, you think about, “OK, I’ve got whatever, 410 people that I’m going to do an all-hands meeting. Okay, now I want that meeting to be 10 minutes.”  


Yeah, when you start doing the math, it really starts to add up. So, it’s about having a point of view.  It’s incredible that more people don’t take advantage of this in the insights space because we sit at such an amazing point.  We see so much going on with business and marketing and consumers and how they’re living their lives. And I don’t think we’re sharing enough. And I think if we shared more, it would also highlight the value of insights. So I wish more people would just take a risk and put their thoughts out there and see what people think.


All right, so you got your patent blockchain, specifically this Opinion Data Marketplace. Tell us about the role of blockchain and what that patent means.


Sure. So, the origin story I think on this is pretty interesting, or at least it’s interesting for me. So several years ago I have to do the math. (You know you tell a story enough and you forget.  Has it been four or five or six years?) Somewhere around five years ago, I had a moment on an airplane flying to Chicago. And previous to that moment for several years, around 20|20 and around, frankly, the broader industry, I had had some concerns about some of the ways that we were collecting data, monetizing data, some of the ways that we treat panelists and respondents.  For those that don’t know, we do a lot of qual and some quant and it puts us in an intersection where we see a good amount of quantitative, especially with some of our hybrid projects. And there’s some amazing, great work that happens in quant and there’s also some stuff that I wasn’t terribly proud of as an industry. I felt like we had ways to clean up and we weren’t. I felt like we’re getting to the point where, if we didn’t get in front of some of these things, probably going to begin to harm the relationship we had with our client base.  And I’d been concerned about this for a few years and didn’t really have a good answer. And I’m on a flight to Chicago, and I’m reading about a distributed application — We didn’t even use the word blockchain back then — that was describing a way that they were creating a registry for diamonds and the diamond trade and what that was going to look like. And I’m reading this article on a flight to Chicago; I’m going up there for a conference. And I just had this moment and I went, “We’re in the diamond business.” What they’re trying to do is create a registry that people can trust and rely on that anybody can look in and see where a diamond was mined, where it was going to go, who cut the diamond and know that it wasn’t a blood diamond, know that it wasn’t a diamond that had been resold and re-harvested. I looked at that and I said, “That’s an excellent solution for what we are trying to wrestle with in the market research space about six years ago.  So, I actually got to Chicago, booked another flight, came back to Nashville, spent a couple months with our development teams, talking to intellectual patent attorneys all across the country. Actually, found one here in Nashville who had experience already with some of the stuff that was going on in blockchain as it relates to health care. So we worked for several months on creating the IP, creating some early-stage products around that. About a year and a half later that patent was granted. So, what does it do? It creates a marketplace. When I look at the way that a lot of data collection happens in market research, it’s kind of a mess. There’s a lot of players and a lot of steps and a lot of people and, if you really take a step back, it’s a brand that has a question and they want to get that answer from a human and you think about ALL the machinations we have between what seems like a very elegantly simple desire. This type of marketplace, when it’s successful in our industry, just kind of shortens that gap. And it puts more power in the hands of the respondent because they get more in control of the surveys they take, the feedback they give to survey publishers, the data they share with those survey publishers; they get more of the monetization than they currently do.  I think one of the real travesties in our industry is how little we pay respondents to participate in the work we do. They are, literally, the lifeblood of what we do, and they get an extraordinarily small fraction of the value. By taking out some of that inefficiency, a centralized marketplace hopefully allows this to occur.


There is a couple of things.  One is increased transparency on who the respondent is and gets to historically one of the value prop, I should say, one of the key assets or the key asset of the sample space has been that asset. So, are you saying that the solution will create, allow the brands to subsequently leap-frog the panel company? Or, to your earlier point, there’s lots of hands that mark up a complete.


In many ways, it would.  I would argue that it would also allow agencies to take more control of how they are accessing a population of users who take surveys.  The thing that I like about marketplaces is that, if they’re efficiently designed, they give feedback in both directions. And so, if you read our patent, one of the big things that we lean in on is as a survey respondent taking a survey, I also have the ability to provide feedback and even penalize the reputation of a survey publisher who may throw a “10-minute” survey out there (and I’m using air quotes) and it takes 37 minutes and it’s poorly worded. So there’s a balance to be struck between not only bringing the respondent into more of an empowered role in how we engage them, but I think there’s also a ton of honesty we need to bring to the industry about the data we’re actually collecting, what we’re actually asking them to do and paying them to do ‘cause it’s untruthful.  And you look at a lot of the data scraping we’re doing and we’re not telling them about, when you look at the length of a survey that we give them and we kind of chuckle and say, “It’s a 12-minute survey; you’ll make 25 cents.” And it’s really two or three times that long. All of that gets cleaned up if you have a transparent marketplace, or my hope is that all gets cleaned up.  


No, I feel like if you look at where there’s significant opportunities for disruption, it’s all centered around non-transparent practices, right?  So anytime you can introduce transparency, you’re creating value, regardless of the industry. You’re creating value in that marketplace, and then the by-product of that, of course, is you can’t just exist on a 200% markup anymore, right? You’ve got to think about and create value in different ways than you historically may have been able to do.  So, when I think about the real benefit of blockchain, it’s two-fold: One is improved trust with who the respondent is to the brand. So that’s a big win. And the other one is — and you explicitly stated this and I think it’s on point — the ability for the respondent to have a voice in that tool or platform or that particular survey, to round-trip the feedback, because, according to some sources, there are over 4 million surveys done just in North America alone per day for third party purposes, right?  So that’s not like client-supplied lists; that’s purchased sample. And the velocity is increasing. So now it’s the case that a survey is really an extension of brand.


I strongly believe that.  I think that we are seeing more and more brand partners who are getting wise to that idea that when you put an instrument out there that’s really painful, that is an extension of your brand. And some of them want to hide behind and say, “Well, we’re not going to just say who the sponsor was.”  Does that really feel good to anybody though? Like my litmus test has been I want to get the industry to a point where one day I can turn around to my mom and go, “Hey, Cathy, I would love it if you would take surveys and here’s why. It’ll be a great experience. You’ll get rewarded for your time and brands really listen to what you have to say.”  I can’t tell her that today. I wouldn’t wish the average survey on an enemy. And I want to find a way where we create a real marketplace and say, “Look, this is the value of the insight you’re providing. This is how we’re going to share that with you respondent for the time and effort you’re going to put in and we’re going to be honest with what we’re collecting, what we’re asking you for.” And that transparency, I believe, by definition will lead to a lot of efficiency, and it will also lead to some probably negative unintended consequences.  It’ll lead to a lot of change, but there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that this is where things are going. It’s only a matter of how quickly we get there.


Do you think that disruption…  Everything you’ve outlined from a practical perspective, how do we realize that?  Has that impacted, now that you have this technology, has it impacted your actual day-to-day or terms of trade or way that customers are interacting with you and/or the sample that you empower through this platform?


In very early stages, yes.  So, we’ve got the platform that we built in early stage. We’re using it internally here for some things as we build it out. So it hasn’t had a wide-scale economic impact on us or the industry yet. It will hopefully very soon. I have some open questions, frankly, and I don’t know brave or dumb enough to share them is an interesting way to look at it. I’m not sure which one it is.  But if we are transparent with respondents and we say, “Look, this is what we need from you. This is the information we’re going to collect.” And we let them set their own prices for how much it would cost for them to participate. Instead of telling them you’ll make 20 points, if we say, “Look, how much, like we’re offering the survey at $1 or $2 or $5. At what point in time do you think it’s worth your time?” I’m a little bit nervous about how that’s going to shift some of the economics in the industry.  Frankly, if we share enough with the respondent’s out of the value, I think it’ll be fine. But there are still some unanswered questions I have. As these technologies move forward, they get outside of an internal testing inside 20|20 and move externally. We’ll get those questions answered. It’s going to be an interesting time to see how those play out.


Yeah, I guess at the heart of the question, you and I are both aligned that there’s going to be disruption to this space, blockchain being the platform that’s going to create the disruption.  Is it the case that there’s going to be a Netflix equivalent that’s going to be introduced into the marketplace that’s going to really upset the apple cart? Or do you feel like, ‘cause you have some major players…   You’ve got Dynata; I don’t know that they’re actually addressing this particular point at this point. I haven’t heard anything about it, if they are. You’ve got Veriglif. I believe that’s an initiative that’s being done by Lenny Murphy.  Again, it’s just early stages. It’s just, I think they’re still in like speccing or whatever phase. There’s nothing out there commercially available. Then you have what you guys are doing. And, outside of those three, those two, excuse me, I haven’t really heard of anybody entering into the market research space legitimately.


Yeah, and I think it’s going to happen in one or two ways. It’s either going to be like boiling a frog and that’s how you see a lot. That’s how you see a lot of disruption happen. right?  So, you turn around and you go, “Oh my gosh, hasn’t this been here the whole time?” And it’s really been a very short amount of time. So, the example I like to give is we all got iPhones in 2007. Like I have tee shirts; I have t-shirts that old. That’s what? 12 years ago?  And it seems like your brain has trouble remembering a time when that didn’t happen. And I think, in about five years, we will look back on our industry, and we’ll be at a point where these kind of marketplaces will be available and effective for a lot of the industrial sampling we do. And we’ll  turn around and go, “Oh my gosh, how did we ever do it the old- fashioned way. But it takes time. The other way it may happen is that someone big from the outside may come in and have a technology that probably comes out of the advertising technology space, realizes that market research and ad technology tracking can overlap with each other ‘cause you can get the behavioral and then you can get the self-reported. Somebody may come in with a platform that’s much, much larger than any of the players in market research and come in and do something in that way. So it’s either going to be slow and internal. slow relatively, or it’s going to be somebody coming from the outside and bringing in a broader solution and, frankly, probably selling it up the value chain to the CMO’s as an integrated advertising and insights platform. So, we’ll have to see. 


Yeah, that’s a great, super interesting point of view. So, switch gears again: qualitative forums. They’ve been around a long time, two decades.  I was an early user, not a developer, but user of a variety of different platforms. You know, 20|20 QualBoards, it’s been around a long time. On January 18 this year, you announced a major upgrade. Tell us about the upgrade as well as what aspects are getting major traction right now. 


Sure. So upgrade is a kind where we actually just rebuilt the whole thing. So,
we’ve had to do that four times. So we sit at a great point in the industry. We touched thousands of digital qualitative projects a year, worked with about a thousand clients around the world every year. And so again, with that time that I’m afforded and other folks in the product development team are afforded, we can listen and watch and see where things are going. This allowed us to be the first company in the world to have a mobile qualitative app in the iTunes store. We started building that a year-and-a-half before people actually needed it. And so, we had to rebuild our platform to support those kind of things. We were one of the first companies to support multimedia for doing online qualitative.  That seems crazy to even think like there was a day when respondents couldn’t upload pictures and videos while they were telling their stories.

And that was only 10 or 11 years ago, but it wasn’t that long ago. And we had to rebuild then. And so we reached a point about two years ago where we realized we had to rebuild for a fourth time. We see these things as evolutionary ages. It was just first doing digital and the second it was about multimedia; then it was mobile. And so the question is, what’s the fourth? What do we believe we’re in? I believe we’re in the age of automation when we look at the thousands of projects that we help run every year. The big, unrealized dream that people had when they started building digital qual platforms and the thing that, frankly, still frustrates a lot of researchers is doing online qualitative isn’t all that much faster, easier. There’s still a lot of data that moves back and forth and little tasks that need to be completed. And there’s a lot of set up. And so, it’s disappointing that you get into one of these studies and you’re like, “Ooh, digital,” especially when you find researchers who’d never done any sort of online discussions or forums before, and they go, “Oh, this is going to be so much easier.”  And we’re like, “It’ll be easier in ways and harder in others.” And so, we realized that what we had to do is we had to automate as much of the heavy lifting or menial tasks as we possibly could. And so, we spent about two, two-and-a-half years building out; really started with a foundation. It was all about data. How are we going to use artificial intelligence, natural language processing, machine learning, and build models that help researchers do the things they do that take up a lot of time, give that time back to them, give them their most valuable resource back?

And so, QualBoard 4.0 in that platform, there’s a lot of new and interesting things, but the real thing, I think, it will be known for three or four years from now is it was the first platform that really on the qualitative side fully bet the farm on how do we automate the little things in research to make a researcher’s life easier and more efficient. Right now, we feel like we can give, depending on the type of project, an hour a day back to researchers up to two or three hours a day depending on how much workload they’re doing. And that’s an enormous amount of time they can put back into insight development, frankly, just better, spending more time with the respondents. Automation we believe is where online qualitative is going.  The quant people, you guys are way smarter than us. You figured this out like five or six years ago, but the qual side of the business really hasn’t been able to.


Well, in all fairness it hasn’t because we take into account time. So as soon as you inject scheduling into any operational structure, it exponentially impacts the amount of time and complexity associated with particular activities. So like the synchronous nature of qualitative has created…  That and it’s not as big of a space. So I think there hasn’t been as much interest as you might have on the quant side. When you frame out like the efficiency gains that are introduced within 20|20’s QualBoard, is there a specific shining example that you have?


Lots of smaller ones.  We do a lot of research, and so I got to talk to some of the world’s leading experts on natural language processing and machine learning. When we started this process and we’d start with the obvious question, which is “How much of this…?  What’s the big silver bullet that we can put together? We can create some great models around and just knock it out of the park.” And they would all look at us and said, “You’re crazy. There is no such thing. There’s no silver bullet. What you can do is you can have these little helper applications that run that free up little pieces of time.”   So I’ll give you an example. We built something called smart reply. And what we did is we said “Look, one of the things that we know drives participation rates up by about 30% is when the moderator engages the respondent.

Just the simple act of like, ‘Hi, Jamin, thanks for being here. Great feedback. Love that photo.’ “  That can increase response rates from that respondent by up to 30%. Guess what percentage? And everybody knows this. Researchers know it’s really important to engage those respondents and keep them interested and let them know there’s a human being listening and all of those positive things we think of in qualitative. What percentage of posts in the 20 years we’ve been doing this, what percentage of them do you think are engaged or something a respondent says the moderator engages on? 


I’m going to say 60%.


Six tenths of 1%, Jamin.


Wait, in fairness, in fairness, my assertion was that they were already in a session.  That was wrong. I think. 


No. So, the overall majority of content that a respondent is providing in an online community never goes engaged on.  The other respondents, other respondents… 


That’s amazing. 


It’s amazing. And so, it starts to feel more like a survey. Their engagement goes down, and the minute that you probe or engage them, that engagement goes back up, but it takes time and it’s hard. You got to read through all this stuff. So we started building our own machine learning and looking over millions of records that we’ve collected over 20 years, millions, like 6 or 7 million records. We said, “Could we create training models to understand when researchers probe what they say and then provide either suggestions or automatically probe respondents in certain situations so that we know that we can increase that engagement level by automating a lot of that?”


So it’s like an AI in augmented conversation.


In a way, yeah. We let the researcher stay in the middle right now for the way that we’ve got it set up now. So they have to choose which smart replies they want to deploy to which respondent, but it saves an extraordinary amount of time, makes it easier, like in Gmail when you start typing out an email.


Yeah, yeah, it makes sense.


Similar to that, but it’s focused completely on qualitative research. So, there’s seven different classifiers that run when a respondent is talking about things that are about an experience. It starts pulling smart replies that are focused on, “Tell me more about that experience. Tell me more about that experience that you had.” It gives them the feedback that there’s somebody listening, except you don’t have to type it all. We have a way to automate that that we are slowly working on. We’re a little nervous people go overuse it. And so, we’re trying to create the right kind of throttles so that it is AI automatically probing those respondents in a lot of cases.  We were able to create models that looked at where researchers left what we call either insight tags or content tags: things that they typically are snapshotting to put in a report. We created a model that’s 72% effective at finding posts based on what is in the post, that we think a researcher needs to pay attention to. And so, there’s a feature in the software that you can turn on and say, “Just show me the things that the software thinks you’re going to actually want to put in a report,” saving time here and there, thirty minutes here, an hour here. Managed, starts to add up.


All right. I mean that seems like I actually really want to see a demo of that. It sounds like much more than a quality of life improvement. It feels like you’re going to get a higher level of engagement among your panelists or participants in addition to the fact that you’re going to be able to get to the richer, deeper insights. 


I think the level of engagement increasing, if that was the only thing we got out of it, it’s been more than worth it.  But you’re right. The ability for research to get more of their time back is also a big plus.


I want to talk about another product that you guys introduced this year in May specifically, and that is the slow-build lean community. From my vantage point, I think this is probably one of the more overdue products in the marketplace. It’s so silly. This should have been like 10 years ago.


Jamin, do you know how many times people tell me that?  I was talking to somebody last Friday and they were like, “Why has nobody done this?” And I think some people have, but maybe product market fit wasn’t right at the time or whatever. So the way it works is pretty straight forward. First of all, you need to know we do a ton of recruiting to our own platforms. About half the studies we do every year we’re recruiting; the other half clients are bringing sample; or we’re using some of our automation tools to recruit for quantitative or other panels. So we’ve got a bunch of different ways that we can bring these respondents in at these communities. And we would talk to clients and we would say, “With QualBoard 4.0 and the ability to build these larger populations, thousands of users and have them participate in all these different events while they’re doing your research, you can really build out a community,” and their eyes would kind of roll and they’d be like, “Yeah, I got one.” Or “Yeah, we did one. We’re never doing that again.”  And we would hear those things and we’d say, “Well, tell me more about that ‘cause for qual.” So we asked the probing question, and they kept telling us some of the same things that, “We’d build up these communities.” And they were mostly thinking large quantitative communities. They’d sign a big. huge check up front. They’d recruit 500, 1000, 1500 people. They bring them in, let’s say in January. We’d start doing research and then by May or June they’d go, “We didn’t actually get the right kind of people we want to talk to. Now we’ve learned a lot about our customer base. We’ve learned a lot about this new product. We need more females than we initially recruited, or we need more lapsed users.” But they felt kind of stuck cause they’d signed a six-figure check for a big community.

 On the traditional way, people think about qual boards is a tactical three- to seven-day online qualitative discussion. And so they’re like, “That’s kind of small,” and what I call disposable, meaning you’ll do a piece of research and it’s typically just focused on a single business decision, but then they get this really big thing that’s this big community and it’s very expensive and there wasn’t a ton of product in the middle. And so, we productize through either our automation, our recruiting capability and the way that we set up even the pricing model of QualBoard to be able to say, “Look, you can build into a community. You could start with five people on day one and do one event with those respondents. And then month two, you bring in a few more and month three and you’re kind of building it like a snowball. And it turns out it scratches an itch a ton of people have. And I think it’s just a different way of thinking about the middle ground between a large-scale quant community and your typical, tactical online research that people do. And we’re having a phenomenal amount of success with it. And it’s not driven by a single piece of technology. There’s some stuff that certainly helps support these things. It’s more the mind shift of build-it-as-you-go-along; lets you be more agile; let’s you save costs when you’re building these things out. And right now it’s giving us some really, really happy clients.


That’s great. So just to iterate what I think I heard:  everybody does ad hoc research, and you’re basically creating a connector into a panel from the ad hoc.


You’re basically building a panel inside of the platform as you go along.


And so, the really interesting thing about that is like underpinnings of blockchain. You actually have this capacity to safely grow respondent record over time so that you’re able to gain insight on not just stated but even other data that they may want to let you in on, which gets really interesting from an overall…  ‘Cause the real asset… This is a transactional business. We’re all trying to move to monthly reoccurring revenue (MRR) because that’s what the market overvalues right now. But you put all bullshit aside, and you just really focus on what we are as an industry. You have an insights need, and we meet that need. We get the customer in the room, right? That’s fundamentally what we do. Rarely is that systematized to the degree that I think we’d like it to be. I wish it was, but it’s not right now. But really what you’re talking about doing is creating that system so that you can build a longitudinal point of view at the respondent level. 


That’s right. Either longitudinal or take advantage of the thing that people think communities have.  From the quantitative side is you can just turn and burn super-fast. That brand manager comes around and says, “Hey, do you know, have we ever asked anybody about this use of our product?”  You can just go into your community and invite five or ten people into a video chat or give them a journal to fill out or get a group discussion going in a matter of minutes. That ability to be super agile is more in demand right now. The longitudinal is a piece of it.  Don’t get me wrong. But we’re seeing drive the lean community adoption. I think is more this idea that you can just be so agile with this community of users that you’ve already got going. 


So, do you think knowledge management…  Does that play into what you’re currently offering? Or is that one of the…  How do you see that? 


I would say in qualitative, it’s a little bit of a challenge just because of, as you mentioned before, the rather transactional way that this industry has been built. But I give a presentation on what I call disposable insights, which is this idea that we run all these focus groups and we do all this, even a lot of quant.  We throw the data away at the end of a project. As a little totem of this, it’s in a drawer back here somewhere. I was on the marketing side of a brand team a long time ago, and we did some focus groups, and I got the final report and I never looked at it. I just threw it on my desk. Well, that was 20 years ago. And I have carried it with me for years and years and years as a little totem to remind me of how easy it is to pay $100,000, spend three days in research, two weeks waiting for the report, and then never really integrate that knowledge in an ongoing basis in product development. So what we did with QualBoard 4.0 is we made it so that all the data you collect from all your different research events over time, they all feed into one place.  You can sort and filter and look at trends you can use. We’ve got our AI that looks at all the images that are collected and runs computer vision on them. You can say, “Look, I’m going to look over the last two years of research. How many times have people put pictures of pets?” And as we’re talking about the product and find those trends and look for those things.

So we’re getting there.  There’s a lot of education, a lot of training on the qual side because it’s historically been so transactional. But more and more the brand teams that are using our platforms, they go, “Oh, I get it. This gives me a way to say, ‘Look, I already have some knowledge maybe to start this next phase of research; I’m not starting with a blank piece of paper.’ ” And so, we’ve designed our system to work in that way and give you what we call an insight work bench. It’s lightly used now ‘cause most people are still in the tactical mode. But I think every day we see more and more people go, “I get it. I see why building a knowledge warehouses is a good thing for qualitative and a good thing for my brand clients.”


Fast forward five years. How are we different?


The dangerous question, the one that I jokingly will tell you that my crystal ball’s in the shop.


Bring it out; dust it off.


And I’m careful with these projections. So I think in five years, the trend I see is that more and more brands are internalizing research as a competitive advantage. I think that that is going to continue to happen. They’re going to see their insights groups not as a way to make research happen for them when they need it, but as an actual business competitive advantage. So I think we’ll see more and more of that. And I see some really smart stuff happening with the way that some of the bigger brands and even some of the more kind of static and traditional brands realize that insights can be a strategic thing and so let’s insource it. Think digital qual right now is probably less than 20% of the marketplace in the U.S.  I think in five years, it’ll be 50% if not more. The shift we’re seeing from traditional insight collection to digital is it’s on the biggest rise I’ve seen in the last 10 or 11 years and so I think in five years, my guess is we’ll probably be close to 50% if not a little bit more. 

I think from the corporate researcher side…  We work with a lot of folks on the corporate side and what I see is the really sharp insight departments moving towards it and starting to pull off.  That, I think, is going to be more and more common ‘cause right now a lot of the insights groups and a lot of the way we do research is reactive. Brand manager comes in, a product manager, R & D person comes in and says, ”Hey, I have a business question; I need an answer.”  And I see more and more, especially with some of our direct-to-consumer brand clients and more kind of disruptive clients, they’re actually the tip of the spear. They’re going out and listening really intently to what’s going on with their customers, trying to listen for we call the ripples of disruption that are going on in their lives, things that are changing, and then they bring those things practically to the brand team to say, “Hey, have you thought about this?  Are you seeing this in other things that you’re doing in your marketplace? How do we get in front of this trend versus being reactionary?” I am hopeful that if we can pull that off, it will turn insights… It’ll give us a renaissance in our industry. I think we are way too reactive right now. And being able to be a proactive force inside of corporate brands, I’ve seen it happen; I’ve seen it be wildly effective. And I think if I can look out five years and say that a third or half of brand teams are organized around doing mostly proactive research, the world would be a better place.


Yeah, I totally agree with that.  You’re seeing, a surgence of UX researchers right now and I think one of the reasons you’re seeing this massive growth is because they physically sit either in a slack channel or where they sit next to the people that are in the production, right? So you’re able to get more of this agile or lean or however you want to frame it, sort of insight — Just-in-time insights. The other thing I think is interesting that you’re hitting on that I haven’t heard a lot of, but I actually have gone on record as saying it.  2018, according to SMR, digital quals about $2 billion; 2023, I think it’s going to be around $6 billion. I think it’s interesting in context of where you’re framing things out. And the hypothesis around that is you’re going to see growth in qual… quant (excuse me) as well, but proportionally not nearly as much. I think it’s an exciting time. And the reason that we’re going to be able to do this is because you’re going to see more and more hybrid methodologies that are going to blend qualitative and quantitative so that you can have a conversation but at a size that you can extrapolate to the larger market. 


That’s right.  One of the favorite products that we have here is a product, the imoderate methodology. It’s a is the hybrid quant/qual product. And it was built about 10 years too early.  And now we’re seeing clients, and they come in and they go, “They say exactly what you, what you’re saying here.” And they go. “We’re doing all this quantitative and we really want to get more voice to the customer. We want to get underneath some of these open-ended’s. And I don’t know if some of these numbers and learn, but we want to do it quickly and narratively.” And so, we’re seeing a growth in the interest in those hybrid methodologies. And I think it plays right to your point that quant is going to grow. But qual is that explanatory power, especially if we can make it fast and easy to do.   I think it’s going to grow like gangbusters. I think another thing in five years… People say it a lot and it’s probably the single greatest challenge we have in our DNA, is that we built our industry based on process and we’re being asked to be consultants now. And I have been a consultant in a previous career and I look around our industry and I see a lot of people that get really good at process, but not enough people who really have a consultant’s mindset and can think about problems and practically look for issues before they become issues. That’s what’s being asked of our industry these days. And I don’t think we had the right talent. So when we started this conversation, we started talking about LinkedIn and how to create more visibility with market research in general.  We have got to bring in some of that really important critical-thinking talent to our base or take some of the folks we have in our space and train them how to think critically and how to problem-solve some of these things with our client. We cannot be a process driven industry anymore. We have to make that evolution or I don’t know if we will make it well.


Yeah, that’s a great point. That’s a really good point.  To that end as we’re looking into the crystal ball still, if it’s me, I’m investing on a marketing basis; now I’m investing a lot more into thought leadership, if for no other reason, just because Google AdWords is getting so expensive.  And you can massively improve your SEO at an organic level if you are driving content that people care about and adding value to the conversation as opposed to what we historically have seen, which is “Look at me, look at me” sort of posts.  I think you are seeing, I know you’re seeing a pivot but in marketing spends, but there’s a ton of white space sitting right there. All right, my last question: what is your personal motto? 


Had it for a long time. I should have Googled it before this ‘cause I was thinking about it almost like he’s going to ask me that question. I’m going to say it, and then I’m going to feel silly ‘cause I didn’t look it up.  And I forgot to. For many years I heard a story and I was given a motto and it has never left me. And I probably, it’s one of the first things I think in the morning and one of the last things I think in night. It drives an enormous percentage of the decisions I make personally and professionally. “Know the story; have a villain; be the hero.” It’s simple; it’s straight forward. And I cannot tell you, for me, how many situations in life, those three simple sentences give me a structure to think about and a way to think about my role and what I need to do. And it’s one of those things that gets me up in the morning. And so the origin story that I’ve been told…  I need to go look this up. As a matter of fact, if one of your listeners finds it, I will be forever in your gratitude. 

I was told that when Steve Jobs died, those three words are written on a small piece of paper, and it was the only thing in his desk. I have not been able to confirm that.  I was told that and I just kind of went with it and it became part of my everyday life that I thought about that not necessarily because the Steve jobs tie, but just that’s where I was told that motto and I can’t find it now. I don’t actually know where it came from.  But that is the thing that for me defines a lot of the ways I make decisions and the way that I look at the world.


Give me your motto one more time.


Know the story; have a villain; be the hero.


My guest today has been Isaac Rogers, CEO at 20|20. Thank you so much, Isaac, for being on the Happy Market Research Podcast today.


Always a pleasure, Jamin.


Everyone else, if you please take time, screen capture, share this, distribute it to friends, family, thumbs up, five-star ratings.  It all goes to help increase visibility. I love you. Thank you. Have a great rest of your day.


According to the GRIT report, there has been an increase in the number of qualitative-based tools. This is centric to user experience, customer experience, and market research. However, as with all things, the actual research operations remains to be done and that happens usually outside of those toolsets. HubUx is a solution for that. You plug your tools directly into it; you enter in who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, and HubUx literally does the rest for you. If you already have an existing customer list, you can just upload it directly into the tool. If you want to leverage social recruiting, that’s integrated as well. It is the single source for all of your research operations needs. HubUx, check it out. Thanks. 

Happy MR Podcast Podcast Series

Ep. 230 – Phil Ahad – How Insights are Being used Across all Functions, and the Changing role of Insights’ Platforms

My guest today is Phil Ahad, Chief Digital Officer at Toluna. Founded in 2000, Toluna produces online surveys and manages a consumer community of over 24 million active members in 68 countries. Prior to joining Toluna, Phil lead marketing and product strategy teams across many different industries, and has held senior-level positions at CoStar, AOL, and ComScore.

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This Episode’s Sponsor: 

This episode is brought to you by HubUx. HubUx reduces project management costs by 90%. Think of HubUx as your personal AI project manager, taking care of all your recruitment and interview coordination needs in the background. The platform connects you with the right providers and sample based on your research and project needs. For more information, please visit


On Episode 230, I’m interviewing Phil Ahad, Chief Digital Officer at Toluna, but first a word from our sponsor.


This episode is brought to you by HubUx.  HubUx is a productivity tool for qualitative research.  It creates a seamless workflow across your tools and team.  Originally, came up with the idea as I was listening to research professionals in both the quant and qual space complain about and articulate the pain, I guess more succinctly, around managing qualitative research.  The one big problem with qualitative is it’s synchronous in nature, and it requires 100% of the attention of the respondent. This creates a big barrier, and, I believe, a tremendous opportunity inside of the marketplace.  So what we do is we take the tools that you use; we integrate them into a work flow so that, ultimately, you enter in your project details, that is, who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, whether it’s a focus group, in-person, or virtual or IDI’s or ethnos; and we connect you to those right people in the times that you want to have those conversations or connections – Push-Button Qualitative Insights, HubUx.  If you have any questions, reach out to me directly. I would appreciate it.   


Hi, I’m Jamin Brazil and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. My guest today is Phil Ahad, Chief Digital Officer at Toluna.  Founded in 2000, Toluna produces online surveys and manages a consumer community of over 24 million active members in 68 countries. Prior to joining Toluna, Phil has led marketing and product strategy teams across many different industries and has held senior level positions at Costar, AOL and Comscore. Phil, thanks for joining me on the Happy Market Research Podcast today. 


Thanks for having me. 


I really want to start out and talk about the growth that we are seeing inside of the user experience and customer experience space. If you see like the ESOMR data, market research largely has been flat and yet you have these massive growth revenue numbers in the companies that are focusing on user experience and customer experience. I don’t know if you follow hashtags on LinkedIn; I pay a lot of attention to that. And so, just as a point of reference, market research is around 350,000 to 400,000 people that follow that hashtag whereas a user-experience research is around 4.5 million. So it’s crazy like the delta between the amount of people that are following these different trends and the attention they’re getting despite the fact that in a lot of ways they’re doing similar types of methodologies. Application might be different. Where they sit in the org structure is different. But, anyway, are you guys seeing this shift inside of your core customer base? Are you seeing there’s a…  You’ve got the market research lane dialed in. You guys have been around for two decades, solidly two decades. Are you seeing a growth in some of these other areas? 


It’s interesting, I think, if I look back in terms of the work we’ve done over the last two years, specifically the last year ‘cause market research is changing so quickly, it’s always been more focused in user experience or customer-experience testing in part of the NPD process. That’s a big chunk of…  Users want to consume, how they want to consume, how your customers are providing you feedback of this concept or of this product that’s in market. I see the uplift or let’s call it the buzz on user-experience and customer-experience testing as a term. We’re seeing Qualtrics being sold for x amount of billions, and they’re heavily focused on marketing their position as the CX platform.  And you see Medallia over the last month, their IPO was very successful. Again, pushing the customer experience, the word and buzzword in their marketing messaging. But for us, when the platform play and from the testing that we do, I mean it’s always been quite focused on it. Nothing’s really has changed. We have the platform; we have the technology; we have the methodology to provide this type of testing. It’s part of our research process; it’s part of our toolkit. 


I’m going to just try to story it a little bit. In, gosh, ‘98, ‘99, I was doing work with Intuit, in their in-house usability, right? And all I was doing was recruiting respondents to show up for onsite interviews. They were task-driven, etc., etc.  A lot of that has moved online or I should say not moved online, but it’s been augmented with online methodologies where people are given specific tasks to do and give feedback. User Story is a platform that does a good job of capturing that sort of feedback. And there’s a million different other platforms, right?  But one of the things that I’m really curious about is like the way that you’re framing your solution, is it slightly different to these (I’m going call them new researchers even though they’re established disciplines, like in UX) specifically as it relates with product development for example? That was a lot of words. Did that question make sense? Sorry.


I get what you’re saying. I mean for us we’re seeing a ton of innovation and a ton of new ways and new methodologies to conduct research and to get to where you need to get to make a business decision. For us, it’s not just a technology play, right? It’s not just we’re going to give you a survey tool, right? Or we’re going to give you an insights platform that’s going to allow you to automate the procurement of these insights so that you can make a decision faster. It’s a combination of both, right? The technology has to also adjust with the methodology, right? If we’re going to take an amazing tech stack—a tech stack that’s focused on automation, speed and visual reporting and insights—but we’re going to use dated methodology within that tech stack, you’re not going to improve your process. You’re not going to get there faster. You’re not going to make decisions faster. You’re not going to improve that NBD process faster. So for us it’s a combination of both things. And what we’re seeing from the new product development process from start to finish, we’re seeing more stages being infused to do some user testing, to do some customer-experience feedback. When we’re going from screening a bunch of ideas to actually going in and testing specific concepts to then seeing the feedback from the clients, we’re seeing more touch points, more pulse touch points from “let’s test the user experience and let’s test the feedback from the customer experience and let’s see if we’re on the right track”  because nowadays you can do so much more research with just about the same amount of budget. But in the past, you pretty much do like one research project and that will consume your budget for an entire quarter. Today you can do a hundred research projects within that one specific budget line. Does that make sense? 


Perfectly. So it’s a lot like you have the traditional market research buyer, which is still leveraging large or whatever market research firms for a big part of the actual day-to-day deliverables. But, at the same time, you’ve got the researcher or the product person that is sitting there on the floor trying to make a decision on this versus that, for example. And are you seeing those people leveraging market research tools like Toluna’s more and more? In other words, is that part of the customer shift that’s taking or augment that’s taking place?  Or is it still just in… Is the lane of winning just in the market research?


No, we’re definitely seeing a combination of both. And what we’re also seeing is the collapse within those businesses of those groups, right? It’s more so the product development team, the engineering team, the R&D team; they’re going to their research insights groups and they’re saying, “OK, we want to test these ideas.” It’s not as much as that they’re taking on this work themselves ‘cause it gets quite complicated. And now that we’re realizing these research teams have a way of stretching those budgets to do more than your typical like 200-question tracker once a quarter. They’re able to consume more work and they’re able to take on more work because it’s far more easier today to do a concept screening and then it was in the past and again it’s also a lot more budget-friendly to do that. So where we’re seeing today really the growth of our work… 

We’re doing a lot more pre-work than we had done in the past as opposed to just testing that specific concept and then maybe testing in a market. We’re screening actually 200 concepts a lot more down to a combination of like 10 to 15 that they potentially want to act on and then do the concept testing on. And then, we’re also seeing a lot more qual work throughout this process. So, you mentioned Intuit having more focus-group-type settings. We’re doing a lot more qualitative online qual work where we’ve gone through the screening process and maybe there was a one concept of these 50 or so that they’re screening internally they thought were killer, but it completely failed through the screening process. It is an easy way within our platform to pull the subset of those people who said they weren’t interested in it, pull into an online qual discussion and real time and then have a discussion on specifically what missed.  Maybe it was a communication thing. Maybe actually the idea really did suck, right? Or you know, maybe it’s different way of positioning it. So, we’re seeing of the entire process, more infusion of pulse, qualitative research and then a lot more infusion of qual discussions as we go through that process. 


That’s interesting. It sounds like one of the big shifts is this movement (I feel like it’s overused) but agile research. Right? So the integration of research alongside the day-to-day operations of the business informing things. I want to unpack that one-use case you just highlighted because I feel it’s fairly unique from my vantage point. It sounds like what I heard you say was you have a quant survey or equivalent and you’re getting feedback at scale and there’s a carve out of respondents that you’re interested in doing a deeper dive, qualitative-type assessment. Is there automation built into that workflow or are you pulling the list out and then just— not just—but and then doing the solicitation and scheduling with those individuals? 


Yeah, I believe, anyway, I’m biased because I work for the company. 


You know, that’s okay. 


Yeah, for me, I think one of our fastest growing products is something called Quick Communities, right? It’s integrated directly into our QuickSurveys platform. Quick Communities essentially, as basic as I’ll explain to you, it gives you the ability to have like a Skype conversation one-on-one or with a multiple group of people in real time. Right? So I can launch through the QuickSurveys platform and I can say, “You know what? Anyone who answered question one like this, question two like this or vice versa independently, at the end of the survey I want to recruit them into this qual discussion in real time.”  Now, I can set up that call discussion to happen immediately when the survey ends, or I can schedule it for tomorrow morning, whatever. The communication would be automatic to that specific respondent. As they’re going through the survey, they’ve qualified for it. At the end, I’ll say, “Congratulations, we’d like to actually ask you some more questions. Are you interested in joining this really quick chat?” And then it will direct them right into the chat and you can have that discussion right away. So this is completely DIY. You have the ability to set this up with the DIY user, or if you don’t have the time or you don’t have the moderation skills to do it, we can take on that work for you.  It’s how we empower our users. I think that one of our biggest differentiators is you can save money and it’s going to be faster because you’re doing it right and you’re doing it in real time or you spend a little more because you don’t have the resources at the time to do it yourself and the Toluna, the Harris Interactive teams can take it on and do it for you. 


So, that’s such an interesting…  I wish I could say I would have thought of that as the CEO of FocusVision ‘cause that would have been like a natural opportunity for connectivity. 


It wouldn’t be an easy the thing for any company to do, right? The company that can do this has to have an online community, so an engaging online panel and then technology built into it. Right? So for us it’s a natural thing ‘cause all of our quick surveys go directly to the Toluna panel network, to That’s 68 different markets, right? So the person is taking the survey on the panel site, right? And then, they’re already registered. They’ve already opted in: we already have demographic information right there. We’re already double opted into this thing. So then they’re not leaving that environment when they need to go into this qual discussion. It’s part of the panel, right? So it’s a great idea. But if you don’t have that panel, that online community panel site, and then you don’t have the technology and the survey engine and the moderation tools to do it, it’d be a really difficult thing because then you’re going to recruit people into an online qual. Like if I was going to send a survey to Lucid and I’m getting panel, now, when I have an online discussion, I’m going to have to send a landing page to register that online community and go through that process. And that’s where you’re going to lose a ton of people. 


All right. Well, I mean, you’ve kind of alluded to this point that I wanted to get to, which is centric to the roll-ups that have been happening.  P2Sample recently, we did a big announcement, right? Dynata obviously: we’ve talked about that one before on the show. Probably the biggest piece of M&A news in the last, I don’t know, forever, maybe since Greenfield Online went public in whatever year that was 2001 or 2002 or 2003, I guess. But anyway, with all of these roll-ups that are happening, is this a threat or an opportunity from your vantage point for a company like Toluna? 


Obviously, I’m going to say it’s an opportunity, but all of these changes in the market have to be followed, and we have to identify what is that going to mean to us in the competitive landscape of things. I think it’s an opportunity because for us it’s stability, right?  We’re investing heavily in our technology platform. We’re investing heavily in our panel. At the moment, our attention isn’t being moved away because we’re going to plan for an IPO or we need to get acquired or we need an investment or we need funding. So that’s where I see it’s a strength for us ‘cause it’s just how stable we’ve been over the past two years with a lot of unrest within the market and a lot of other companies eating each other up. Now, to be upfront and honest too, we’re always looking to acquire companies that fit our mission and fit the things that we’re trying to do from a panel situation, from a technology situation, like niche player in the market. Because we do so much ourselves, we tend to rather build than buy, but with so many new advancements and technologies, and so many niche players in the space, we’re always looking to see if there’s a natural fit for us in terms of what we’re trying to do from a research and an insight standpoint. 


I mean that’s interesting because there’s a host of companies that have been entering the space since Qualtrics did their big announcement. Right.  So, for example, I don’t know if you’ve been following this thread on my LinkedIn, but we’ve recently enrolled in startup school, which is part of Y Combinator.  It’s the largest accelerator for tech-based startups globally. There’s 23,000 companies that are in our cohort. I mean it’s an insane number. Now, there’s only a small fraction that are inside of the insight space. But the broader point is that there’s a massive amount of growth that is happening inside of this startup or the entrepreneurial ecosystem. And I’m seeing a lot of new entrants even in the last six months inside that technology entrants’ center specifically that are trying to leverage in.  And it’s interesting ‘cause they don’t come with the baggage that I have as a market research professional: kind of this grandfatherly point of view. But they’re connecting to a (I call it the new researcher), which is everybody inside of the organization. I had the head of product on the show last week, Rian for Postmark, which is basically an email service for apps. It’s widely utilized. And he was saying, “Yeah, like it’s a do or do-not. There is no try organizationally for research.” Everybody has to be doing at some level of consumer interaction in order for us just to maintain truth of the consumer point of view. So, when you’re thinking about M&A, ‘cause you’re right, you guys have historically “built” versus “buy,” do you think that could be part of the narrative for Toluna? 


I mean for sure. And the Qualtrics acquisition last year to me was…  I mean it’s great news for the industry ‘cause, of course, it’s going to open up a bunch of really smart, young and up-and-coming engineers to invest in this space. Historically in the past, no research company has been acquired for any type of value like that, especially X over revenue, right?  That valuation and that acquisition is typical technology and to have that in the market research space is, obviously, that’s why you have 23,000 people starting up. It’s going to be great for us ‘cause there’s going to be these niche players who come and think about things in a completely different way than the historical researcher.  And when I joined Toluna almost over seven years ago, and although I had a stint at Comscore, I told myself when I was at Comscore… It was a long time ago, right? I was like, “I’ll never work in market research again. It’s just like why?” Obviously, I came to Toluna because of the uniqueness of the opportunity, but coming in fresh and not coming in with 10 years of market research baggage and coming in with 10 years of like, “This is how I’ve always done it, so I’m going to always do it this way,”  I was quite disruptive here. And I hired people who didn’t come from market research to lead products and lead innovation or lead ideas ‘cause, again, they’re disrupting the standard. When we purchased Harris Interactive, it was the same thing. And I was like, “Why are we doing it this way?” “Because we’ve always done it that way.” “Do you really need to have like 17 nested quotas to do a survey on popsicles? “I don’t know. I don’t think so, right?” This is kind of like we’re out. We need to… 


Only 17! 


We need to really, really push for change in the industry and not because we want to. It’s because our clients demand it. We talk about speed, and we talk about costs. Well, traditional research is expensive. New research doesn’t have to be.  I’d rather have a hundred different ways of looking at one thing than just one way of looking at it because I had to add a stick to a budget or I had to stick to a specific time. Right. And I believe this is where we’re at today and we’re going to get consumed with data, right? And data, multiple different data points and multiple different ways of doing something to collect the data points so that you can result in a business action is going to be the future, right?

 Well, it is a future today, right? And, actually, how we consume the data—and I think this is where the next innovation has to come—is that we’ve got DMP data; you’ve got stated data; you’ve got third party data; you got cookie-tracking data; you got behavioral tracking data. There’s so many different sources, right? And the aggregator of these data sources, who makes it clean and easy, so that you can look to the data right away and you can get what you need to make from business decision and then act on it—that’s where we have to invest in right now.  I mean the companies that I’ve started to talk to just fresh into the space, the ideas, this is what they’re focused on right now. So the aggregators of the data are going to be the real future. Building another survey tool and building a different way to ask a question—How much more different ways can we do that? So that’s what from an M&A standpoint, that’s kind of where my focus is at the moment. 


So, really quick, you guys have actually in a lot of ways…  So, I went through the join process of your panel in preparation for our meeting today, your Influencer Panel, and the initial framework for that is completely different than I’ve ever seen, joining a panel.  Maybe I’ve joined 20 panels, I don’t know. But not like all of them. But having said that, I mean it is a very unique, interactive experience where somehow, and I don’t exactly know and I’ve tried to reverse…  In my head with my team, even sat down, “Gosh, you know, this is really interesting. How can you reverse engineer that?” But it’s a very unique experience. So anyway, sorry, I didn’t mean to cut you off. My broader point is that we are still seeing innovation in the checkbox space. 


I’m not trying to state that…  I just think we need to do things differently, right?  We just can’t rely on, “Ask this and tell me this.” And then back to that, right.  It’s going to have to be a combination of different data sources and for us too, that panel experience is going to be critical for us moving forward. Right?  As they’re joining and as a collective, we need to give them the most relevant surveys or the most relevant projects possible: one – they’re interested in ‘cause then they’re going to leave. Right? We can’t hold people’s attention anymore for 30 minutes. It’s like impossible.  Some groups of people, you could pay them $100 and they’re not going to take a survey for 30 minutes. Right? So we’ve got to figure out a different way that we can engage with panelists, within consumer panelists to collect information that we need to drive business decisions. Right? And there’s going to be a multitude of different ways of doing this, not just from mobile and not just from online surveys, right? It’s from data collection; it’s from combination of sources of what we’ve seen from…  The stuff from DMP is going to help us make these decisions too. So that’s where my mind is at right now; where the team’s mind is that is what are the other different ways that we can collect data, collect consumer data, keep the experience positive and keep these people in the system. 


Yeah, it’s a drum that I’ve been beating a lot over my career, which is the more data sources that you can integrate into your consumer story, then one – the more compelling the story is and two – the more accurate it’s going to be because you’re not just biased with your lens or the self-reported lens of the average consumer. It’s really interesting. But as I keep thinking, kind of finishing the thought relative to your M&A thesis, are you thinking that part of a thesis is more bent on technology versus customer size, customer book size? 


You mean panel size or…? 


Yeah, no, sorry.  Are you guys thinking more or do you have more interest in interesting technologies that are kind of outside of the box touching other non-traditional buyers? Or is it like the typical (and I don’t mean this in a bad way), but the typical kind of like looking at Dynata buying SSI, right? So, in that case, more of a financial consideration was a major part of the thesis because of cost reduction. 


I wouldn’t disregard any opportunity. If I look at the things that we can do internally versus the things that would be harder or more costly, obviously, there’s a lot of interest in some really innovative and niche technology that either we never thought about.  So that interests me, right? And we’re passionate about these things. So, we were the first company to buy a digital tracking technology. We bought it from Nielsen four years ago now. So, we’ve always prided ourselves about being ahead of the game, especially from a market-research technology standpoint. But right now, we’ve got excellent technology, in-house built technology to manage and run panels. We’re improving our panel experience across mobile, across the site, across digital tracking. We’ve got an excellent B2B consumer insights platform to procure this data and organize this data. 

So from end to end, I think from a foundational standpoint, we’re really strong. So, would I be interested in buying another Toluna-type or like an SSI-type? No, probably not. But again, I don’t make those decisions, but I got to report to X and to the board and to Frederic…“Oh, no, sample x company’s proven for us.” So, he’s going to make that decision. But these are just my recommendations.  For me, I’d rather continue to invest in what we’re doing. We’ve got 200 product and engineering staff across the world, who are focused on this. It’s not enough in my opinion. We’ve got a good amount of people, and they’re really smart, and they’re really hungry, and they’re energized about what they can do within market research. So yeah, I’d like to really focus on those niche technologies that are out there that could transform the way you digest and then react to data. But again, if the right panel company or if the right survey company comes into play that makes sense from us and make sense for our team then, yeah, why not? 


You guys have been doing a lot in the way of—and I don’t mean to like sound all infomercially fanboyish here but, just practically speaking—a lot in the way of innovating the respondent experience. I assume framing out the Influencer versus a traditional respondent or people that take surveys, that’s psychologically a really interesting shift for me.  I’m sure you don’t have the statistics off the top of your head, but I imagine you guys have been paying attention to things like retention and engagement and that sort of thing. Are you seeing this reframing of the respondent as an Influencer having a material lift in terms of their long-term stickiness? 


We went through a reorganization.  I’m not sure if you were aware of that, but one of the reorganizations… 


I’m not.  


is we took over…  Our panel team historically has been tied with the operations team, right? And what we did was we took the panel team and now we’ve combined it with the product team and the marketing team, right? ‘Cause in our eyes now, (so this is all heads up) it’s all now falls under a digital group, which I lead, right? So, panel, product, and marketing are all aligned because, in my opinion, without the panel, our products really don’t… They’re nothing special, right? 


That’s right. It’s an empty house.


Yeah. The combination of these two things make us incredibly unique and powerful in the spaces.  We can do really cool and creative things like integrate a Quick Community, a qual-online-function chat within our QuickSurveys platform, right? Because if you’re just a survey tool, then you’re one of 25 other survey tools. They’re all great survey tools, right? The uniqueness is that immediate access to a panel and then online panel that’s in 68 markets.  Now, we’re collecting 1 million completes every single day. So, we ask about retention rates and lifetime values. Since we integrated these teams, and I took over the panel team, I have been absolutely obsessed with this ‘cause there’s no bigger waste in my mind than sending people into a router, into your survey engine and having them go through 10 minutes until they get to a complete. And in this day and age, when we know so much about people, it makes no sense that I’d send them into a blind survey that I know after 10 questions, it’s going to have a screen out.  This is something that we’re still challenged with today; this is an industry challenge. 

So the things that we’re focused on right now is that we’ve got so much profile data on people, whether it be stated, claimed, whether it be tracked, whether it be through a DMP, that we need to do a better job when we’re putting a project out to our panelists:  that we understand what that project is so that I’m not just saying, “OK, I’m throwing 10,000 starts at a project to get to 1000 completes.” We know that there’s going to be a screen out, and we know that this person will get screened. There’s no point to send them out to the firing squad. Right? So, for me, the biggest improvement in a panel experience is getting them to complete because let’s be honest, they’ve joined this panel to get rewarded, right? And if they’re not getting rewarded, then we’ve wasted their time, and they’re not going to come back. So although we’ve done historically a really good job with this, we can do far better. And our focus right now is to have the best panel experience from start to finish. And it helps that our router is built and owned by us too. So, we can play these mechanisms; we can play these games with within the system. So, first-time joiner gets high IR studies, gets shorter studies. They get into the process of being in a panel slowly as opposed to a person who’s been in our panel for over a year and is getting hammered with 10 survey invites a day. Well, they’re used to that, right? So different segmentations of our panelists get different types of experiences, and those experiences are tailored to what we know about them. And then they’re getting rewarded and they’re providing their feedback and they’re providing quality feedback then. 


Yeah, it’s like AI-enabled or machine-learning-enabled routing, right? You have access to my Google docs. I have a half-written white paper on your true LOI (Length Of Interview). Excuse me. And my thesis is that, on average, somebody that goes to the router is going to be disqualified seven times. In other words, the eighth time on average, they’re going to get into a qualifying survey, and they’ve probably answered the same six questions in each one of those screenings. Right. And so, you could be looking at upwards of six to nine minutes that the person’s already been just going through a qualification process, which has a psychological impact on your willingness to be receptive to new ideas and overall fatigue, etc., etc. 


It’s going to have a direct impact on quality too, because then they just make stuff up to hope to get qualified. 


Right. Just got to get through this. I’ve already given you eight minutes that I’m never going to get back. 


Exactly.  So, to me like the panel experience and lifetime value of panels isn’t just going to be one thing, right? It’s going to be a multitude of things:  how engaging in the surveys are. And you’re right. If we’re going to ask the same six questions over and over again to collect demographic information and profiling information, that’s a terrible experience for anyone of our panelists.  This is why we actually append this information. If we have that information and you’re asking for it, we don’t ask the panelists for it. It skips. So I think we’re doing a lot of the right things, but I think still just like every other company right now in the space, there’s so much that we can improve on. And this is really what we’re investing in right now. We’ve rebuilt our entire router mechanism this year, right? We’ve rebuilt; we’re collecting profiling attributes and how we’re leveraging profile attributes in projects, not just from our DIY platform but even from our project and field management teams.  Like how they’re integrating or how they’re using the profiles to get projects done, we’ve revamped that entire process too. So this year, I’d say, we’ve really changed our entire mindset of how we’re not just managing the panel, but how we’re leveraging and using the panel. 


I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about this whole…  We’ve seen massive disruption. Zoom had their S-1. I’m sure you had a peek at it. Insane growth in a completely saturated marketplace that had a very, very dominant Citrix site, I think, owned by Oracle.  Just dominant players and entrenched, and yet Zoom comes out with massive growth with 160 some odd percent. It’s just insane: the revenue numbers etc. You’ve got Superhuman, which is a sexy startup. We don’t know what the revenue numbers are, but everything about them says they’re going to be a big deal. They are basically just a better email client that sits on top of Gmail.  Anyway, obviously, Slack that everybody is using and familiar with. When you think about like Toluna, which is a storied, 20-year-old veteran in the industry, what are the three big challenges that you, as a chief digital officer, have to address? How do you maintain that tension between the established versus making sure that you don’t lose sight of the next big thing? 


I don’t think we’re that established at all, even though for a 20-year company or a 50-year company, right. The companies that stay ahead of these games or that are on top of innovation are constantly figuring out ways to innovate the norm or just what our clients need. So, you know, Qualtrics is 20-year company, right? And now everyone thinks of them as THE technology player in the space.  For us and it’s been proven by our growth and our revenue, our digital portfolio business is up 70%, each one versus each one last year. Right.  


Wow! Congratulations. 


Thank you. Our adoption of our technology, actually, is the easiest thing for us to sell right now. And it’s not because the technology is amazing, right. And it’s not because the panel’s great.  And it’s not because our service team is awesome and worldwide and are on 24 hours. It’s a combination of all three of these things. Right. And for us right now, it’s continued investment in these three buckets because weren’t really focused on…  Automation and agile insights is the thing right now. It’s been the thing right now. And while we can easily do that, it’s not going to be the single one thing that drives your growth or drives your adoption of clients because at some point they want automation, but, in some cases, the work doesn’t fit an automated solution. There has to be some attributes to that. And having that ability to allow your clients to choose rather than forcing your clients in a single solution that you offer is going to be what’s driving growth. So I’m really more focused on how we can be agile to our client needs, but at the same time ensuring costs and ensuring speed. 

If we’ve got to infuse our research team into the process to get something done for Colgate or Unilever or Coke or Pepsi or whatever, how we can pull them in quickly enough by using our own technology internally and then next time training them to how to use it themselves and then they can save more money and then giving them the ability to decide, “OK, I can take this on myself and save money or I’m going to pass it onto the Toluna and Harris services teams to do it for me ‘cause I don’t have the time or the resources.” That to me is how we’re going to continue to encore growth. I think as you go back to your point on staying at the forefront of innovation, you mentioned three things. I can’t really think of three things off the top of my head. 


Well, it’s not a test. That’s fine. 


For me, the way we build and the way we plan for our roadmaps within our engineering and product teams, most of the time it’s reacting to client needs and changes in the industry.  When we want a Quick Communities or online qual where we want to integrate digital tracking into our system, it isn’t because one person in our team is like, “Oh I got a great idea.”  No, it’s a combination of testing and working directly with clients. Like everyone in our product team is exposed to clients on a consistent basis. They’re not just sitting in a corner in a box and just building whatever it comes to their minds, right? We put them in front of clients on purpose ‘cause we really need to understand the client need. And if you ask a client how they want to do concept testing in the future, they’re going to always give you the same answer, but that’s not how we’re going to do it because that’s not…  They just want to faster, right? So we need to come out at a different angle to solve for that specific need. So, within our planning process, a lot of stuff is maintenance; a lot of stuff is enhancements. But then we always parse out 15% to 20% of our time on forward-thinking innovation, on testing new things, concepts and testing new ideas. And we have a team that’s constantly focused on understanding the landscape, not just of the market research landscape, but of other industries to see if there’s anything that we can take from there and then adopt into our technology stack and then to see if that’s going to be sticky and move forward.

So that’s how we’re trying to attempt to stay at the forefront of innovation. Now the problem is we’re a company and because of the way Frederic operates too, he LOVES to do new things, right? He loves testing new ideas, and he’s constantly pushing us to test new ideas. But at some point, you get to a situation where while you’re going to have like 35 products to manage, and that gets really difficult.  And you might even get to a riskier situation where you’re just average at 30 different things, right? Or even 10 different things. So try to stay focused on what we’re really, really good at, which is this NPD research flow from testing start to finish and then trying to parse out some time for really focusing on innovative new technologies to infuse that process is kind of where we’re at right now. 


You think like part of the…  As I reflect on my time in FocusVision, I’ve often wondered if I would have been better off having the individual brands maintain autonomy—kind of like the Google to YouTube, right—versus the single umbrella. I’m not second guessing my decisions. I just wonder, “Oh, would that have been an interesting…?”  Do you think that that sort of framework, is that something that you guys think has a place in the future or is it more of the just the bigger bolt-on brand? 

Yeah, I don’t know. I think it really depends on the environment and the solutions. And right now, we’re literally managing three brands at the moment, right?  We got a Toluna brand, a Harris brand and we’ve got the KuRun brand in China. And the more brands you kind of throw into it, the more expensive it gets to manage, especially from marketing standpoint too. So, if it fits, Harris Toluna from a solution standpoint, then it makes sense to roll it onto one of those brands at the moment. If it’s completely unique, then it justifies it being a standalone brand if it’s got a really niche following too, I think those are decisions that we make, but I don’t think there’s one right way or the other. For us, for right now, I’d love to just continue to manage the three that we have rather than adding another layer into it. But again, if the situation calls for it, then that’s what we’ll do. 


Yeah, it’s all about those auditable.  Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. So automation, big deal. I’m thinking about the one-use case that you highlighted already, which is this integrated qualitative follow-up into a survey.  We’re seeing automation continue to drive positive outcomes for both the end-user of the research, but then also the financial considerations or the multiples for the market research companies. What are, I’ll say three, but it doesn’t have to be three. A few, how’s that? What are a few…  three? OK, give me three tips. Give the listeners three tips that they should consider when thinking about bringing automation into their workflows. 


Yeah, for us right now, it’s what your goal is for the program ‘cause to me automation comes in so many different aspects of it. Like you take full end-to-end automation, like one of our power modules, which is a completely closed box for concept testing, right? It’s an automated template. It’s automated reporting, it’s automated sampling. It’s literally end-to-end automation. You’re telling the technology, “I want to do this concept test against three to nine assets and to millennials or to a group of people.” And then the technology takes it:  Literally, it’s a five-minute set up and your research is out there. To me, that works for a lot of our clients who do a lot of standardized testing, who do the same type of concept-testing survey over and over again. Right? But if you need to add a wrinkle to it and if you need some sort of customization to it, then it won’t work because, again, it’s a closed box. So what we’re seeing is clients want a blend of that. They want maybe like half of it or a percentage of the questions to be standard all the single time, but they then want to give their researchers or the consumer-insights team some flexibility to add out-of-the-box questions or if it’s specific to that concept or that product or that use case, they want to add some questions to it. So, once you start to customize the automated platform, it gets less and less automated. For us right now, the focus is, “OK, what’s the in-between?  Is it completely customized, which we know takes time? Right? And if it’s completely automated, we know it’s incredibly limited. So what’s that halfway point and that’s what we’re testing right now too. So really understanding the client need ‘cause some clients can fit in one or two of those different spectrums, but most clients now are fitting in the middle, right? They want x amount of completely automated and then they want the ability to do custom stuff to it. And this is what we’re providing within our platform today: You can take the standardized, completely automated function, pull it out of its box, and then just take bits and pieces of it and then do a blended approach to it. 


It’s kind of like Goldilocks, right? So, I think you’re right.  You almost have to have the three beds or the DIY, the fully do-it-for-me highly customized. But then also that layer in between.  You need to have the squishiness to accommodate for the hybrid approaches, which, I agree with you, actually I think is becoming more and more part of the need in the market. 


The challenge is that actually we’re facing today—well, not as a challenge—but the challenge we’re getting from C-levels at some of these brands is, “I don’t actually don’t want my consumer-insights teams to have a completely open system to do whatever they want,”  ‘cause like, you know, the CI team for detergents versus CI team for like handheld soap or whatever or different markets, CI in Italy versus CI in the UK, it might be testing the same products, but because they can do whatever they want, the methodology would be different. And it might test amazing in the UK, but really poorly in Italy because of how the test was conducted. So they’re pushing for standardization, which is great for us because that’s kind of what we do anyway. Right. But then when it actually gets into field to those specific teams, then those specific teams are, “Well, no, ‘cause it’s a different market. There’s some local things that we’ve got to ask or it also won’t make sense.”  Like what they’re testing in the UK may not necessarily make any sense to what they’re testing in Italy. And that’s kind of our challenge. Like how far can you give them an open box versus a closed box to what meets their business needs and each one of these different markets.


Congratulations on your success year over year. 70% is no joke. So, yeah, that is huge. I’m very excited about hearing more about the products that you guys are launching, and I’m hoping that you release a white paper on the stickiness factor for respondents given your pre-post positioning of the Influencer thing. I think that’d be really interesting. 


Maybe you can let me know when you’re ready, and we can collaborate on it. 


Oh, good. Yeah, don’t totally, I would love that. That’d be awesome actually. For sure. I’m going to coordinate that with Janice. So my guest today has been Phil Ahad, Chief Digital Officer at Toluna. Thank you, Phil, very much for joining me on the Happy Market Research Podcast today. 


Thanks, Jamin.  Take care. 


Everybody else, f you enjoyed this episode, please time screenshot, share it. I would greatly appreciate it. It helps other insight professionals like you find this content. As always, your five-star review is greatly appreciated it. Have a wonderful rest of your day. 


This episode is brought to you by HubUx.  HubUx is a productivity tool for qualitative research.  It creates a seamless workflow across your tools and team.  Originally, came up with the idea as I was listening to research professionals in both the quant and qual space complain about and articulate the pain, I guess more succinctly, around managing qualitative research.  The one big problem with qualitative is it’s synchronous in nature, and it requires 100% of the attention of the respondent. This creates a big barrier, and, I believe, a tremendous opportunity inside of the marketplace.  So what we do is we take the tools that you use; we integrate them into a work flow so that, ultimately, you enter in your project details, that is, who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, whether it’s a focus group, in-person, or virtual or IDI’s or ethnos; and we connect you to those right people in the times that you want to have those conversations or connections – Push-Button Qualitative Insights, HubUx.  If you have any questions, reach out to me directly. I would appreciate it.   

Have a great rest of your day.

Happy MR Podcast Podcast Series

Ep. 229 – Jon Picoult – Tactical Ways to Build Credibility for Personal and Business Success

My guest today is Jon Picoult, Founder and Principal of Watermark Consulting. Founded in 2008, Watermark Consulting offers consulting services to top brands around improving customer experience. Prior to founding Watermark Consulting, Jon served in leadership roles at both MassMutual Financial Group and American International Group. He holds a degree in Cognitive Science from Princeton University and an MBA from Duke University. 

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Social Media: @happymrxp



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On Episode 229, I’m interviewing Jon Picoult, founder and principal of Watermark Consulting. I’ve got to say this is a marquee episode for Happy Market Research podcast. I have referenced Watermark Consulting’s report on their analytics over the last 10 years of the S&P 500 overperformers and underperformers. The one central theme: Overperformers all leverage customer experience, whereas under-performers are laggards. They are not leveraging it. We are seeing mainstay companies, CBRE and others, who have historically not really had research as a primary function in the organization, but they’re all investing in our field. This is an exciting episode. I know you will find a lot of value in it, but first a word from our sponsor.


This episode is brought to you by HubUx.  HubUx is a productivity tool for qualitative research.  It creates a seamless workflow across your tools and team.  Originally, came up with the idea as I was listening to research professionals in both the quant and qual space complain about and articulate the pain, I guess more succinctly, around managing qualitative research.  The one big problem with qualitative is it’s synchronous in nature, and it requires 100% of the attention of the respondent. This creates a big barrier, and, I believe, a tremendous opportunity inside of the marketplace.  So what we do is we take the tools that you use; we integrate them into a work flow so that, ultimately, you enter in your project details, that is, who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, whether it’s a focus group, in-person, or virtual or IDI’s or ethnos; and we connect you to those right people in the times that you want to have those conversations or connections – Push-Button Qualitative Insights, HubUx.  If you have any questions, reach out to me directly. I would appreciate it.


Hi, I’m Jamin Brazil, and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. My guest today is Jon Picoult, founder and principal of Watermark Consulting. Founded in 2008, Watermark Consulting offers consulting services to top brands around improving customer experience. Prior to founding Watermark Consulting, Jon has served in leadership roles at both Mass Mutual Financial Group and American International Group. He holds a degree in cognitive science from Princeton University and an MBA from Duke University. Jon, thanks for joining me today on the Happy Market Research Podcast. 


Hi, Jamin, glad to be here.


I have referenced your work on the show probably at least in five to ten episodes. I have also talked about your work at two talks I gave and then also in the industry and then also I teach an MBA course and I reference your work in that MBA course. I’m going to Michigan State; I’m on the board for their Masters in Market Research Program. I’ll be there next week. I’ll be talking about Watermark Consulting and specifically your report. I’m going to be diving in deep on this report on this particular podcast. That’s why pursued you so hard to be on it; so, thanks very much for joining me. But before I do, I’ve got to get to know you a little bit. Our audience likes to get to know you a little bit.  So we’re going to start with our patent question, if you will. Tell us a little bit about your parents, where you grew up, and how that’s informed your career. 


So, I grew up on Long Island in New York.   And my mom was a nursery school teacher; my dad was a Wall Street securities analyst covering stocks for insurance companies. And as far as how their upbringing informed my career, I guess I’d say that seeing my dad come home every night dressed up, suitcase in hand, kind of was my first exposure to the business world. I think that I sort of thought, “Well, Gee, that’s what I want to do.”  I even insisted to my parents back when I was in elementary school, I insisted on taking one of my dad’s old Samsonite briefcases and carrying my school supplies and my books and whatnot in a Samsonite briefcase. In hindsight, God knows what my teachers and my fellow students were thinking when they saw me…


Probably thought this guy just bought some stocks.


…tote that in elementary school. I mean really, but yeah, that was that was my upbringing. 


How old were you when, I assume you made some side money somehow working for your parents’ allowance, something along those lines? 


So actually, I did a lot of lifeguarding. That was my primary job in summers and whatnot and in winters too in indoor pools.  Did a little internship for my dad here and there. But where I really got the business bug, if you’re interested in knowing, was in college.  I wanted to DJ for the college radio station at Princeton where I went. The radio station was actually a commercial station, so a little bit different than other college stations in that it didn’t receive any money from the university. It was all self-supported through advertising sales. So, I’m the low person on the totem pole. And I said, “Hey, I want to get a show.” And there are tons of people vying for shows. They said, “Oh, yeah, you can have a show. You just need to bring in the money. If you bring in advertising sales, you’re going to be in a much better position to get a show.”  And so, actually, that was my first entree into business really was door-to-door radio advertising sales. And it’s actually where I first kind of got this taste of customer experience and understanding how the experience that you provide to people, even before they’re a customer, even during a sales interaction, how all of the elements of that experience can really do wonders in terms of helping to cultivate a relationship with people. And so, that was my first foray into true business. And I’m happy to tell you that I brought in a lot of ad sales and got a prime radio slot, a Sunday night oldies show is what it was called, 11:00 PM to 1:00 AM, prime spot on college radio.  And yeah, that was it. 


You know, if you decide you need another side hustle, we could use some help on advertising revenue on the show. I’m just kidding. 


That’ll be my fallback opportunity. 


So, did you buy any stocks growing up? 


I remember that my parents bought me some stock here and there.  When I first became of an age where I can invest myself, I was actually a mutual fund kind of guy. So, I shied away from buying individual stocks and was more schooled in sort of the idea of just diversification and so, yeah, I bought into mutual funds but started at a very early age and, yeah, so.. 


I’m fishing here, and what I’m really looking for is like you had some very good jobs. You’re in both places for quite awhile, right? Just under a decade. And yet you decided in 2008 to leave and start a consultancy, which is certainly in the early years, everybody knows that’s a saw blade of emotion, right? From the ups and downs, based on winning projects and delivering its projects. When did you decide that you were going to step out and start a consultancy?


So, I had always had an interest in putting out my own shingle. I think that that was just something that was inside of me all along even though I was spending my whole career in the corporate ranks, in large companies, no less. But I was always intrigued by the idea of putting out my own shingle in terms of having the ability to work on what really interested me the most and focus and build a business in a way that I thought it should be built and to have really complete control over that, which is not something, despite your best efforts, that you have when you’re working in a large organization. And so, in 2008, the opportunities sort of arose in that the company I was working at…  I had been hired by the CEO of the company. He left that company. A new CEO came in, wanted to choose their own team, which, of course, everybody has the right to do. And so, I saw the writing on the wall. And at that point, remember what was going on in the U.S. at that time: that was when the financial crisis was really bubbling up and at its height. And so, while I thought about looking for other executive opportunities at that time, I said to myself, “Well, Gee, you know, until I find the right opportunity, let me put that shingle out; let me get started. And it might just be a way to sort of bide my time until the next executive opportunity comes that appeals to me. Or maybe it’ll be actually a long-term endeavor.”  And it turned out to be the latter. And I’m very glad that that’s the way that it went. 


Who was your first customer? 


My first customer. The company, it was Marsh & McLennan. 


Not too bad. 


No, not too bad. And, actually, it was business that came through a connection that I had developed earlier in my career — the value of networking, of course. But yeah, that was my first customer, and it was a great customer to have, obviously, a name people would recognize.


Yeah, no kidding. And it’s nice being able to get to revenue is really important. But then I guess to the other point of it:  the validation that that creates or the social trust that that creates when you have that name behind you is a big lift to the business and you personally. 

Yeah. And actually, I tell this to people who I talked to who are interested in starting their own businesses and being an entrepreneur. And I tell them that when I first launched my company, what I realized was the number one priority had to be building credibility, particularly if you’re a boutique consultancy that’s trying to work in the same market as much bigger entities and, obviously, landing a marquee client helps in terms of building that credibility. But, quite honestly, for probably nine months when I first launched the company, my focus was purely on writing and speaking because I decided that was the best way to build credibility in terms of people — right or wrong, when people see you up on a podium, when they see your name in print and that you’re authoring articles and whatnot — right or wrong, it adds credibility. Hopefully, if you have something meaningful and valuable to say to them on that podium or in that article they’ll walk away feeling like, “Okay, this is a credible player.”  And that actually was my focus for nearly a year before even landing a single client was just building that brand, if you will, and that credibility so that people would take Watermark seriously. 


Yeah. I, obviously, completely subscribe to that point of view. It’s really a one-sided value exchange, right? So it’s you contributing to a market that, eventually, you are going to be able to have some level of harvest, but you just have to have faith as you’re going through that process that, at some point, it does turn up favorable to you. What kept you going? Cause that’s a long time to be contributing. It’s hard to do that discipline and not get the sort of instant gratification because social media at this point was still very early. So you didn’t have like all the thumbs up and likes, although I guess Tumbler and whatnot were trending at that point. So you, maybe you did get that sort of gratification on a short-term basis. But anyway, how did you keep the intestinal fortitude, as my grandfather used to say?


Yeah, this might be unique to me, but you talk about the delayed gratification. There was actually some instant gratification for me because I enjoyed writing and speaking very much. I continue to enjoy that to this day. And so, merely getting published. I remember the first time I had an article published in the New York Times. That was tremendous gratification. And the first time I landed a big speech in front of a large group…  So, even though there was an alternative objective, a longer-term objective in terms of credibility building there, personally for me, it was actually very gratifying to accomplish those things. And so, that definitely kept me engaged through the course of the journey. 


That’s awesome. So, tell me about a specifically difficult or a material challenge that you have overcome either personally or professionally. 


What we were just talking about, that would pretty much be it ‘cause starting a new company is a steep climb to begin with.  Starting a new company in the midst of the greatest economic downturn since the depression increases the difficulty of the dive. And so, I look back and say without question, that was the biggest challenge that I probably had professionally in terms of just overcoming that, given the headwinds, given the environment that I was operating in. 


So was the worst possible time to try to start a business. Anyway, I just finished talking with a few guests centric to user experience.  Our space is so interesting because nomenclature is really, really important: the words that we use to describe things. So we have these casts, right? We’ve got like market research that fits some place inside of the corporate kind of ecosystem. You’ve got user-experience research that fits there and, and you also have customer experience.  And, if you look at Google trends, you’ll see there’s an inverse relationship over the last ten years between market research and customer experience, which is very eyebrow-raising for me. We were talking about this a little bit at the beginning of the show. There’s this new group of researchers that are coming in and they might not… Market research feels a little bit, just being honest, it feels like maybe a little bit…  Not a lot of people know what it is, and it feels a little bit old school, whereas customer experiences is something that’s gotten a lot of attention in the media over the last couple of years. And you definitely see that from a Google analytics perspective. So, tell us from your perspective, what is customer experience? 


So, if I had to give you just sort of a phrase to define that, I’d say customer experience is really how customers FEEL about their interactions with your company or how they feel about their interactions with you. And it’s worth just unpacking that definition a bit because when we talk about the word “interactions,” how they feel about their interactions with your company, it’s very broad. Those interactions really encompass every live, digital and print encounter that they have with you through the entire customer life cycle, even before they’re a customer. The experience begins before somebody is even a customer. I’d argue the experience actually persists longer than many people would expect. You hope you never have a customer that defects from your company but, if they do, I would submit to you that that’s a touch point that deserves to be managed as carefully and intentionally as any other in your customer life cycles. So the “interactions” word is really very broad, and I think many people don’t understand that, particularly those, for example, who think customer service is synonymous with customer experience. Customer service is really just but one component, just the way user experience is but just one component of customer experience. So the word “interactions” is important to understand. And then, the second word really to unpack is this word “feel,” how they “feel” about their interaction. A lot of the behavior that you cultivate in people that is repurchase behavior or recommending behavior, referral behavior, it’s really driven largely by their emotional response to the experience as opposed to their rational response. As the behavioral psychologist Daniel Kahneman once said, it’s the emotional tail that wags the rational dog. That is true in customer experience.  And so, it’s not, for example, about how fast you answer the phone. It’s not about how quickly you turn around that quote. Those are all elements of it. But it’s that visceral reaction that people have, the emotional reaction that is, ultimately, what is going to drive their engagement with you. So that word “feel” is very important. And then the last word I’d highlight in the definition is the word “customer.” How customers feel about their interactions with your company. It’s important to understand that that word “customer” also needs to be defined very broadly. Sometimes, the customer might be an individual consumer; sometimes, it might be a business if you’re in a B to B business; sometimes, the customer might be a distributor where you’re trying to get shelf space or trying to somehow circulate your product; sometimes, the customer is a colleague that’s just down the hall from you or one of your employees. And I think that the techniques that companies use to engineer a great customer experience can actually be applied to all of these different constituencies not only in terms of engaging individual consumers, but even engaging employees at a company or job candidates ‘cause their customers in a sense. You’re serving them; they’re interested in applying for a job and… 


Glassdoor, Glassdoor, right.  Glassdoor is a…  


Right, right, yeah, sure. So that’s really how I would describe customer experience. The term “user experience” is, I think, that’s a very important part of the customer experience. But again, it is just one part.  And the market research piece, I think that is also part of the customer experience in the sense that, if you’re trying to deliver a great experience to your customers, what’s really important is to deliver a relevant experience. When I look at the companies that are legends in this regard, there are a number of key principles that I’ve identified that they do exceptionally well. And one is that they create a very relevant experience for people: something that’s pertinent, something that resonates with them both rationally and emotionally. If you want to understand what’s relevant to your customers, you need to cultivate insight, and market research and customer research is a key way of doing that. 


I need to rename the show.   


Do I get credit for that?


Yeah, you will definitely get credit for it. It’s something that I’ve really struggled with, to be honest, because I, growing up in the 90s inside of primary research, we really didn’t have a customer experience as a set-aside discipline that I was exposed to. I’m sure it existed. And now, in every way, it’s eclipsed market research from a visibility perspective. 


It has become sort of buzzwordy, which is a bad thing I’d argue. One thing that that troubles me is that the word, the term “customer experience” gets thrown around a lot in the workplace, but I don’t think everybody really knows what that means. And, as I said, the people that use that term interchangeably with customer service, I’d argue that there’s a big disconnect there in terms of their level of understanding. Also, if I just might, ‘cause you were mentioning about the market research and how it’s evolved today and whatnot and how it relates to customer experience, something that, I think, doesn’t get enough coverage and that people don’t talk enough about in the market research world is how market research is part of the customer experience. It’s actually part of the experience of the customers that you are reaching out to to conduct that market research. And the classic example I like to use to illustrate that are customer surveys that dissatisfy your customers.  We’ve all gotten those surveys that they could be like 20-pages long; they could ask you to remember things, an interaction two weeks ago that you have no clue about. And I think that — no offense to market researchers, to anybody in the research realm — but I think that’s something that people in that discipline would be wise to understand is that the work that they are doing is part of the experience itself, and so not only should it be used to cultivate insight, it should also be used to strengthen the impression that that customer has of the company that’s conducting that research. 


The point that you’re making right now is, in my opinion, should be one of the tenets (we should read a blog post on this) like tenets of research of what is the rubric-base understanding of “Should I do this project?” or I should at least check these boxes to ensure that…  Mobile compatibility is a great example. I launched a survey recently. It wasn’t my survey. I didn’t program it, but I was doing some work for it, and it was getting really bad completion rate and I’m like, “What in the world is going on? Incidents shouldn’t be this low.” It turns out it wasn’t mobile compatible, and in a world where you’ve got over 60% of respondents happening now on mobile devices… Anything I take is on a mobile device; I don’t sit in front of my desktop anymore and take a survey; I’m doing work at that point. We, as researchers, when we say that we’ve heard this said a lot:  “It used to be the case that brands were who said they were and now they are who their customer says they are…” This became very apparent to me at Decipher about 15, oh, gosh, less than that, like 10 years ago. We were doing this longitudinal study for eBay. We’d been doing it for a couple of years, and I looked at the email report, and we had just sent over a billion emails against this project over the period of time that we had had it. They were basically customer-satisfaction type NPS-ish thing, different than that but that was the gist of it. And I’m like, “Holy crap, that’s a lot of… That’s a lot of…”  You think like direct marketing, for example. You know what I mean? That’s like marketing department should have visibility on all those touches, and yet there’s zero visibility there. So yeah, research is an extension of brand. 


Yeah, absolutely. 


Your service is geared towards optimizing customer experience for your customers. Who are your customers? And I mean down to like who are you interacting with at the corporate level from a level perspective? 


Sure. So, the first thing I would say is — and this gets back to the definition of customer experience — the work that my firm does, I’d actually describe it as straddling two dimensions and that is the customer experience as well as the employee experience. Because the way I encourage people to think about it is a great customer experience is like a well choreographed performance. And there is an onstage component, which is all the live print and digital touch points that the customers see. But then there’s also the backstage component and that’s everything that’s going on behind the scenes, which, while invisible to the customer, nonetheless can exert a very meaningful influence on the quality of the experience that’s delivered. And backstage influences might be things like your hiring process, the types of people that you’re hiring, how you vet them, how you onboard them and train them, how you measure and reward them, the cultural norms in the organization, leadership behaviors. These are all things that create an environment that either can be conducive to creating a great experience or can undermine it. So, my firm, actually…  The work that we do with our clients often straddles those two areas, both the onstage and the backstage. And in terms of who we interact with at companies, it does vary quite a bit. There are companies that have at this point chosen to appoint like a chief customer officer. So it’s not uncommon for somebody like that to be our primary point of engagement. But there are also firms that we’ve worked with where it’s the CEO that just might be very passionate about this and is the one who’s driving the activity. We’ve also seen customer experience live in marketing; so, a CMO might be our primary point of contact. We’ve seen it live in operations where a COO might be the primary point of contact.

 And actually I think that that diversity of contacts and how this thing called customer experience resides in so many different places actually speaks to why it can be difficult to really nail this thing in an organization because there’s both an art and a science to customer experience. And if you think that it is just a marketing endeavor, you are doomed to fail. And if you think it is just an operational endeavor, you are doomed to fail. And I have found that the people we work with that are most successful are the ones who can actually dip their toes in both of those dimensions. People who might be a trained marketer, but they’ve got a good sense of the operational aspects of how to not just articulate a value proposition but to bring it to life operationally, to really weave that customer experience theme through every interaction that you have with a company. And then, conversely, we’ve worked with people in operations roles, who might not be classically trained marketers, but they understand that aligning the experience with the brand and how it is defined is critical. So I think it is kind of fascinating if you see just the variety of individuals that we work with and that are often reaching out to us for help. It really does reflect the criticality of having sort of a left-brain-and-right-brain approach to engineering customer experiences. 


What is the customer trigger for them to reach out? 


If we look at the most common reasons why people reach out to us, I’d say it probably falls into three or four categories. One is the company that says we’re just launching a customer experience initiative, and we need help understanding how to structure that.  Should we hire a chief customer officer? Should we create a centralized team? If we do, what should they be responsible for? What should their priorities be? And so, that’s one common type of engagement is helping them build almost that organizational scaffolding, if you will, on how to structure a customer experience improvement initiative. 

A second common type of engagement is when a company will come to us and say, “We know in our hearts that we can do better for our customers, but we’re just not quite sure where and how to start.” And so, we have a methodology that we use in that situation, which is essentially a very deep and comprehensive dive into the firm’s current customer experience, basically, answering the question: “What does it really feel like to be your customer?”  Because you might think you know what it feels like, but within the walls of the organization, often that view is very different than what it actually feels like to the customer. So helping them map that out for people, show them the highs and the lows in the experience, and to give them a very detailed road map for how to get from point A to point B, which, mind you, isn’t just about enhancing existing interaction points. It can also be about adding entirely new interaction points that don’t exist today but help to elevate the quality of the experience. So that’s a second common type of engagement. 

The third I’d say is when people are at an even earlier stage and they say, “Hey, you know, we’re hearing about this customer experience thing, but we need to sort of get our executive team on the same page with the what is it all about and how do great companies really manage it.” Or maybe they’re already there with their executive ranks, and they need help with the front line:  getting them to understand what is the customer experience and how can they personally on the front line each day…? What can you do in order to influence the quality of that experience in your role? And so, for that we’ve got a lot of educational programs that help spread the Gospel, if you will, around not just what customer experience is but the techniques great companies use to effectively manage it. 


So, let’s dive into the report. The findings, as I understand them, you’ve got the S&P 500, which has had year-over-year improvements for the last decade, material up and down, but total aggregate certainly up.  The analytics that you’ve done is to identify that CX leaders are about 45 points above the S&P and probably the eyebrow-raising part is the CX laggards are underperforming by 75 points, which I think is a really important.  That’s a material Delta between the two. So, talk to us a little bit about the methodology of the report and then maybe unpack for us this key finding. 


Sure. So, one thing that might be helpful is actually to talk just a little bit about the origin of the report and why we even chose to start doing it. And it goes back to when I first established Watermark a decade ago because something that I saw then as we were in that credibility-building stage, and this is something I even saw in the corporate world when I was in corporate roles.  But a lot of executives and companies pay good lip service to the idea of customer experience and good customer service. But the dirty little secret that everybody has that they don’t talk about in the town hall meetings with employees and whatnot, is that there is this inherent skepticism of “Does it really pay off?” And I think in part that skepticism is due to the fact that people see companies out there in the marketplace that seem to do a really bad job for their customers yet seem to be profitable at least for some period of time.

And so, when I launched Watermark, I was really thinking a lot about how do you open the dialogue with people to get them to entertain the idea that this might actually be something worth investing in. And I started to think, “Well, what is the language that every business executive understands?” And what it came down to was shareholder value. Whether you’re a public or private entity, that is a proxy for the value of my company. And so, I thought, “Okay, if shareholder value is the language everybody understands, can we demonstrate the value of a great customer experience in that universal vernacular?” And that really was the birth of the Watermark customer experience ROI Study. And so, what we did is we didn’t pick the customer experience leaders or laggards ourselves. We weren’t stacking the deck. We actually used research from other well-known firms that each year had established programs where they were interviewing over 10,000 consumers and ranking 200, 300 companies in quality of customer experience.  
We took publicly available information and, basically, created two portfolios, two model portfolios. The leader portfolio was made of the top 10 publicly traded companies in customer experience; the laggards were made up on the bottom 10. And then, what we did is each year when those rankings came out, we went back a year and calculated the stock market performance of those companies. Now, the reason we went back a year is because we wanted to insulate ourselves from the criticism that the mere publication of the report, the mere selection of those companies as the leaders or laggards, might actually drive their stock price. And we believed that whatever was happening in those companies was already baked into their performance the prior year before the research surveys identified them as leaders or laggards. So we did that, and, basically, year after year you assume that you create these model portfolios, you repopulate them each year, and you look at the aggregate performance.

And so what we found (we’re now up to 11 years of data that we have) over that 11-year period, as you noted, the customer experience leaders outperform the S&P by about 45 points; the S&P outperforms the laggards by about a 75. And if you look at the Delta in performance between the leaders and the laggards, it’s a three to one ratio. So quite significant. And something I would just say:  You noted that your attention was drawn to the, the difference between the S&P 500 and the laggards. And I think that’s actually a very important thing to highlight because many people, when they’re thinking about customer experience investment, they’re thinking, “Well, what’s the upside?” But nobody talks that much really about what’s the cost of not doing anything. And the cost of not doing anything is illustrated quite vividly and in great pain by those lagging companies that are underperforming the S&P and far underperforming the leading companies. The study, which has become, —  and I’m so happy to hear that you reference it frequently — and, as you probably know, it’s become one of the most widely cited studies in this area within customer experience. And I have found it is a great way to start a conversation with people who have an inherent skepticism about whether this stuff really pays off because it’s just hard to argue with 11 years now that this pecking order, this pattern of performance, has persisted. And I want to be very clear that it’s not a perfect correlation. We’re talking about portfolios of leaders and laggards that are outperforming, underperforming. The fact of the matter is there are a lot of ways you could screw up your business even if you have a great customer experience. And the example that I like to use for people is actually Borders Books.  Borders Books back in, I think it was, 2011 was actually the number-one rated company in customer experience. And within a year they were bankrupt. And the reason for that is because there were a whole host of things that they did in their business that just completely torpedoed their ability to perform. They locked in long-term leases so that when the real estate market collapsed, they couldn’t take advantage of lower real estate prices. They had four CEO’s in like five years. They had outsourced their e-commerce to Amazon, which is like putting the fox in charge of the hen house. I want to be clear that it’s not a perfect correlation, but what the study shows is that, on average, the companies that over the long-term are leading in customer experience are indeed outperforming the market and their peers. 


I’m really interested in this next part. How many companies are fitting into that underperforming? I know you said bottom 10% but, if you pull back a little bit, is it just a few companies? When I think about like the, the Delta – the 45 up, and the 75 down, which is a heavy weight, it feels like the majority of companies in the S&P are actually doing relatively well inside of this space, right? And then you’ve got this bottom 10% or really far away kind of a thing. And this is anecdotal; I haven’t actually crunched the numbers. I don’t know which companies are necessarily fitting in those categories. But really what I’m thinking about is the total addressable market for CX or consumer experience is, do you see that as a like is it going to grow a lot over the next few years? And I’m going to end on this last story. I was listening to a podcast, Donuts to Dollars [sic -Dollars to Donuts], which Steve Portigal’s the host of that, well-known user experience researcher. And he had the head of customer experience on his show. I forget the guest’s name, but the company was CBRE, and they didn’t actually have a centralized CX function or research function in the organization.  And over the whatever it’s been, (I think at that point it was less than a year when she did the interview) they had already had five staff there and were really moving aggressively from installation perspective. So my point is that you’ve got this really large organization that has not historically thought of CX as being playing a play, and, yet now they’re starting that investment piece. Conversely, you’ve got Facebook that, in and of themselves, has over 600 UX researchers, right. Forget about the other disciplines. Which is kind of like the other end of the spectrum. Do you think that the overall market is in CX is going to be growing or do you feel like it’s fairly stable? What’s your point of view over the next couple of years? 


Well, Gosh, I’m kind of biased probably to answer that question.


Both of us are and I feel like this is a little bit, and, to that point, I really try not to be a conversation with ourselves, which I liken to Fox News or something. But…


Let me answer your question this way. Here’s what I would say. I think that particularly today, (I think this has always been true but especially these days), I think that many forms of competitive differentiation are fleeting. New products and new technologies can pretty easily get from one company to another.  Cost leadership is difficult to achieve, let alone sustain, but a great customer experience and the internal ecosystem that supports it can actually be difficult to replicate and can accord tremendous strategic and economic advantage to a firm. And so for that reason, if I had to place my bets anywhere, it would be on focus in customer experience increasing over time and companies and industries that maybe didn’t think in those terms in the past, starting to think about it because I feel that in the inevitable march towards commoditization, it is the customer experience that will be your savior. I mean that is what is going to inoculate you from a lot of competitive forces that can turn your company into one of the many corporate carcasses that litter the road of those firms that thought that they were delivering something differentiated but, in truth, were not. 


Is it Clay Christiansen? That book that talks about the only real sustained point of differentiation is customer relationship. I think that’s right. Anyways, it’s either Crossing the Chasm [sic] or…  I mean there is no IP.  There’s nothing that you can protect.  Zoom is a great example of that in the market. We all saw their S-1 that was filed, and yet that company entered probably…  I mean so dominated with GoToMeeting and Oracle’s, the whole Citrix-type framework, and for another company to be able to come in and the offers basically the same exact thing, but in an optimized way — We’re using it now, as a case in point — it’s just remarkable. How if you pay attention to that, creates this whole land-grab opportunity even in completely entrenched and established markets. 


Yeah, I think that’s an excellent example. The example I also like to use for people is Blockbuster Video.  Blockbuster Video, they thought they were doing great. They could actually probably, and this is another common mistake that companies make, Blockbuster was probably looking at its customer retention statistics and was like, “Hey, we’re doing terrific.”  But what they didn’t realize, retention is not a proxy for loyalty. There are a whole host of reasons why your company might retain customers, but yet they’re not really loyal to you and, when something better comes along, they will quickly jump ship. Some people might call it sort of digital disruption and whatnot with some of the more recent examples of this with an Amazon and what it did to bookstores or what Zappos did to Payless ShoeSource.  I mean to me it’s not digital disruption. It’s about somebody coming along and figuring out a better way to skin the cat, a way to deliver a better customer experience. And if that happens to be enabled in part by digital technology, well, then great. But, if I go back to your original question about “Is the market going to expand?” I think if there’s any part of the business marketplace where people are thinking, “Hey, we don’t need to really focus on this,” it’s probably in those industries that are somewhat monopolistic where the thought is, “Hey, people don’t have a substitute.  So why should we be investing in creating a better experience from them?” But that’s when I point people to the examples of Borders or of a Blockbuster because somebody is always going to figure out a way to deliver that better customer experience to innovate. If you’re not doing it yourself, somebody else will do it for you, and that’ll be the end of your business. 

And a few years ago we started to do customer experience ROI studies for specific industries. And one of the industries that we selected was actually the airline industry. And we targeted it because many people say airline seats are a commodity. It’s like you’re going to fly with whoever gets you from point A to point B and you’re going to go for the lowest price. Well, we actually found that when you look at the customer experience leaders in the airline industry versus the laggards, it’s a very similar setup to what the study we’ve been talking about illustrates and that there actually is a performance premium for airlines that outperform in customer experience. That was something that surprised many people because they thought if there’s any industry where it’s highly competitive, highly commoditized, isn’t that it? But the fact is there are airlines like Alaska and JetBlue and Southwest that have figured out a way to break out of that mold. 


The Blockbuster example is really interesting cause it’s like the exact…  It’s the exact bulls-eye of a bad customer experience, right, because their business model was predicated on late fees. So it’s like when your business model is predicated on basically you screwing the customer, then you can pretty much guarantee you need to reach out to Watermark Consulting and sort that problem out. And, on the other side of it, I’ll talk a little bit about McDonald’s ‘cause I think McDonald’s has done a remarkable job of partnering with the buyers, the consumers, and identifying what the best value opportunity is in front of them. And I like the…  I think it’s four for two or something whatever the special is, but they run these various specials and they’ll actually tell people, “Hey, this is going to get you the most.” They don’t say it like this, but thank God I’m not in charge of the marketing department. But they don’t say it’s like, “Here’s the maximum calories for the least amount of dollar,” like that kind of thing. But they really have done an outstanding job of changing just the way that they interact with customers so that they are promoting to the customer, “This is how you can get the most out of your dollar right now.” 


Yeah. And also as long as you bring up McDonald’s, the other thing I think is worth noting about them is the consistency of the experience. I mean, you could argue whether you’re a McDonald’s fan or not, but the bottom line is you go into any McDonald’s, you can be pretty assured of what the experience is going to be like. And that is another component of a great customer experience. Creating any kind of experience sporadically is one thing, even if it’s a good one, but creating a really good customer experience consistently at every location, day in and day out, that’s an entirely different animal. And one thing you have to give credit to a company like McDonald’s for is, you know, whether you like it or not, the experience is certainly very consistent from outlet to outlet.


Yeah, it, you know, Gosh, okay, so this is funny and I’ll just personalize it a little bit. I actually go to McDonald’s about three times a week in the mornings. On my commute and they have good oatmeal. And I mean you can get oatmeal anywhere and it is, I think it’s probably equally healthy if I get it at Starbucks as well. So there, it’s a little bit cheaper. And so, I shifted because of the value thing to getting a different meal with some eggs. And I kind of got like once a week that was like my go-to breakfast. And it was always the same every single week for months. It was always the same until one time it wasn’t. And the eggs were runny, and I was like, “Never ordering that again.” And I, literally, won’t because of the fear of that, you know? So it’s, it’s interesting that you’re bringing that up because it really is such a hard freaking thing to do of delivering day in and day out that exact same customer experience. I remember at Decipher I had a customer and we would do great on like 15-20 projects and then one project wouldn’t go well. And I remember this client, he was at PayPal at the time, gave his feedback.  And he told me, “You know what, Jamin? I’d rather you just like decrease your overall quality just so I know what I’m going to get every single time.” 


Yeah, yeah. ‘Cause it could be jarring for a customer when you know, it’s like you’re spinning the roulette wheel, ”What am I going to get this time?” And that’s, that can be very jarring for people. 


Yeah, for sure. Anyway. Good. So, I want to end on this question. What is your personal motto? 


So, I’d have to say it is, “Seek to impress.”  Seek to impress all with whom you do business, whether it is individual consumers, business clients, whether they’re colleagues, coworkers.  I’ve always thought that if you’re aspiring to satisfy your customers, you’re aspiring to mediocrity and the key to delivering a great differentiated customer experience no matter what type of customer you’re talking about is to seek not just to satisfy them but to impress them, to leave that indelible impression that Watermark, if you will, that has them coming back for more and telling other people a about you. 


Perfect. My guest today has been Jon Picoult. Jon, thanks very much for joining me on the Happy Market Research Podcast.  He is founder and principal of Watermark Consulting. I’m sure that people can find you on your website. But maybe you could just give us a quick like how people could get in contact with you.


Sure. So, you can Google Watermark Consulting or you can go to a


Perfect. And, of course, that information along with his information on LinkedIn will be available on the show notes. Thank you so much for your time today. 


Thank you, I enjoyed it. 


This episode is brought to you by HubUx.  HubUx is a productivity tool for qualitative research.  It creates a seamless workflow across your tools and team.  Originally, came up with the idea as I was listening to research professionals in both the quant and qual space complain about and articulate the pain, I guess more succinctly, around managing qualitative research.  The one big problem with qualitative is it’s synchronous in nature, and it requires 100% of the attention of the respondent. This creates a big barrier, and, I believe, a tremendous opportunity inside of the marketplace.  So what we do is we take the tools that you use; we integrate them into a work flow so that, ultimately, you enter in your project details, that is, who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, whether it’s a focus group, in-person, or virtual or IDI’s or ethnos; and we connect you to those right people in the times that you want to have those conversations or connections – Push-Button Qualitative Insights, HubUx.  If you have any questions, reach out to me directly. I would appreciate it.   Have a great rest of your day.

Happy MR Podcast Podcast Series

Ep. 228 – Steve Portigal – Trends in User Experience & Market Research, and How They are Driving Success

My guest today is Steve Portigal, Founder of Portigal Consulting. Established in 2001, Portigal Consulting helps organizations bring insights about their users into their design and development processes. Additionally, he has also authored two books: “Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries: User Research War Stories,” and “Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights.” And, Steve hosts Dollars to Donuts which has 24 episodes with remarkable guests including head of User Experience Research at Pinterest, Airbnb, Mailchimp, Goldman Sachs, and IBM.

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On Episode 228, I’m interviewing Steve Portigal, founder of Portigal Consulting, but first a word from our sponsor. 


This episode is brought to you by HubUx.  HubUx is a productivity tool for qualitative research.  It creates a seamless workflow across your tools and team.  Originally, came up with the idea as I was listening to research professionals in both the quant and qual space complain about and articulate the pain, I guess more succinctly, around managing qualitative research.  The one big problem with qualitative is it’s synchronous in nature, and it requires 100% of the attention of the respondent. This creates a big barrier, and, I believe, a tremendous opportunity inside of the marketplace.  So what we do is we take the tools that you use; we integrate them into a work flow so that, ultimately, you enter in your project details, that is, who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, whether it’s a focus group, in-person, or virtual or IDI’s or ethnos; and we connect you to those right people in the times that you want to have those conversations or connections – Push-Button Qualitative Insights, HubUx.  If you have any questions, reach out to me directly. I would appreciate it.   


Hi, I’m Jamin, and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. My guest today is Steve Portigal, founder of Portigal Consulting.  Established in 2001, Portigal Consulting helps organizations bring insights about their users into their design and development processes. Additionally, he has authored two books: Doorbells, Danger and Dead Batteries, User Research War Stories. I actually am ordering that one as soon as we are off this call. It’s on my list of things to do today, by the way, and then I’ve already ordered the Interviewing Users – How to Uncover Compelling Insights. Holy Moly, that is going to be super interesting.  And Steve hosts what is now my number one listened to podcast for the last two weeks. In fact, I’ve got a six-hour or eight-hour road trip coming up this Wednesday. All the episodes are downloading. I believe I’m going to be caught up at the end of that road trip. He’s got 24 episodes with remarkable guests, including head of user-experience research at Pinterest, Airbnb, MailChimp, Goldman Sachs, IBM, and the list goes on. Steve, it is an honor to have you on the Happy Market Research Podcast today. Thank you. 


I’m happy to be here. 


I’d like to start out with a quick kind of assessment of, from your point of view…  You grew up in a different area than the Bay Area. Tell us a little bit about your parents, your upbringing, and how that informed who you are today and what you’re doing. 


Yeah, I was raised by a single parent. My mom raised me and my sister in southern Ontario. It’s a suburb of Toronto. And, when we grew up…  This is sort of development in any big city. We grew up—it’s probably about 45 minutes from Toronto—but it was a small town. There were like orchards and things that you don’t see as much in…  Well, I guess there’s development everywhere, but I remember when we got our first McDonald’s like that kind of thing. It was pretty isolated. I grew up in the 70s. It felt pretty isolated and pretty small town, and now it’s just part of Toronto. It falls under the same kind of administrative area. So it’s definitely a different community than the one that I grew up in. But it was, I guess, a smallish town kind of upbringing. My mom worked for the Canadian federal government. She worked as kind of an administrator or a clerk for a benefits office. And, so growing up in a single parent household, like your mom was working  (I don’t know if we had the phrase “latch key kids” then), but we were the kids with like a string around our neck with a house key that we were the ones that were able to let ourselves into our house, which wasn’t, again, maybe not a common thing for many of my peers. So, you grew up in that environment. It’s a little bit of independence and autonomy and responsibility at maybe an earlier age. My mom’s workplace was… She’s serving the public a lot. It’s a lot of either manning the phones or being on the front desk, and you’re dealing with people in need that are contacting about benefits. And so, she would come home with stories every day, first of all about just the kind of work environment, which was pretty bureaucratic and maybe not about empowering people or creating rules that were safe and effective for the staff and the people they were trying to serve; but also just the stories of people that she would meet and  upsetting or funny or… She just had a lot of stories that had a lot of detail and a lot of complexity to them about just what it was like in that kind of environment. So yeah, when I was a kid there were no—this is such an old man thing to say—even just so before cable channels, before most people had VCRs in their homes, let alone before the Internet and in a very kind of monoculture, small town. Like we were one of only a few Jewish families. So we didn’t … You just didn’t get exposed to things through the course of your life, who you were in school with, what you had kind of access to. We had books, of course, a great library, but not the amount of culture and diversity that you’re exposed to and you know in the culture we live in now. So I think in some way her stories were just that sort of the biggest stream of what real life could be like outside the home of a child. It really opened things up and kind of a funny and challenging way I guess they were lots of different kinds of stories.


Are you an only child? 


No, I have a younger sister. She’s six years younger than me. 


And what does she do? 


She is a genetic counselor.


Okay. That’s heavy. 


It sounds very interesting. Yes, you are also dealing with people in…  I don’t know that it’s exclusively in times of health crisis. I think it’s sometimes also coaching them through or supporting them through where there’s questions or where there’s uncertainty. She also works with the public in a pretty intimate kind of way. 


It sounds like stories are a big part of your upbringing and, obviously, your career now as a user-experience researcher, right? How did you wind up in user experience?


How did I wind up in user experience? It feels like a series of opportunistic accidents or happenstance. Again, you have to anchor this in time. When I came out of graduate school, there was no (I guess the web technically existed) but there was no web industry. There was no web design. I didn’t know about software design. I barely had been exposed to industrial design, sort of the maybe the more historical source of creating innovative products was kind of coming out of that field. So I really had very little exposure or awareness that this work existed. I mean the work didn’t really exist.  So, this technology was starting to change how brands were talking to the world, how companies were making products. That created a lot of change that maybe I drafted along with. 

So, I ended up studying in graduate school human-computer interaction, sort of the academic, maybe precursor to user experience. But I was not trained to be a designer. It was an academic program. You learn to critique or analyze or create frameworks or explore things. It was not a practitioner degree. And again, I didn’t know that there were people who were designers working in this field. It was all sort of creating best practices for making software. And these kinds of large telecommunication companies was what we were exposed to. These kinds of academic papers that were coming out of the industry was what was feeding me. So that seemed like what I might want to go into. But again, I wasn’t trained to do that work. There wasn’t really training to do that work. I was very fortunate. I think this is part of the happenstance through a series of “Oh, you should talk to so and so.” I met somebody at a conference, and they gave me some names, and then you were maybe emailing or maybe phoning or leaving voicemails.  Months later I ended up with a job at—and this is what brought me out to the Bay Area where I am now—a job at this industrial design consultancy. So nominally I was (I wasn’t a designer) but I was working on human-interface design, and there was also this emergent practice in user research that was happening there. And I kind of apprenticed into that. It’s cool way to apprentice when it’s not like anyone really knows what they’re doing as opposed to it being handed down to you and here’s how we do it. We didn’t know how to do it. We didn’t know how to write a proposal, how to quote for it and how to describe it at an advocate for it, how to scope it. These things were all kind of…  


What year is this?


This would have been like 95 or 96. 


Okay. Super early. 


Yeah, and so over the next few years, we got good at, I think, the business part of it as well as the practice part of it. And we started teaching classes at the local schools about it. It became a thing where if you apprentice, eventually you become the journeyman and then you become the master and you can help other people apprentice. And so, we hired people with less professional experience and brought them in as well. So it started to become a thing that we knew how to do. So that was early times for sure, entry to this field.


So, let’s talk a little bit; just set some context for the listeners. The majority of the of my audience is our market research professionals and predictive analytics companies or people in that field. Give us a little bit of a framework for user-experience research. It feels to me, as an outsider, that there’s a lot of overlapping methodologies, but the applications and even the vernacular in some cases is different, right?  So, where your user-experience research sits inside of the organization is not inside of market research. It’s a different part of the org structure usually. And then on top of it, just tuning into your podcast, listening to about people, your guests and yourself, the nomenclature is just different than market research. Talk to us a little bit about the evolution of user-experience research and, and then maybe get us up to date today in context of like a modern company.  So, I like using Lyft as an example. They have 5 market researchers and over 50 user-experience researchers. So, in a lot of ways you’ve seen user experience move this more kind of like niche don’t really know squishy and now it’s just it feels like it’s become a very dominant. There’s a lot of headcount that’s associated with it in the corporations. 


I would guess there are contrasting firms.  I heard a story about this yesterday where analytics and could we just call it traditional market research? (the more established, historical kind of practice) has more headcount, it has more impact and the user research is smaller.  I think you’ll see organizations where the balance is different or the headcount is different. Yeah, I’m hesitant that (You can hear the hesitancy in my voice.) I’m hesitant to try to define or make any kind of definitive declarations about any of this because it is sort of shifting and there are many perspectives on this and I don’t want to say something where, well, that’s completely wrong. So it’s just possible that I may be.


Everything I say I’m pretty sure is wrong half the time.  So, anyway, for what it’s worth, when you think about like Intuit is a good example of a company that leverages user-experience research heavily. They were my very first client at Decipher, and I’ve been working with them since 1996.  So super early days. They have in-house usability labs. Predominantly, originally, it was staffed by the market research team and then user experience—Just kind of taking them as a case study—sort of filtered into the broader organization. And so, one of the things that (maybe the question here is more “yes” or “no,” which is a terrible question to ask) but one of the things that I think I’m seeing is this democratization of access to the consumer so that you don’t have to be a PhD. 

It’s great if you are, but you’re seeing research being done in various levels across your organization.  And user experience, again, not categorically or like here’s the box that it fits in ‘cause that doesn’t exist, but user experience is basically just is part of like product, right? So, as companies are seeing more and more of their full customer experience be considered product, you’re seeing an adoption of things. Like Apple’s a good example. You look at their receipt and you understand it, right? I mean it’s beautiful like somebody’s actually taken a receipt and turned it into language, which if you look at almost any other receipt, it’s nonsensical. I’m not suggesting they have a head of product for receipts but, broadly speaking, the way that they’re doing this. And so anyway, it’s the long-winded way of me asking this question of really trying to see or understand:  Do you see user experience as a job function and then also maybe, more broadly, as just an adopted discipline across organizations increasing? 


The question is sort of about the language we use to describe this work. I would just be a little picky on the terms and I would separate user experience from user-experience research.


Okay, perfect.


We’re sort of talking about market research and how do we think about that relative to user-experience research. But then I think this is where it gets slippery because then we sometimes, and I hear this all the time, substitute user experience for user-experience research. 


I would love clarity on this point, by the way, because I am uneducated as it relates with this. 


Definitions of functions and so on are things that like design Twitter loves to argue about. So again, I’ll just blunder ahead here. To me, user experience is like a short for…  User experience is the thing that you are as an organization are creating. So, what does it like to buy a product from Apple? How do you find it? Where do you look to get it? How do you transact? What’s your out of the box experience? What’s the receipt look like? Right? And so that whole experience is designed. So UX, so user experience is sometimes called UX design. When you start talking about it in those terms, like the example of Apple, I think about service design, another sort of buzz word. But these things are more alike than they’re similar. But I think these words provide hooks to how to kind of even think about it. So what’s the whole service from the… ‘cause part of dealing with Apple if you go into the store is dealing with a person who has a way of troubleshooting with you, and a way of placing you in a queue, and a way of upselling you or not.  There’s so many aspects to what that person is doing, and they’re part of the whole experience that you as a customer or user have. So to me, user-experience research is a certain kind of research activity that’s meant to inform the decisions that are made around the user experience that gets created. And I think you kind of talked about product, right? I mean just look at the labels that we have for these things sort of shows where they come from. 

So market research is about understanding this kind of thing to make these decisions. User-experience research is historically about understanding these things to make these decisions. And I think there’s lots of gray area and lots of overlap and some of it may have to do with where’s their head counts, who do those people report to, what is that person’s portfolio, what’s their comfort zone, what are they advocating for? And then. I think you also hit on a really important thing:  this phrase that I keep hearing about, “democratization of research.” And you tied it to making increasing access or availability. And this is a hot topic in like the people that are on my podcast, the clients that I work with because the demand for—let’s just call it research and not even say what kind of research—the demand for research, fortunately, has grown, and now there are more questions than (This is like a be careful what you wish for, right?) there are more questions that need to be asked than there are resources, whatever we label these resources, to answer them. So, Lyft has however many people you said; they still (I’m hazarding a guess here) they can’t meet the demand that there is internally. So, I’ll throw another term out there. There’s a sort of a movement or a practice that’s emerged in the last couple of years called “research ops.” It’s the operations of a research. There’s a very active slack community. There’s more and more conference content around this. There’s a lot out there. And it is about within an organization at least, how do we create the circumstances whereby research can take place without every single person that wants to do research having to figure out “What is research?”, “How do I learn how to ask questions?”, “What data do we already have?”, “What do we have access to?”, “What data storage, privacy management requirements do I have to comply with?” So putting practices in place such that people who are quote “researchers,” that’s their title and people who are product people and people who are anybody or some subset of anybody can get access to this information in a way that is of high quality and that helps them drive towards these kinds of decisions. So, I think that the infrastructure and that access is happening. The other thing that seems to be happening, and I don’t have as much of a buzz word for this, but I think it falls under the democratization bit, is as more people in the organization understand the potential of understanding who people are and what they’re going through and where we might play differently to address their needs. 

That’s being turned into opportunities to improve so many parts of what an organization does. So marketing teams are working with (I’ll just air quote) “user-experience researchers” because they realize, “Oh, we can do something with this.” The last consulting engagement I’ve just wrapped up was with a human resources team that’s looking at what the recruiting process is. So we’re looking at the user experience of being a hiring manager, being a recruiter, being a candidate, and what are the processes that are put in place to support that, to get to the outcomes the organization has as a goal, what are the tools that are, that are designed, you know, technology and other to make that happen. So that’s not about the product of the company. It’s not about the market of the company, but it is about this company functioning better to achieve its goals. So that to me seems very exciting that that they’re starting to be broader acceptance than maybe some of these, these walls are coming down and that the potential for all the work that we’re doing to have impact across other parts of the organization is growing seems very exciting to me. 


Yeah, I mean anytime you ingest the consumer into a business decision, then as long as it’s not like you’re not mixing qual and quant or whatever, you know, dangerous traps you might fall into, you know, you can’t take a micro insight and extrapolate it to a market, for example. But you know, as long as that doesn’t happen, presumably, and you’re asking questions in the right way, you as an organization are going to be consumer-led and therefore, have a better outcome. The other term that I’ve heard a lot, especially since the Qualtrics acquisition by SAP is customer experience. I pay a lot of attention to Google trends and customer experience is actually like crazy how it’s ramping right now. Do you see that interchangeable with user experience? 


Right? There are, I think plenty of Medium articles out there that say, “What’s the difference between CX?” Cause if we want to be really cool, we have to abbreviate it. “What are the differences between CX and UX?” My eyes glaze over a little bit when I hear that. I don’t know. And maybe that’s just the privilege of being a consultant. You sort of get dropped into a lot of different parts of the organization, but you’re not responsible for the overall map or maybe just intellectual laziness on my part. I don’t know. I would never be the person to…  You can hear how I struggle with definitions of what this is and what that is. 


Yeah, and again, I’m not trying to paint you in a corner here. I’m just trying to kind of level set in the context of these trends that we’re seeing and try to understand. We used to have NPS, for example, as being the god of the state of your business, right? And if you got a 60% NPS and you’re just doing fantastic.  And now you’ve got a new, I forget the name of the scale, but a new product market fit scale that is starting to usurp the NPS. So, it’s a three-point scale and instead of it being framed in a positive, it’s now a negative. How upset would you be if your product was not available to you next week? And if you’re on a three-point scale, if you’re very upset, then that’s a win. So now we have this double negative. I’m like, “How can we make this more complex?” I don’t know. Triple negative maybe will be the way we end in five years from now, right?  But that’s fine. So, it might just be the case that we just see the same thing but called a different name because we have a generation that’s coming up that doesn’t necessarily have that point of reference, right? I don’t know. For me, and I’ve read a lot of content. In fact, I’m speaking at Michigan State and for like two hours on this particular topic. Thank God there’s more, but this is like part of the thesis is that you’re seeing this rise of these other disciplines, but really they’re all trying to do the same thing. It’s just more the lens of that or the culture of that organization and how they’re adopting it, whether it’s CX or UX. I do think that market research fits outside of that to a limited degree. But there is clearly that on that Venn Diagram, which again is something I would love to see if you’ve seen that Medium article, kind of the overlap of type of work done. That would be super interesting.


Right. I think it needs to be built. I mean probably someone’s taken a wag at it. But I’m excited for this conversation ‘cause even as we’re going back and forth on terms and how we kind of create alignment around terms, I think that the language becomes a boundary object.  It keeps us apart from talking about similar goals, maybe identical goals, maybe adjacent goals, the super set of our toolkits, our complementary ways of thinking about things. And you know I think introducing a new tool, introducing a new terminology, it can be done in a way that invites other people in other, other functions in, or it can be done in a way that we use to hold onto our potentially dwindling territory. Again, I don’t care about a lot of these terms, but I pay attention to the culture that kind of grows up around them, like how we talk about them and how we use them to educate and inform our clients, our internal clients, our consulting clients as well as our peers in this practice. Obviously, my hope is that we can take everything that we have access to. And not everybody is interested in everything or good at everything and the diversity of kinds of brains that are brought into the work to solve problems or create insight in different ways is where I see a lot of potential or I see a lot of excitement and what personally I’m looking for. I’m super smart, I think, but I am looking down a tunnel, that’s just how everybody is. So the more I can get access to other how other people unpack problems or create questions or pull insights out of things in a way that levels up what I am doing and adds value to it, then all the better.


So, as a fellow podcast host, there’s this space between…  So, we do a podcast, right, and it’s however long it is, but then there’s this bit that happens at the beginning of the podcast that isn’t ever published. And then there’s this kind of bit that happens at the end of the podcast that again is never published. Probably some of the more interesting things, conversations that I’ve had have been on those ends, right? They aren’t really necessarily part of the organic conversation that happens in the structured, the published, that sort of thing, right? So, you’re nodding your head. So, I’m assuming that you’ve had similar experiences. 


This is the phenomenon in user research, for sure. And it comes from medicine; it’s  the “doorknob phenomenon.” So, in medicine, people will go to see a clinician of some kind and go through the whole meeting, appointment and never really say what’s going on. And then, as they’re standing up and walking towards the door and putting their hand on the doorknob to turn it and leave, they’ll sort of turn over their shoulder and say, “Oh, I did want to ask you this one thing.” And it’s like the…  So, this happens in user research, right, that the tactical pieces don’t turn off your recording device ‘cause there’s something about, “Well, this is great; this is very helpful. Thanks for the time. “We learned a lot from you.” Sometimes, not always, but sometimes that… And if you’re giving someone an incentive, you might like hand it to them right away or put it right in their hand and hand them their forms, whatever sort of paperwork, kind of wrapping up, sometimes that can trigger this. “Oh, you know, I have the story about when I was a kid.”  I don’t say always like, always the good stuff is there, but just you want to allow space for that to happen and not in a sneaky way. Sometimes, I just won’t touch my recorder. It’s there on the table and they can see it and the red light is on and I’ll just keep going ‘cause they’re going to keep talking.


So, in those kind of edge, kind of the stuff that’s outside of the show, what are you picking up on in terms of major trends inside of user experience? I’m really interested in that ‘cause you have such a …  You have the highest caliber guests on your show, right? I mean they’re just amazing. What are the trends that you’re hearing from them and you’re seeing in your own consulting practice that are emerging and where we should be paying attention to for the next few years if you can project out that far? 


There’s some distribution. If I was a smart stats person, like people watching this, they would say, “Oh, yeah, that’s the whatever distribution.” But you know the people that go on a podcast who are…  There’s such a sampling bias, I guess. I find people who are in-house in a leadership role around user-experience research. Well, there’s lots of organizations that don’t have leadership. They haven’t sort of invested enough that, “Hey, we need a leadership role dedicated to this alone.” So you’re seeing these kinds of organizations. What you don’t see from my podcast is the phrase is “the user-experience team of one.” There’s even a book with that title by Leah Buley. It’s about…, and I think it’s a passionately embraced book ‘cause there are all these people out there who (We talked about head count at the beginning) who are in organizations where they are in a mid-level role. They may be tasked with something else. They may be a designer who’s trying to create wireframes for the evolution of an app.  That’s kind of their main task. And they’re the ones saying, “We have to talk to customers. I need this information. We have to understand the problem and we need to evaluate our design decisions to see if this is going to resonate or work for people.” And then they’re taking that work on in their ample free time. So, these people I think are amazing, and they are struggling, I think, for resources and for some sense of, “Am I doing this right? Am I having the impact? What’s the magic thing that I should be doing differently?” Whereas it’s not really about them, it’s about their context. So, in terms of trends, I think we see more from a certain category of organization where there’s investments, but I also just see job ads on like slack channels or whatever groups you circulate in. 

Back in the day it was companies that we know:  the Googles, the Facebooks. It was the Yahoo; it was a big leader in a lot of usability and so on. I mean, you talked about Intuit. These are like companies that have invested, are big, that are high profile, that have invested heavily and we all know of them. If you work in tech or if you use tech, you know these companies. But some of my colleagues, some of the people who have been on the podcast, for example, leave those organizations and then I see what their next job is.  Or the job that I see posted are for companies I have never heard of who are small. There’s more things in like fintech, financial technology companies, that are not big banks but are little companies here and there that are trying to disrupt something established; logistics companies; just people making things that we don’t even know as a thing that gets made and they are starting to hire and then even hire leadership roles and really invest in this as part of how they are going to build things that are going to create the kind of change that they want as opposed to this being something that gets added in years later when they go public or try to go big or want to be acquired. It’s happening earlier. I think about this for myself, just my own practice, “Who should I be waving my hand at and saying like, ‘Hey, I exist. I can help you,’ “ when I don’t even know these companies are out there that are starting to get excited about this and, again, invest in it. For the work that we’re all doing, this is I think tremendous, right.  I think it’s happening earlier in a company’s growth, and it’s happening in a dedicated specific way. 

There’s a job req that has research in the title that is written by someone that—let’s just say they probably know somewhat about what they’re doing. I don’t have a critique of how recruiting is happening.  You can see that it’s happening in all these kinds of nooks and crannies of products and services and brands and technology. Yeah, that’s to your point, that’s in the kind of the corners between what’s coming out on the podcast and it’s just things that I am coming across in my kind of journey through the field. 


Interesting. So you’re seeing as it being…  I mean, obviously, it’s growing in the big company way, but you’re seeing it as something that companies are adopting a lot earlier in their life cycle. And it’s funny you say that cause I’m going through right now this startup phase with my new company. And as part of it, I thought it’d be a good idea to enroll in startup school, which is a free access to free resources. So, in this particular cohort 2019, I believe, it’s 23,000 startup companies, which is amazing. It would be interesting to see a word cloud or something more sophisticated done on like the natural language processing of the presentations we’ve heard. But I bet you “talk to your consumers or customers or users” would be the number one thing that would be flagged or in the top like that and “get to revenue” probably would be the top two things they talk about, right? And so, like there’s a big cultural shift moving away from the “build it; they will come” framework. 


Yeah. I’ve been spending a little more time with my clients and at conferences with the product management professionals, who are super excited about talking to customers. And it’s a thing that they’re doing. They maybe don’t know how overall, but they’re are hungry and they…  It’s not a thing that needs to be persuaded. It’s a thing that’s already understood. And so, the question is how and when. And that also is very exciting. In talking about cultural shifts, it’s just more default now. And I think this is interesting, and it raises challenges that collectively I don’t think we’re ready for. And it goes back to the democratization thing and I think one of your questions was about like, “Is this a role or a process?”  I can’t remember how you phrased it, but is user-experience research or market research or just whatever we want to call it, talking to people to gain insight? Is that a thing that a person with that job title does? Or is that a task or is it a department? How would we ideally want to structure it in eight years to take advantage of this? And I think the corollary there, or the caution also is I fear commoditization of the work and that, obviously, is because I’m a provider of the work. So I’m very biased in that.  The commoditization could be good. I think it’s our job as professionals with these labels to hold onto quality. And so, how to do that in a way that is inclusive that’s inviting people in; it’s not we have to control it. But anyone that does market research, user research hates crappy research that gets misused and propositions get made. 

That is not the thing we want to have happen.  And it is a skill. So as much as we are creating content and writing books and creating all sorts of stuff that empowers people to do it, it also is easy to do poorly and hard to do well. And I don’t have an answer for that. I’d rather be encouraging than sort of fear-mongering, and I want people to do it in practice and get better at it. But I also want there to be…  Not everything needs to win a gold medal, but I think sort of understanding the trade offs that you make. 


Yeah, based on the level of professionalism. I think that’s a solid point. I think, when I first started my career, when I started my career in market research, the way that we priced projects was 3x. So it was like, what’s my costs? Like my recruiting costs, my whatever. Right? And then I just multiply that by three and then I had my project price. I’m not saying that was universal, that was just how we did it in the 90s, how I did it for the company I worked for and was trained to do. So the value there is, obviously, connected to the difficulty of the logistics as opposed to the size and implication of the insight that is being gathered from that particular project. It’s easy also for consumer of research to pay for a large project ‘cause they recognize this really difficult logistically. 

There’s this sidestep that makes it easier for an expensive project for you to pay a lot for it on the analytics side.  So, now to your point, it’s becoming easier and easier to talk to the consumer, which I think gets to a really important issue, which is how do we ultimately price this? Right? Because you can’t just have it as a direct relationship between time value. You know, we’re not lawyers, right? The learning how to have a productive conversation with the consumer that’s going to change, going to have $100 million impact on a business, that’s not a $500 interview, presumably. So, yeah, I don’t know. that to me has my eyes wide open right now on how the terms of trade are going to evolve over the next three to five years, especially as different web services create the perception that I can just upload my data and get a magic answer. 


And then the other factor is that, if you go back to the eras that you and I keep hearkening back to, this work was only done outside corporations, right? They didn’t have…  I mean Intuit wasn’t an innovator in the 90s but for the most part if you wanted this work, you went to a consultant, an agency. And now, that’s the reason I can have this podcast where I talk to people who are in leadership roles in-house is because the investments and the growth is all happening inside organizations and that infrastructure, that operational infrastructure, serves them. It doesn’t serve vendors or consultants as well. And those of us on the outside that are trying to provide that external perspective, external expertise, we are in dwindling numbers. I think that creates concerns that…  We were talking about the podcast a little bit in what that reveals. It’s so interesting to me to talk to people inside of an organization about research and hear them talk appropriately like corporate people. And it’s not a knock on corporate people, but you spend all your time inside a culture. You have a lot of language and a lot of shorthand and there’s just a way of talking about things. And back in my day, as a researcher that was a consultant, your job was to bring that outside in as to mirror the language of the world, not the language of the producer of the tool for the world. And when the person who sort of bringing the outside in is part of the in, they’re going to do that very, very differently. 

So again, I think in a dramatic way I would say they’ve been co-opted. I don’t think that’s true. But the practice has evolved and so, I’m the external voice, but research is being owned by people who are internal voices and they have a stake in the outcome. They are the product success. They have maybe a financial incentive or a job security incentive.  And I think market research, user research, it’s kind of a truth-to-power job. And that’s just very interestingly different when the context changes and the people who work in-house can do so many things that I can’t do because they have that internal map. They have those relationships; they have the history; they have the language; they can speak the language. I can’t speak the language. So the best for me is to have a partnership with that person where we can kind of leverage each other’s strengths and deficits. But, obviously, most research is being handled entirely in-house by in-house, people who are part of that culture. And I don’t know that we have a…  We may need to wait a few more years to sort of see what does that mean, what does that look like and what’s gained and what’s lost and what do we want to do to address that? 


What is your personal motto?  


My personal motto is, “Just keep going.”  I don’t know if I can unpack that a little bit. Some people will have a real plan for everything, and they aim for something and go towards it.  I maybe have a little more of a “informed stagger” towards things. 


I love that. 


You know, and I like surprises and challenge. I like leading a life that’s filled with surprises and challenges.  I don’t know that I like having surprises and challenges. It’d be nice if everything was simple, but I’m doing this for a long time. I’ve been running my own practice for a long time. I still feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m paying attention and thinking about how things are changing. I don’t know what, of all the things we talked about, nowhere in my head is like, “And, therefore, in my own business to be successful, I will do this thing differently.” I don’t know. But like I did Improv for a few years and I’ve talked about improv for a long time as kind of a creative problem-solving mindset. And part of that is you just keep going, you just take things as they come and you add to them and you add to them and you don’t overplan. And things come out of that that you could never have made happen if you had intended to make them happen. And so, it’s a bit of a philosophy. I don’t know. I can’t say I live up to that perfectly all the time, but I think that’s what “Just keep going” models, and it goes back to one of your first questions about what I learned from my family and I think that is also what I saw growing up and probably how we all have learned to succeed as best we can, I think, in a world that you can’t control. 


My guest today has been Steve Portigal, founder of Portigal Consulting. Did I totally screw up the name?


I sympathize with you as a fellow podcast host to say somebody else’s name comfortably is hard even when you’ve asked them before the recording went on was like I said it and you said it back. Yeah. And it’s right.  Saying something out loud that somebody else’s name is hard to do authentically. 


And it’s so important. Thanks for that. If you have any questions at all about user experience, user-experience research and customer-experience research—I’m going to throw that in there too—I hope that you’ll reach out to Steve. His contact information will be linked in the show notes along with the link to his website and Linkedin profile. He’s also very active on Google user group for user experience in the Bay Area, which is how he and I originally got connected. I haven’t found a ton of value on everything he posts. I’m very appreciative, Steve, of you joining me today on the podcast. Thank you so much sir. 


Thank you so much. Really great conversation. 


All the rest of you, if you found value in this episode as much as I have or even just that 10th as much as I have, please take the 50 seconds it will take you to screenshot this, share it on Twitter, tag Happy Market Research. We’ll repost it. As always, our five-star reviews mean the world to us and help everybody else that’s like you find this content. I hope you have a wonderful rest of your day. Oh, and by the way, I would encourage you to check out Steve’s podcast Dollars to Donuts. Again, I’ve found it very interesting and enlightening relative to, as a market research professional, being able to be relatable to user experience or user-experience research or customer experience. Right. I don’t even know what now, but anyway, something like that. Some nomenclature, very beneficial. Enjoy. Have a great rest of your day.


This episode is brought to you by HubUx.  HubUx is a productivity tool for qualitative research.  It creates a seamless workflow across your tools and team.  Originally, came up with the idea as I was listening to research professionals in both the quant and qual space complain about and articulate the pain, I guess more succinctly, around managing qualitative research.  The one big problem with qualitative is it’s synchronous in nature, and it requires 100% of the attention of the respondent. This creates a big barrier, and, I believe, a tremendous opportunity inside of the marketplace.  So what we do is we take the tools that you use; we integrate them into a work flow so that, ultimately, you enter in your project details, that is, who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, whether it’s a focus group, in-person, or virtual or IDI’s or ethnos; and we connect you to those right people in the times that you want to have those conversations or connections – Push-Button Qualitative Insights, HubUx.  If you have any questions, reach out to me directly. I would appreciate it.