Hear a message from Alexandra about the complementary show, MRx News.
I have as my guest today Melanie Courtright, EVP of Global Research Science at Research Now SSI, the global leader in digital market research and data services.
Thanks to the merger of the two market research data leaders Research Now and SSI at the end of 2017, the company has one of the world’s largest first-party data assets built on permissioned research data. With a combined history of decades, the company has developed its core of data through a variety of panels, such as eRewards and the Opinionology panels, just to mention a couple. SSI acquired the Opinionology business in 2011. And eRewards, an industry pioneer of online research data established in 1999, acquired Research Now and became Research Now Group in 2014. Since the merger, Research Now SSI is something of a standard setter for data quality.
Hi. I’m Jamin Brazil. And you’re listening to the Happy Market Research podcast. I have as my guest today Melanie Courtright, EVP of global research science at Research Now SSI, the global leader in digital market research and data services. Thanks to the merger of the two market research data leaders, Research Now and SSI at the end of 2017 the company has one of the world’s largest first-party data assets built on permission to research data. Since the merger, Research Now SSI is something of a standard for market research data quality. Melanie has spent more than two decades in the consumer insights industry and is a leading voice in market research for trends and the next generation of data collection. Thank you Melanie for joining us today.
It’s my pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.
So I’m super-excited about our conversation. You and I have operated in the same circles for two decades and known each other for I think about half that. Your work at Research Now and SSI has certainly put you in the forefront of tech in the market research space focusing specifically on online and then later mobile and social today. On top of that you’ve written some award-winning work that has informed our industry. But before all the nerd stuff, I think it would b really helpful for our audience if you would talk just a little bit about your background and how you wound up in market research.
Sure. That’s a fun story. I didn’t actually grow up wanting to be a market researcher. I’m one of those people who found my way into market research. I was actually planning to be a professional vocalist. My formal education is in languages and music. I speak Spanish and I learned Persian Farsi while I was in the military. I also read biblical Greek. I was a first soprano. I’m still very active in singing. And if you were to be in my car on my way home any day you would hear me singing at the top of my lungs all the way to and from work. But – so after I left the military, I started doing some research. I joined Texas Instruments and I worked on a Department of Defense program for Texas Instruments. And then after that I left when my third child was born. I began working from home doing transcription and translation work for a local research firm. I spent years with that firm translating, cleaning, and coding verbatim comments from employer and customer feedback programs. It was during that time that I really learned a lot about the needs of employees and the needs of consumers translating and transcribing their words into a consumable coding that companies could use. So I spent a lot of time just getting to know the hearts and minds of people all over the world through that couple of years spent with verbatim comments. And from there I just grew in my love of research and in my roles across all the companies I’ve been at.
It’s so funny. You know I started out – I call it the bells of market research. So I started out doing mall intercepts. For those that don’t know, those are the people that you all loved that are in malls that have clipboards with pieces of paper on them and they intercept you asking if you have ten minutes to answer some questions. It was hard but it’s funny because having that as my initial point of reference in this space gave me great insight in terms of opportunities of automation or how we could introduce technology to solve some material problems, which is why I did my first online survey in 1996. So I think that entry-level experience is super-beneficial for leadership.
Yeah, and even as an executive now one of the things I’ve tried to make sure I do is stay close to consumers. The best way to help our brands and clients be close to their consumers is by being close to consumers ourselves, spend time following their trends, knowing what devices they’re using. There’s nothing more important than just really understanding consumers if you want to help clients make decisions about them.
Yeah, that’s the truth of it. So let’s talk a little bit about your role. It’s certainly expanded and I think most recently into the EVP realm of global research at Research Now SSI. So what does that mean? What are you in charge of?
Well the global research science role is actually new to Research Now SSI. It was established after the two companies merged. I’m really excited about this role. My team’s responsible for reviewing and approving all of the methodologies that under guard our products and services. If you’re not familiar with methodology, methodology to me is just how we make sure that the data we provide represents the population our clients are trying to make a decision about. And so one of our most important focuses right now is creating a combined company sample plan across our panels and measuring our ability to hit benchmarks. Research Now SSI is showing their commitment to quality and methodology by investing in a team of experts that will approve everything we do as a company along the data services spectrum. It’s a great role, a great team. Some of the smartest people work in this group and I am honored to have the role at the company.
That’s fantastic. Well congratulations on that. I want to dig in a little bit deeper here. Do you have somebody you want to highlight?
The whole team is filled with rock stars. So on the knowledge side is Jackie Lorch. Everybody knows Jackie Lorch and she is an SMR representative like I am. There’s also Pete Cape. They call him doctor Pete. He writes for some of the industry articles and magazines over in the UK. You’ve got Keith Phillips and that’s just on the knowledge side. On the actual consulting side we have Eric Levy, and then we have a whole data quality team who handles all data quality questions. It’s an amazing team of some of the smartest people in the business and they all work for Research Now SSI trying to make sure that everything we do is top-notch.
That’s awesome. So since I started in 2000, that’s my really when I spun off out of primary research and into technology empowerment for research. Seven years later, fast forward, Kristen Luck sold her company and it seemed like a great time for us to join forces. And as you know, she’s been – is the founder of Women In Research or WIRe, instrumental in connecting women inside of our community so that they have increased opportunities and education. What is it like to be a high-profile woman in the market research industry and then do you see any challenges, anything you’d like to share on that front?
I mean first I would say I think it’s the same as being a woman executive in any industry. It can be really rewarding and it can also be very challenging. Our industry is blessed to have a great set of women leaders across the spectrum of roles and responsibilities. And we have some really great gender equality initiatives that make me proud and I’m excited to be a part of. But it can also be a little bit lonely and daunting. There’s still in our industry more men in the upper echelon than there are women and it’s funny since there are so many women in our industry. Then I would say that the challenges are just around – there are still a lot of places where your role – people try to define what your role should be based on your gender. They try to put you in a box as a woman, a sort of pre-defined box about what your role should be. And I would say honestly that I think I’ve spent my entire career sort of breaking boxes. I am the only one who gets to decide what my limits are and what my roles are and what my boundaries are. And I encourage women to do that for themselves. Don’t let anyone else tell you what you can or cannot be. And the only other thing I would say is women are often required to act like the role they want to be before they’re given the role. Men sometimes have some assumed leadership capabilities and they’re often given roles that they can kind of grow into. Women usually have to prove themselves before they get those roles and so my encouragement to women is to start acting like the role you want in three years now. So if you want to be at the higher level in three years, start acting like you’re at that higher level now and prove to everyone around you can do that role. Start doing it now. Think big, plan ahead, and don’t let anybody give you any boundaries.
That’s super-smart. Thank you for that. Did that position get informed by your military service?
Absolutely. I will say in the military I learned how to be comfortable working around men. I learned how to challenge stereotypes and challenge norms. It’s funny. Before I joined the military, I had never actually picked up a weapon. And when I picked up a weapon for the first time there were a lot of people who said well she can’t shoot. She’s a girl. She’s not going to be any good at it. She’s a girl. And I became the first woman in the military to get a perfect score on marksmanship. The army actually gave me a plaque and a trophy and the army does not give trophies. But I just – I never let anybody tell me what I can or cannot do. I never let the noise in my head become reality to me. I set my own boundaries and I broke stereotypes. And I learned how to do that in the military. I also learned discipline in the military though. There’s this thing called the art of discipline is about practicing and exercising and honing your talents so that when you’re under pressure, you can rely on muscle memory. And I do that all the way to today in every aspect of my career. There are so many times when I’m in a nervous or anxious situation or I’m speaking or I have to make a quick decision and I need to be able to rely on muscle memory. And so that discipline and that practice and that exercise came from my military experience.
Unbelievable. Thank you very much for sharing that. So I – being an old guy, I was around in 1999 when your rewards started and it was interesting because your rewards created this profoundly strongly brand around data quality, this huge point of differentiation in the market. Additionally, you guys were really disciplined on saying no to projects that were bad fits against your panel. How has research now guarded that sample quality given the various mergers and acquisitions?
Well so the fact that the merged company, Research Now SSI is investing in such a large team of research science experts to tell you that we still take this very, very seriously and it’s because we look across the entire spectrum of what quality means. Quality starts all the way from the way you recruit, the way you engage, the way you rewards. It’s definitely about the exercises that you ask people to complete, it’s about really good member experiences, but it’s also about scale and it’s about knowing when to say no and it’s about representativeness. Quality can certainly mean like in survey data quality measures but it also really means representativeness. And we look at all of that. So our biggest concerns through the recent merger have just been data stability and data representativeness. We spent an awful lot of time creating a new reliability measure that you’ll be hearing more about soon. And we’re still completely invested in quality.
When you think about representativeness, I think most people would default to national rep, etc., etc. But are you also incorporating an origination source in that?
We are. So – and the reason that matters is that it’s all about sample frame. If you’re working with a source that is small in frame that’s only recruiting from a few places it can be very difficult for that frame to represent a large population. So Research Now SSI recruits in every way imaginable. And we look at the source and the quality of every one of our partners and every one of our recruiting campaigns. But when you put all of those together, all of the loyalty partners, all of the gaming partners, all of the mobile channels and the API partners all together at scale, almost all of the coverage bias that my research can be known for are erased and the data quickly falls into norms and benchmarks. So we now know that we can hit external benchmarks on ailments and on consumer behaviors and all sorts of different ailments because of our scale. So we’re taking the quality message a couple steps further.
Got it. The scale part I think is really an important point. It offers you such a competitive advantage in the marketplace. There has been an increase in sample APIs or blended or whatever you want to call it. My concern around that is sometimes we can lose – by automating the process we can lose the connection with the origination source, which may or may not have an impact on the data. I know that there could be ways to address that but I’ll stop talking. Everyone wants to hear you talk about this.
But what it comes down to is scale matters but not only scale, but the ability to hold the sample frame consistent over time. You really have to be able to have the financial commitment to maintain long-term relationships with your partners and with your members and be able to hold a really consistent sample frame. Broad, diverse, and consistent is the only way you get to this every day you could deliver accurate data. Lots and lots of members so that if that member A is used in survey A, you have somebody just like member A who can take survey B.
That kind of really broad scale, not only of the survey participants but of the surveys themselves so that technology isn’t adding any bias because of the types of surveys that are being conducted. So the scale matters in terms of your financial resources to maintain long relationships, in terms of your access to people, and broadly diverse people, and in terms of the surveys that you have in your system so that there’s no bias there either. It’s all about every layer of bias and taking it out through scale.
So over the last decade, we’ve had a couple of market research misses I would say. And one of the things I think that we were big on is the race to mobile adoption as a viable survey data collection type. From your perspective, what do you see as some of the bigger misses of the market research industry over the last decade?
Well I have – I definitely have one and I think that that is developing and adopting an explicit measure of the accuracy of our data, but really specific when measuring data quality about measuring in-survey data quality about speeding and sufficing. And that’s interesting. But you can have a perfect data set that doesn’t accurately represent any population that you’re trying to make a decision about. And we have not yet developed and adopted this really explicit measure about the accuracy of the data. So this is something that Research Now SSI and my research science team are very committed to. And we’re going to be sharing things with the industry very soon to help them understand how to know for sure if the data is accurate for decision-making or if it’s just pretty data.
Oh, that’s super-interesting. I was going to do a white paper. I just kicking the can down the road between Q and A surveys. At Decipher we built what’s called survey stress test, which is just an automated survey populator. It’s like a bot for surveys. And again, we just used it to populate data to make sure that we’re hitting all the skit patterns and quotas were processing correctly. It’s just a shortcut, right. I’ve always wondered how much different that random generated sample would be from – a very inexpensive sample that you could acquire in the open market exchanges today but anyway that’s super-interesting. So now kind of thinking forward more what does the next three years hold for us? What are the trends?
Well I mean so first I’ll say our industry doesn’t change super-quickly. We all know that. And three years isn’t that far out.
There are a couple of things I’m really certain about though. One, in the next three years I do think that we’ll see important progress on the connection of data across the marketing spectrum from product development to marketing activation. And the second one is I think we’ll see more technology firms coming and joining us from outside our industry. On the data front, like we really are beginning to see opinion data merged with first-party data, second-party data, third-party data. It’s all coming together to tell really long-tailed data sets. We have clients where we’re matching our panel to their client list and more opinion transaction data. We’re also bringing that second-party data. We’re also bringing in purchase data and Acxiom data and Experian data and behavioral data, Live Ramp, Drawbridge. We’re bringing in all these really great data sets to tell these really cool stories and there’s all the cookie data on top of that. These data platforms are coming in and you’re going to see some very interesting case studies over the next couple years that say that this isn’t just a cool idea. It’s being used in practice. It is being used to make very fast and more comprehensive decisions. I am fascinated by that. Research Now is hiring data scientists and we’re using data platforms and ecosystems that we didn’t use a couple years ago and we’ll be even further a couple of years from now.
Yeah. I mean gosh, let’s unpack that a little bit. Market research as we know as an industry has been fairly flat in context of just overall global spend. In fact, in some cases I’ve seen articles where it’s been decreasing on a year-over-year basis over the last decade. So in that world, and at the same time, you’ve got literally an explosion of data whether it’s behavioral or transactional or whatever that exists on each one of us. So market research has been kind of stuck in this obvious place of well how do we relate to all this other data, which used to be in our realm of knowledge because at the end of the day, market research is one thing, which we are a facilitator of a conversation. It’s just a really complex conversation. And then we analyze and answer in form whatever the business question is that was originally asked. And I think the point that you’re making about the integration of technologies developed outside of the market research space is spot freaking on. The role of technology either is to entertain or make things faster, better. And that’s where on Twitter you saw my recent – this is about I guess three weeks ago, Winnie Murphy and AMA coproduced a paper on the role of market research. His thesis being that market research needs to be the keepers of why. And I think that’s really interesting and correct. But the problem in that is the way that we monetize what we do for a living, it’s like literally 60 percent of the cost structure is inside just the facilitation or the logistics of gathering the data. And you have third-party, whether it’s like integrations into WordPress or even into PowerPoint. Recently I got a survey in PowerPoint. It was a basic NPS survey, which I thought was hilarious. So you’ve got this complete democratization of what I’ll call traditional research being then integrated into systems that consumers are using every day that never even touch market research. And then the other part that’s super-interesting is how artificial intelligence is allowing us, and other things like sentiment analysis and NLP and whatever are allowing us to process qualitative what used to be a synchronous data collection approach, qualitative data and then process that at scale. So you really have quantitative outcomes of that space. And one of the – I’m thinking of a couple different start-ups I’m consulting for right now, their big problem is just don’t know how to pay for it because it doesn’t fit qualitative and it doesn’t fit – it’s not a survey and it’s not a focus group. It’s a focus group at scale or what have you and that’s confusing. So do I not need a survey anymore. So anyway, yeah, the technology is having a big impact on the role of market research in today’s insights.
It is. And I’m certainly a believer that market research should be the keeper of why but I also think that we need to be the keeper of what. We’ve relied heavily on participants to tell us through feats of memory, the whats, what have they purchase, when did they purchase it to gather all the data from them from their minds. And that’s a very challenging ask of participants. So we’re getting much better about pulling in the whats, the behavioral whats, the purchase data whats from other sources and then being able to really focus our surveys on the why behind the whats that we can observe. And that is exciting. It’s also exciting for me because there’s still a lot of methodology that goes into doing that well. A data set that’s big doesn’t again, mean a data set that’s representative and a data set that’s truth. So there’s still an awful lot of methodology that needs to go into this but it’s really coming together and tapping into working dollars like it’s never done before and getting the attention of the CMOs and the CEOs. So it’s an exciting time. And that leads me to that second thing I was pretty certain about, which is because our industry is sort of extending and expanding, it’s becoming attractive to some of the other technology companies that are in other adjacent industries. And so I think we’re going to see more external firms offering services like security and identification and even financial and technology products and companies that are coming into our space, coming up alongside of us and we’ll learn from them and they’ll learn from us. And we’ll just get bigger together.
That’s super-interesting. Well, those are all of my questions today. Did you have anything else you wanted to highlight that’s coming up that you want the listeners to know about Research Now and SSI?
Well in terms of my day job, the research science center, we have launched the research science center. The research science center is going to be a resource for the industry. One of the things I’ve heard quite a bit recently is that a lot of the conferences have stopped presenting deep methodological papers on things like sample frame and router design and how to take a tracker and completely turn it on its head and add all these other data sources and make it mobile-friendly. So we’ve taken that to heart and we’ve created this research science center and it’s going to be the go-to place. We’re not just going to have it be about Research Now SSI thoughts and opinions; we’re going to really expand it to the smartest people in the industry. So watch for more on that.
If you want to call it Jamin Brazil, that’s OK.
I think that’s taken.
My guest today has been Melanie Courtright, executive vice president of global research at Research Now SSI. Melanie, thank you so much for your time today.
Hi, I’m Jamin Brazil and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. My guest today is Edwin Wong, Senior Vice President of Market Research at Buzzfeed.
Founded in 2006 by the likes of Kenneth Lerer, chairman of The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed is a digital news and entertainment company.
Originally known for online quizzes, “listicles”, and pop culture articles, the company has grown into a global media and technology company providing coverage on a variety of topics including politics, DIY, animals and business.
Prior to joining Buzzfeed, Edwin has guided market research strategy at Yahoo, Pinterest, and Veoh.
Hi. I’m Jamin Brazil and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research podcast. My guest today is Edwin Wong, Senior Vice President of market research at BuzzFeed. Founded in 2006 by the likes of Kenneth Lair, Chairman of the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed is a digital news and entertainment company originally known for online quizzes, listicles, and pop culture articles. The company has grown into a global media and technology company providing coverage on a variety of topics including politics, DIY, animals, and business. Prior to joining BuzzFeed, Edwin has guided market research strategy at Yahoo, Pinterest, and Vio. Edwin, thank you very much for joining us today.
How’s it going?
Edwin, after graduating from Ponoma in 1998, how did you find yourself at Hall & Partners?
That’s just an awesome question. When I look at that number 1998 I think we were just joking. I feel so old. But I remember when I got out of school I was gonna go and get my PhD in industrial organizational psychology. And at the time there were two really great programs whether it was in Nebraska or Illinois, and my then girlfriend who has been my wife for about 20 years now she said, “If you decide to go you’re gonna go by yourself.” And so I chose love instead of a profession and it worked out great. I started off the first six to nine months of my graduated time from Pomona selling Glen Plaid shirts from J Crew and being a legal assistant at the LA Athletic Club. And what was so great is in the middle of it one of my friends decided, hey, you maybe want to apply what you learned in psychology, the study of human behavior, and apply it to business. There’s something called market research you should look into. And I kind of fell into this small company called Hall & Partners at the time. We were – I was one of the first of five employees on their way and I joke all the time, but we literally went from [INAUDIBLE sounds like: loading soda], answering the phones, stocking the copy paper, and then all within the same hour closing our very first global copy test deal that was multi-million dollars for one of the most respected tech companies in the world. And so it was such an amazing journey by myself and such a great opportunity to work with some of the coolest people in market research.
It was a really disruptive time in 1998. I remember I did my first online survey in 1996 and then Jimmy Plunkett and myself started Decipher in 2000, and Hall & Partners being one of our very first marquee accounts. It was a super interesting time because we saw this migration of data collection that moved from mall intercepts and phone to online and then later mobile. And it was very interesting to me how Hall & Partners was a pivotal part of that transition I think. The value that you were offering in those days was originally I think mix mode, but then you moved most of that data collection to online, correct?
Yeah. I think it was so great. It’s just like we’ve known each other or so long. Decipher was one of my favorite clients – favorite partners I should say, because of what you guys actually did for us. And we were – one thing that I always remember is how future forward that was and we were thinking about online and who does online? We need that phone caddy. The funny thing is how quickly that transition happened over it felt like five to six years everything transitioned over. And what’s been really awesome in this space is the transformation that we’re even seeing now and now we’ve got all these interesting survey platforms and the cool thing about Decipher is you guys really did start it all. And I still remember spending many late nights hanging out with Braden and asking him to help me with that self-serve [INAUDIBLE] tool and doing some interesting filters. It was such as fun moment with lots of late nights and it was such a great partnership.
It was and the CEOs that you’ve had at Hall & Partners, Chris Hubble and others, who’ve even been working closely with presidential candidates over the years they did a profoundly good job of helping companies identify brand affinity and help punch through the noise in the marketplace. So you moved from Hall & Partners and then later to Yahoo for about a decade, right?
I definitely was at Yahoo for quite a bit of time. I actually started in 2004, around that time, working in their search division in Pasadena. It was such an awesome time because I think back then most people who understood search thought of it as a last click attribution type media which it is. I think it does that quite well but there is so much [INAUDIBLE] activity. There’s so much I think even just the sheer Google trends or I think that Google launched a personal microsite because they saw such an increase in how to searches. And so we’re literally outsourcing our critical thinking to Google with their how to searches. And so really kind of crystalizing that story for marketers and helping them understand consumer behavior was my first run there. And just being – and where over a decade I had an opportunity to work with the media properties, work with folks that run video. Near the end I had such a great time building out the B2B insight space. I worked with the likes of Dave Utica [ph], Sebastian Fernandez, [INAUDIBLE], Trisha Hoff, and we really had such a good time just kind of blowing out thought leadership there and talking about new trends. In fact, I think one of my most fun accomplishments was working really closely with some key leaders to talk about the Maven strategy that we had around mobile video and social, all around what [INAUDIBLE] actually wanted to do there, and so we really looked at the space differently. And one thing I learned most about Yahoo was that things change so quickly for the consumer, and as a researcher if you don’t change along with them or observe those changes that you really do fall behind.
That’s a great point. Was there any material differences between how Yahoo and Pinterest used research? In other words, did one use qualitative more or tracking studies more?
Yeah. I think one interesting thing is just going to Silicon Valley. Pinterest was a – just a great place. Their use of data was just so strong. If you take a look at what the platform actually means it’s full of intense signals. You’re future planning and you’re aspiring and you’re being inspired into doing things that really cause you to act and such. One thing I actually felt was quite different was really me, not necessarily Yahoo, going there and being a smaller, more agile place I had the opportunity to really get deep into analytics as well. And so really thinking about consumption behavior and real analytics in terms of what is the consumer doing on this platform and making [INAUDIBLE sounds like: breeding] I should say, really telling that story of what was different for me. And so I had a great time working with some of the groups there and running those groups and really kind of bringing that story to life for Pinterest.
What were the key differences between what you were looking for from partners or vendors? So in Pinterest were you more interested in tools to empower your current team to do research or was it more full service answer these business questions for me market research company?
What was so great is I think Yahoo’s infrastructure for market research in general had been already built out and so going there was less needing to prove the importance of it versus when you get to some of these newer companies they’re just starting out and their analytics core is fabulous. And gaining an understanding of what the consumer is doing is actually quite easy because you’ve got some of the smartest data scientists and programmers that would literally be able to help you pull any data from the grid that you need. When you start to go to those places it’s really seeing there’s something kind of different when you talk about the why. And it ultimately brings in – even what survey actually can do for a business. And so building that part of it out was the most fun for me because you started to combine activity and analytics and really look at why a consumer was doing what they were doing, what they were saying about that behavior and how they actually wanted to change. And I think that actually created a really powerful narrative for Pinterest and frankly I think we started to do that at the tail end at Yahoo as I was able to work more and more with other teams as well.
Pinterest is such a great company. They’ve filled a need that I didn’t even know existed. So Google or Amazon is where you go when you know what you want whereas Pinterest is where you go when you don’t know what you want. It’s very [INAUDIBLE sounds like: dermis] driven on this discovery mindset from a consumer or user perspective. And it is interesting how you leverage more of the qualitative it sounds like in that sort of consumer discovery phase.
There is this one study that I actually did where we created this construct about access. And if you think about some of the newer platforms, Facebook is the access to connection whereas Google really is the access to knowledge and we consider Twitter the access to some sort of currency or relevance because influences are there. And you really talked about Pinterest as the access to ideas. And even at BuzzFeed one of the things that we’re starting to see is this access to humanity and identity. As we start to look at some of these newer platforms the reason why I think they’re taking off is distribution is there and the mobile device makes it easier. But we’re starting to align some of those experiences to what’s core to being human or these digital experiences to actually impact us in real life. And so as we start to do this work if you can sort of size down and say what does this experience actually even mean, you start to understand that human behavior and it gets really interesting and you start having a lot of fun dissecting what each experience means to the consumer.
If you can what would be the key three or the primary three lessons that you learned through your career whether it’s at Yahoo, Hall & Partners, etc., but then you applied to your work at BuzzFeed?
It’s funny. It’s not even at BuzzFeed but just for research in general I think that for me what I’ve learned most is that numbers they matter less than the story. Oftentimes what, as practitioners, we spend a lot of time in methodology which is absolutely critical, but the stories that we tell each other are the stories that will move us to move in business and every time you take a speaking class the first thing that the speaking instructor tells you is, “What’s the WIIFM? What’s in it for me?” In order for people to literally listen to our numbers and to our stories we always have to apply the WIIFM for them otherwise there’s no movement in our work which is why I think a lot of us do what we do. And I think the last thing that I’ve learned along the way is that as a researcher we’re hardly ever the smartest person in the room. We just better be the best listeners, and that’s basically what I’ve learned. It’s your in constant questioning mode, like why is this and what drives you? And I think that’s actually the most important thing that I’ve actually learned in my career.
That’s really interesting. Social medial has completely revolutionized where the consumer attention is. Sixish hours is what I’ve heard that a large portion of our population is spending on social media a day. Especially in the context of outside of maybe sporting events you’re not really seeing any cable consumption among – especially among younger consumers. Having said that we do see there’s a lot of spend, the majority of spend for advertisers is still in the traditional channels. Are you seeing changes? Is BuzzFeed seeing changes in terms of spend among large brands and how they’re treating social media, and is that something that’s gonna shake out in the future?
Yeah, I actually think that what’s interesting is that regardless of time spent the most important thing that we know most advertisers are looking for continues to be reach, scale, and frequency. They’ve broken it down on that end. I think as we start to see more time spent on social medial what’s interesting is even when you look at the formats of which we’re spending time on they still sort of bladder back to the same kind of experiences that are traditional. Online video as an example. I think there was a really interesting article that just came out this week that talked about YouTube’s growth even this last six months in it of itself being an interesting social platform as well. And so I do see having been in this space for 20 years the growth of search display, protomatic and even in the last five to 10 years the ramp up of social spend and interest in BuzzFeed as the cohorts, I think, start to age out and we start to see millenials aging up and even the next post millenial generation getting into their early twenties I can definitely see the marketing shift and marketing spend actually shift along with it just because I think it’s gonna be natural that partners are gonna be where the attention is for sure.
So we see it – we know that there’s been a massive alongside the digital consumption, a massive increase of digital passive or behavioral data that you as a marketing researcher are exposed to. Are you turning to outside solutions to interpret and add/create a more comprehensive consumer persona, or are you building up or using tools internally in order to do that?
I think it’s a mix of both and one of the things that Jonah Paretti, our founder, he said to me once in a meeting, he’s like, “I find that we’re data full, not data rich.”
I loved that quote and [INAUDIBLE] because that’s definitely his and he’s not even a researcher. He’s a CEO – he’s a found of all these. I really love that because I find that one thing is that as we get to all these new rich sources are we leveraging them in the right way so that we’re building the right sorts of tools and even algorithms to actually be meaningful. If you think about algorithms they’re if and statements that use historical data to actually become a thing. And so really thinking about what those statements are in the first place and the underlying data I think is incredibly important. What’s the story supposed to tell? And so we do make sure, but I think having/continuing to work with really rich partners in this space that will help us I think is important. But then teaching folks internally to not fear data, being a part of their diet I think is really great. We do that pretty well with our data science team at BuzzFeed right now. [INAUDIBLE] leads that effort and his team does a phenomenal job just really bringing to life what data ultimately means to BuzzFeed and what it means to even our group and how we leverage it to tell stories as well.
With the trend in social media increasing and now Amazon released over 40 million news blip or 40 million Alexa units have been distributed which is meaningful part of US households now voice continues to disrupt us. In fact, part of my morning routine is this, “Alexa, give me my morning briefing.” “Here’s your flash briefing. Buzz Feed News [INAUDIBLE] ” “Alexa, stop.” You know what I’m saying? And it’s – and so this has been – so my whole household literally hears that in the morning. And it isn’t that I’m going to my mobile device or my desktop or whatever. I’m just consuming that content and it even follows me through the Alexa app into my car. So how is BuzzFeed seeing this trend to a voice world?
Well, I think what’s interesting is if you take a look at over the last five years or so there’s really this whole concept of digital going analogue. And even as I was working my way from Pinterest to BuzzFeed this whole notion of digital to physical, this whole concept of inspiration to ideas to action was something that we were starting to see built out. IoT and you know what voice is? It’s really tech for the senses. We literally started off by looking for technology platforms to help us when it comes to our cerebral and eye consumption. The eye part of it and even the touch part, and if you think about it auditory was really the next thing. As I start to look at what voice actually does one of the things that actually stopped older consumers from actually leveraging digital was it’s a little bit difficult to use. What I think is awesome about voice is it is a simplification of the extraction of information through Q&A. I ask Alexa for her to answer something and she literally can do it from questions, and so I think what this ultimately does is it further democratizes our ability to connect with knowledge. And if you think about what the Alexa apps can do or even Siri or even what Google is doing they are literally changing the game of what’s gonna be possible next with voice. And I think just the Q&A piece is first and there’s tons more opportunity.
I totally agree. My whole being is saying this is bigger than mobile. This transition that we’re going through is it’s revolutionary because I can consume and interact rather, excuse me – I can interact and then consume with information in a passive medium which I just simply haven’t been able to do so far. So it’s really exciting.
I was gonna continue to riff and say if you really think about the consumer side it’s not even just knowledge extraction, it’s going to change the way we shop when we run out of toilet paper. It’s the other day my kids they found the question and answer app, the story app so that Alexa now tells them stories and it’s gonna change marketing because we were fighting the first – the golden triangle in the first three positions in search. But the future of voice apps on the marketing side the platforms are doing fulfillment when I run out of paper towels. Who’s it gonna be that I get the paper towel from and who wins out? Is it the private label app the Amazon set up or is it Bounty? And so I think there’s plenty of questions that open up as we start to see this expansion and evolution of what voice actually really needs.
I know. It’s funny. You think – I have the – when I do my employee onboarding right now we have two slides. One is illustrating the consumer journey with purchasing paper towels through Amazon and it’s really interesting because you have lots of opportunities to be intercepted. Now it’s where is the opportunity for intercept in a voice economy? And so it gets down to if I’m a brand the thing that I care the most about is becoming the Kleenex of that brand. My consumer has to love me so much that they’re willing to say me by name when they do the purchase and it’s just a – it just changes everything. How brands react to that I think is a big question that I’m sure they’re asking.
I think what’s gonna be the next wave for researches to figure out is it consumer journey market research that we’re actually looking at or is it friction? How do you remove friction? And there’s gonna be cool businesses that are just built on removing friction and really that’s gonna be the big value prop for many market researchers and the kind of thing they want to talk about. Because if you don’t understand the why and you don’t understand the friction point to your point you’re not gonna be the Kleenex of that brand for sure.
Well said. When you’re assessing new market research companies to do business with, what are some of the key characteristics or offerings that you’re looking for nowadays?
What’s great is I look at really smart minds that think out. It sounds so cliché but to think outside of the box or to think one step ahead of the consumer, but more importantly that identify the reasons why consumer do what they do to literally one sentence. We’re kind of in a place right now where we have all of this data but the key insight is still just one sentence from all of that data. And so working with people that can distill that down and really kind of create things that make it all grow. That’s so true. I think it’s really what I look for and I think it all begins with like even when we were working together back in the day Hall & Partners can decipher great partnerships. We were joking about this earlier. There’s no such thing as vendor, clients, whatever. It’s really partnerships because you want to learn and work together and build together and I think that’s the – when you find someone like that you kind of build this really awesome rapport that can actually lead you to really great answers that you have questions for.
You’re hitting on a couple points, and one I really want to hone in on is you’ve gotta be – as a supplier you have got to be there for your customers no matter what. I reflect on there was one project in Hall & Partners and it didn’t go great. It was in the field. It was a tough sample and the provider fell out and so we were literally on conference calls over Christmas Eve and then on Christmas Day getting this stuff dialed in. And there’s this whole value chain I think that’s created there because it wasn’t just us on the phone but it was also our suppliers on the phone making the save and getting it to you guys so your customers are satisfied on the post-holiday insights. So that’s a – you’ve gotta have those – when they don’t answer the phone it’s a big problem.
And I think that that’s where the partnership comes in which is there’s no such thing in my mind still as supply versus client. One of the things it’s like any great relationship you give and you get what you give. And so oftentimes I think one of the things that has been really fun to do is treat each other really well so that you would want to get on the phone over the holidays because you could have easily said, “I’m out until January 1st” which you guys were awesome to never do.
And see that point is so key. I teach an MBA course and one of my narratives is in – is on LinkedIn how important it is to connect with your peers and even those people that are just starting their careers because those are the people that are gonna be an influence over the next decade or two and so it’s vital that you treat them like that and that also you put yourself in the seat of the people that you’re serving whether it’s your boss or a customer. Because that will inform your personal brand over time.
And then I think it’s even more important when you’re on the “client side” how you’re treating your partners because what’s so great about this industry is it’s so small and in one flip it could be reversed very easily.
I have a dear friend who will remain nameless, but he wasn’t particularly kind to his vendors and unfortunately due to some layoffs he found himself out of a job and he actually said, “I really wish I would have been nicer to my vendors.” But anyway, so last question, our listeners are insights professionals. As BuzzFeed, what is the one thing you want them to know about?
I think BuzzFeed has been crating content that connects at a human level for over a decade now and there’s an accessibility to it that makes it so worthwhile to study. When you take a look at the success of some of our brands, Tasty, which is our food brand, almost every single person on Facebook has probably seen a Tasty video which is the over the head camera shot of hands making something. People ask us often how is it that you have the largest food channel on Facebook? How is that you have engaged over 500 million users, and how is it that people are coming back to this? And I think that the reason is is when you take a look at the actual design of what we wanted, we went where the consumer was at. I think that was the first thing, and we really didn’t look at controlling that brand on our owned and operated site. We weren’t where the distribution was and where the consumer behavior was. And I think the most important part was the way we actually think about content is through the lens of accessibility. When we think about that brand people liked it because it was not just accessible but inspiring and it helped them discover something. That was actually drawn up through consumer behavior studies where we really looked at what the brand meant. And I think that’s what we’re looking for today as consumers. We’re looking for brands to be next to us. We’re not just looking for aspiration but that accessibility to a brand not making us feel bad that we don’t know how to boil an egg or boil water for – and so there’s something to that that we’ve really connected on and I’m proud to actually be here because when you take a look at that whole concept of accessibility, our diverse talent, our connection in the way we actually think about news, it’s really all within what we actually stand for. And so it’s sort of a really fun thing to think about the human condition and to think about what the brand means and how to build that experience. And that’s why I’m really proud to actually be here.
My guest today has been Edwin Wong, Senior Vice President of Market Research at BuzzFeed. Edwin, thank you very much for your time.
Today we are joined by Merrill Dubrow, CEO and President of MARC Research. Being a CEO of a full-service marketing research firm is not the only thing you’ve got going on. You serve on University boards, you’ve served as President of the AMA Boston, you have a blog, you and Steve Schlesinger put on CEO Summit. You’re not just a CEO, you’re a leader of CEOs.
Well, Merrill Dubrow. Thank you very much sir for joining me today for the Happy Market Research podcast. You are a busy guy, a CEO as I know firsthand is time is valuable but having said that you also spend a lot of time after hours on University boards. You’ve served as the president of AMA Boston. You’ve had a blog for a decade. Additionally, you and Steve Schlesinger put on that CEO summit that’s had major lift for you guys. As a leader of CEOs, what is the number one skill that you think CEOs bring to the table?
Wow. Well first of all, before I answer that question, Jamin, I want to thank you and Alexandra for inviting me to the podcast. I’m really looking forward to being part of it and what you’re doing here is really unique and I think beneficial to the entire research community. To answer your question, I don’t know if I can give you one answer. I don’t know if I can sit there and tell you what’s the number one skill that every C level employee could or should bring to the table. I think that really depends on the CEO. But I can answer it from my standpoint, which is you’ve got to be self-aware and you’ve got to be able to allow yourself to have a self-evaluation and trust people around you. So constantly when you have – I believe I’m never going to be the smartest guy in the room. I believe I’ve made the most of my skill set and the reality is I can say, hey I need to get better at blank. So the interesting thing, you mentioned my blog for 10 years which I did three times a week and I wrote everyone except for a few guest writers. I’m not a great writer. I have good idea, but I don’t have great punctuation or grammar and I was able to, through this self-aware and self-evaluation understand that, know that and surround myself with people who could help me through that. They didn’t re-write the stuff, they just made sure it made sense. So for me the number one skill is this self-awareness. Give yourself the self-evaluation to know that, hey I might not be great at finances or I might not be great at management or I might not be great at sales or I may not be great at something else and being able to surround yourself with the right people and also try to get better at something every day. So for me it’s what I’ll call jamming 900 seconds, 15 minutes a day I try to get better at something. Whether that’s be a better marketer, be a better executive, be a better son, be a better brother. It doesn’t really matter. That’s what I would say for me for where my career is right now. I would say to have that self-evaluation and really be self-aware of what my strengths are, but more important, what my weaknesses are and do something about it.
Yes, so it sounds like you’re doing two things there. One is you’re hiring people to support the blindspots or weaknesses.
The other part is you’re leaning into those in terms of intentional training. Do you think you spend, using your rule do you think your spend more time on improving your strengths or bolstering your weaknesses?
Yes, and there’s a lot of books on that. I actually try to improve my weaknesses. So I’ll go after some things that I might have some blind spots, to try to improve and look, I remember and you’ve seen me on stage a fair amount. The first time I presented which was in Nashville, Tennessee at Opryland Hotel, I did it – this will show everybody who’s listening how old I am. I did it on index cards and I was visibly shaking and my voice cracked when I presented and that was the first time. So in my 20s, in my early 20s I did that and knew that being a good communicator and trying to get your message across to attendees and colleagues and bosses was going to be important to my career. So I really worked hard at that over the years and I think I’ve done a good job and probably I’m an above average presenter at this point. Still trying to get better, but I go after my weaknesses. I go after the stuff that I know I need to improve. I think it’s helped me so far.
Yes, I think this idea that greatness is born, not made is completely bullshit and –
It means the people that are successful and the value that we’ve built in our own lives by intentionally focusing on – I don’t know if your read the blog post that I did on the subject of procrastination, but I actually talked about one of the times that I completely failed as a speaker and for me, that was a big opportunity to just focus on anytime I can speak I take advantage of that. Even if I’m out of pocket, I’ll drive or fly if I have the opportunity to because I want to improve on that particular thing. People see me on stage and they’re like he’s OK, he’s pretty good, whatever. The point is that it’s something that I continue to work on and a craft I continue to hone. So I think that’s just such an important point. You’ve got to focus on those weaknesses and improve them if it’s something that is important to you.
So what in market research is adding the most value right now to businesses?
Yes, I think – it’s a really good question. We’ve all been in sales meetings, we’ve all had client visits, capabilities, presentations and we’ve all looked over in the corner and there’s some beautiful bound research reports that are collecting dust and have never been used and have never been implemented, integrated within the enterprise. The most – where market research has really added the most value right now is a true partnership. Not a vender/client relationship. A true partnership where you can ask all the hard questions, you can deliver insight and what we try to teach our team is what are they doing with the research. How can we help integrate that within their enterprise. Are we going to get chances to talk to the brand manager, do we have C level interaction? Is the CMO going to be involved? What about the VP of marketing? Where does this report go after we deliver it to you? Who is in the room on the final presentation? So for us, whether it’s a tracking piece of business, whether it’s a quick study that we do, concept testing that’s in and out, we try to ask those other questions because we want to make sure that any research we deliver Jamin, doesn’t just collect dust. We want it to be used. They’re spending, clients are spending a lot of money on these tools and on these management reports and from our standpoint, the companies that really are adding the most – where research is adding the most value, use the research and it’s a funny bit but now clients do that. There is a lot of client turnover and a lot of stuff just gets lost in the shuffle. So I think that’s really where the most value is today, right now.
I remember, I had a – this is a true story. I did a qualitative study for a client who will be unnamed and delivered the report and it was just this really tight two page executive summary. Took me three months of flying around the world doing the qualitative and I handed it to him, he looked at me and said – and dropped it on the table and said, it’s too light.
True story. So I had to then pull an inch worth of content. By inch I mean in terms of the number of pages and then it was adequate. So it was a completely different measurement than today.
Yes, no that’s funny.
Hey listen you do a lot of work with young professionals. What do you look for when you’re going to hire someone who is starting out and what skills do you think they should be focusing on developing?
Yes. So it’s funny because everybody has this lunch test now. Do I want to have lunch with the person across from me and if I do then maybe I’ll hire them and if I don’t, get them out of here quick. For me, one of the things I look for is a thirst for knowledge and if you have a thirst for knowledge, you will ask questions and you’ll listen to the answers and hopefully you’ll be able to process that and hopefully you’ll be able to really think about it, what it means to you in your job. I like to surround myself once we’ve hired people. I don’t want people to do their job. That’s what everybody wants. I want people to think about doing their job. So I want those extra two words at the beginning of the sentence to really apply because let’s think about it for a second Jamin, if you think about doing your job, what happens? Chances are you do a better job, you gain efficiencies. Chances are you’ll have a little bit more fun. Chances are you’ll deliver a better product. Chances are you’ll make everybody around you look a little bit better and everything is a win-win. But too many people don’t. The other question I have to answer and mine isn’t about can I have lunch with this person, although I love to have lunch, is are they trainable. Because no matter who comes into your enterprise you have to train them. You may want to tell me you only have to train them for three weeks as opposed to three months or two years. But you have to train them and if they think they know everything and they’re not trainable then it’s a no-go for me and recently in the last 90 days or so, we’ve really – when you make a bad hire it costs you a lot. If you hire somebody for $100,000 and you hire them for upwards of 6 months, well now you waste $50,000 plus benefits. So 20% and now it’s $60,000 plus expenses, etc. but it’s also the cost of doing business and the opportunity cost. So the reality we use something called the AcuMax Index, which tests – which is a quick survey. It takes about three minutes to do it and basically it’s a tool that tells you how people are wired in the environment that they work well within. How they communicate and how they like to be integrated within a company and it’s been a lifesaver. Everybody in the company has taken it, everybody we’ve interviewed has taken it, anybody we’ve hired in the last 3 to 4 months has taken it. We use it with clients of ours to pick teams based on communication styles because as know, all clients are a little bit different and it’s been an unbelievable tool. Now there’s about 250 of these tools in the country, this is one of the few that has wiring as part of the metric and the algorithm and it’s really worked well for us and it’s unbelievable. It’s already saved us a lot of money.
When you guys are hiring you think about the – hiring is a lot like a sales funnel, right? So you’ve got a vast number of people hopefully that are applying for a job and that kind of whittles down to those that have great resumes, etc.
How – what would you recommend – what are the key tools or what do you look for in that top of the funnel to help somebody get from an expressed interest into the job to actually get that interview?
Yes. I think – look for me, it’s a little bit about networking. I’m a big proponent as you know about LinkedIn. To me it’s the number one management tool out there that, oh by the way it’s free pretty much. In the world I don’t know how people – most people are doing their jobs without using all of that, utilizing LinkedIn. Now just level set, I do use it a time. I have almost 26,000 connections. So I think that for me and the people that we’ve hired, they’ve wrote a compelling quick email or they’ve referenced something in our business or they’ve referenced somebody in my inner circle or they come highly recommended. That will get my attention. That doesn’t mean it’s the sole purpose and the sole way you get my attention but you’re right. If I have 100 resumes that are coming in blind, it may only get five that get – but if I get ten resumes from Jaime or Steve Schlesinger, all ten will be reviewed, all ten will be talked about and all ten will be interviewed. Because I know that if you’re calling me or sending me an email or suggestion through a text that I need to interview Freddie or Sally, I know you’re thinking about the best interest of my company and I’m going to do that. That means you’ve seen something and that means a great deal to me. So that really is the number one thing.
Got it, networking critical.
Yes, it’s people plus having access to people like you and Kim Monston and Kathy Allen from Decision – Steve Schlesinger. All these executives who run companies who are all in different parts of the United States who come from different backgrounds who come across different resumes and different potential candidates. It really is another set or two or five of ten of eyes that really can help you move your business forward.
Right. Yes, that’s a good point. So when you started your career of course you were not a CEO of a major market research company. You entered the front door just like everybody else and now as you reflect back over that time, what is the biggest lesson that you learned?
Well I’ve got to tell you something. Being as old as me and being in the industry for 33, 34 years, there’s a lot of lessons. But I would say the biggest one is profits cover up problems and not too many years ago, we were flying high, couldn’t do anything wrong, it was unbelievable hitting. Every month was a new record. Whether it was revenue or profit, didn’t matter and I could sense that there were some things that were a little bit awry but when everything is going great, I didn’t react to a few things that I should have because they were covered up by profits and that’s been the biggest learning for me that will never happen again and it’s something that I think has been extremely valuable. So when things are going great, continue to make those strategy moves. When things are going great, continue to look at all your metrics. When things are going great, continue to improve on every single on them and continue to look for those efficiencies and don’t get complacent at all. So that’s what I would say.
There’s a lot of narrative around what is the role of market research in today’s world. Seems like it’s been evolving, maybe even displaced by some of the integration of what would be marketing research technologies inside of WordPress websites or what have you. What do you see as the biggest miss in the market research industry over the last five years?
Jamin, have you ever seen a – have your kids ever played or your niece or nephew ever played soccer? Right, as a –
Seven or eight, nine year old? So the ball goes to the left and what happens?
Everybody goes to the left.
Right and then the ball kicks across the field and it goes to the right. Then what happens
Same thing, everybody follows the ball.
So I just described to you the market research industry and the problem is that sentiment analysis, everybody go. Biometrics, go. itracking, go. Bid data, go. What’s next, artificial intelligence? Yes and the problem is that everybody gravitates, every single company out there gravitates to the next biggest thing and I think that’s a huge miss for a lot of companies and what I mean by that is you’ve got to have the right technology for your company, for your staff and for your clients and oh by the way, you’ve got to make money at it and if you can’t, do go after that piece of technology. I’m not saying don’t take technology and integrate it in your enterprise. I’m saying take the right technology that makes the most sense for your company. Don’t chase everything because if you chase everything, it’s going to be costly, you’re not going to understand what the deliverable is, you’re not going to be a guru in thing and it’s going to cost you money I guarantee it.
The lack of focus, big problem.
Yes. Well I think so.
Yes. Good. So looking forward now, what are you seeing as the major change and continuing your analogy of the grammar school soccer team, where is the – to Wayne Gretzky now, which is his famous quote I think is, I don’t go to where the puck is, I go to where it’s going.
Where is the puck going?
I think the companies that are going to have the most success are the companies that build products and services that are very quick, that are – probably have some type of automated or do it yourself platform that clients can react to quickly. What we as researcher probably all don’t understand or want to understand is that our clients are getting asked from the CMO or VP of marketing of brands, I need an answer to this problem now and now means yesterday. We don’t have the luxury anymore of 6 months or 8 months or 9 months. It’s now and the products and services that can meet those challenges, and I think there’s a lot out there but not as many as there could or should be, are really where the future is going to be and I think that my sense is that corporate departments are going to continue. I don’t see them growing a ton. I think some will but I think a lot of them are going to continue to streamline as they work through these product mix that’s going to be quicker delivery and be able to allow them to really move their business forward. So I think that’s what’s going to happen as well.
So kind of piggybacking on that, is there – are there specific products that M/A/R/C is pushing to help meet that demand?
Yes, I think – yes. We introduced a new product on the Zappi platform about 17 months ago. Actually Monday was our 17th month anniversary.
Thank you, thank you and we had our first client on day five, after we established a product and went live with the service. So we had our first client day five. I think we had three clients in the first three weeks. We had almost – we had a little shy of $100,000 revenue in the first month. So – and we’ve been on our way since. So I think for us it’s continuing to build some additional do it yourself, automated platforms that clients can really benefit from quickly, that are priced reasonably. Then that allow clients to get the insight that they need in their enterprise to move it forward right away. So we’ve got a couple more coming out in the next couple of months. So be on the lookout for them and I think that back in the day Jamin, we would all build products and not have a revenue stream for what, maybe 8 months, a year. You can’t do that anymore. I don’t have time, you don’t have time. We need to have revenue streams pretty quickly.
So are you building out technology internally or are you leveraging other providers that build out the tech?
Most of it is externally. We’ve done some – with Zappi we had a very successful hackathon that we were able to figure out a way which was very, very interesting because we did about 7 or 8 months of work in 6 days. We’re into the middle of nowhere in Texas and 21 people, 14 from them and 7 from us from I think – I don’t know, 12 different countries got together really in 9 miles past the middle of nowhere in Texas where internet didn’t really work and the phones didn’t work half the time and we built a product and were able to do that. So some is internal, a lot of it is external and it’s making sure that we’re picking the right partners to move our business forward.
Awesome. That’s all my questions, Merrill. Is there anything else you wanted to cover?
No. Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. This has been great, hopefully the answers will help some folks and I appreciate you having me as a guest today and we’ll talk to you soon.
All right, Merrill. Thank you very much and thank you everyone who is listening, hope you have a fantastic day. Bye-bye.
Today we are talking about tech and software. We are investigating the ways that market research should help to drive business decisions about app development. Here are the questions we answer:
- What are some simple do’s and don’ts that you can share?
- What makes software work?
- How do you determine value? Or, how do you figure out what people need and how to fill that gap?
- What are some ways that market research can be deployed to maximize what many companies are doing, especially in the app or web app space?
- Let’s say someone has the idea for the next big app. What sort of market research should they do before they even get started?
- What would you say to a company that has already created the app and they’re ready to take it to market? What are some key points to research as they prepare a launch strategy?
- And finally, what about for a company that has an app or web app for years. What can market research do for them, you know, with the ship fully out to sea?
This is a lesson I (Alexandra) learned from Jamin, a few years I started the Happy Market Research Podcast. At my previous job, you were advising a company about a product they were working on, which didn’t end up panning out. From there you taught us how to fail small on the next product they followed up with.
- What does it mean to “fail small”?
- What are some action steps that people can put into practice now to start learning about what works and what doesn’t today?
- What does “failing small” look like in the context of market research?
Today we are joined by Nihal Advani, CEO of Georama. Here are just a few of the topics we covered.
- Tell us a little bit about Georama, your product and what problem it addresses.
- Who is the ideal customer of Georama? Is it a brand or a market research agency?
- At its core, market research answers business questions. How is Georama improving that answer over the competition? Who do you see as your competitors?
- You have an impressive background. You’ve been at Google, at Microsoft. What are some of the biggest takeaways from your professional development that empowered you to launch your own business?
- Coming from the tech industry, what is your perspective on market research and the value it brings to your business?
- I understand that you had to a do a big pivot at Georama. Tell us about that transition. How did you determine when to make the change?
- What advice would you give entrepreneurs on when to make a pivot?
- How does MRx inform your product roadmap?
- What’s the biggest roadblock to new customers?
[00:00:00] All right, welcome back to the Happy Market Research podcast. Today we are joined by Nihal Advani. Did I get that last name correct, sir?
[00:00:11] Yes, you did.
[00:00:12] He is the CEO of a funly named company, Georama. Welcome sir and thank you very much for being our guest.
[00:00:20] Thanks for having me.
[00:00:23] I’ve just got a couple of questions for you. First of all, it’s an honor to be able to interview someone who’s in the beginning parts of their startup so to speak, entering into the market research space. I know it’s like a terrifying – [LAUGHTER] right? Yes, exactly a terrifying point and so I’m excited about this conversation. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about your company, your products and what problems you’re addressing.
[00:00:47] Sure. So the company’s name is Georama and what we do is we’re all about qualitative insights in real time. What we’re doing differently is that we’re helping researchers, whether that be brands or agencies remotely gather qualitative insights while people are in the moment. But doing that all live in that part of sense. Anywhere in the world can be using either smartphones, smart glass or even a 360 camera to share their perspective when they’re completely mobile in their natural environment. Whether that’s indoors doing an in-home activity or outdoors doing shopping and it allows the researchers to not just watch them live but actually interact in real time to probe them, essentially providing the only true digital parallel to be there in person. So that’s what we do in a nutshell. It’s all about deeper insights at global scale, faster and cheaper.
[00:01:30] Got it. So normally when you think about a buyer in market research there is qualitative buyers and there is quantitative buyers. So people that are doing the surveys and then there’s a group that’s wanting to do perhaps even both. What is your ideal customers?
[00:01:45] So for us of course it’s all qualitative. They may mix and match us with quantitative studies but we’re focused on the qualitative side of things and we actually work equally with brands and agencies. So there is many market research agencies we work with. We also work with design firms, we work with ad agencies as well at times. But we also work directly with brands. Whether that be CBG brands, retail brands, [INAUDIBLE] or even some pharma. The end result is anyone who is looking to get qualitative insights. Sometimes what happens with the brand is they want to do quick projects just themselves and our technology makes it more scalable so they can do that in-house if they want to, but many a times they are partnering with brands, whether our client is the agency and bringing the brand on board or our client is the brand and then bringing their agency of choice on board. It works either way.
[00:02:24] So can you give me or and the audience a specific use case? I’m actually really interested in one of the demos I saw where you had the glasses, the camera imbedded inside of the glasses. Maybe walk through what that project looks like from inception to final delivery.
[00:02:41] Sure. Think of let’s say a shopper study and I’ll give you the flow both for a smartphone as well as a smart glass, where someone can use our platform to create a project, set up what we call sessions. Which is essentially a live or recorded media interaction with participants and that session can be done through either smart phones, smart glasses or 360 cameras. Smartphones is of course the easiest logistically because they can simply download our app and go live. Smart glasses requires an additional step where we take care of it in that we ship the smart glasses and we get them back, but it allows you to be even more natural and hands free. Especially for certain types of activities. So in a shopper scenario you may have some pre-set tasks and questions. Things like please enter the store, please go to XYZ aisle, lease start shopping and talk aloud. What did you notice first and any few fundamental questions, just giving the participant some structure as to what to do and the flow of things. But the value of watching it live with our platform is that you can probe them and so on average what we’re finding is clients will set up 10 to 12 pre-set tasks and questions but then when watching live ask 60 to 90 additional questions, based on what the people are doing, saying, seeing, even they have maybe missing and therefore just getting really deep with these participants and when it’s with the smart glass it’s all done through audio. So they’re not looking at their phone, everything is done through voice where you can send voice message or any text messages as you send are converted to speech and heard by them and they can of course respond verbally versus with a smart phone they’re seeing these things on their screen. They even have the ability to tap on their screen if you want to throw in a small amount of quant. stuff in there as well. But yes, that’s how it works.
[00:04:12] Perfect. So getting all that data and video format, super exciting. The ability to be able to interact in real time also – this synchronous sort of qualitative is unique. But the other thing I thought was interesting about your platform is the reporting tool. So how you consolidate that data. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
[00:04:34] Yes, actually I should have mentioned earlier so thanks for bringing it up. One of the equally important things we do apart from helping with data capture is actually the AI. So as part of our vision of making quant. more scalable, one part of it is making it easy to capture natural data from anywhere, anytime. But the other part of it is to help analyze that data faster and present it faster. So everything we do automatically of course is recorded. Everything is automatically transcribed through a machine transcription and we have really custom modeled a whole bunch of stuff. So we have a very high accuracy in terms of translation and transcription. But beyond just that we are analyzing the text, analyzing what was said and seen and showing key words and themes and topics that were generated based on what was said, providing sentiment. Not just overall sentiment and emotions, just not overall but at the entity or at the moment level and also providing visual object and seeing recognition where you can actually just skip to the moment where in that same shopping scenario you could skip to when somebody was outdoors, indoors, at the shelf, considering the product and same thing with all your keywords. If you want to go to the moment maybe if they talk about price or they talk about problem of choice or whatever it may be, you could actually skip to those moments. It’s all culled for you automatically, very, very quickly so that you can skip to the moments that matter and once you do that you can actually drag and drop these moments into a visual presentation type tool that essentially lets you just drag and drop and create a video montage for each team. A bucket that you made for it. You just hit a button to generate a report and hit another button if you wanted to download it onto PowerPoint. So the end result is you’re getting from recruit to capture, to analyze, to present, much much faster with our platform.
[00:06:12] Yes, that’s perfect. I love the getting to moments that matter in qualitative. I’ve done qualitative for 2 decades. It’s just catastrophic in terms of the impact on time. If I do an hour worth of IDIs it’s probably two that I’m pouring back into it. Just trying to take out the pieces that are interesting. So yes, that’s a –
[00:06:33] Yes and a lot of the people we’re talking that sometimes they say it’s one to four. One hour of video is four and we’re now making one hour video less than one hour for it, because of our tool. Much less in fact.
[00:06:45] I’m just that much better than all those other – I’m just kidding.
[00:06:51] That is true, you are.
[00:06:52] Before starting Georama, you were at both Google and Microsoft. Which are big deals. So what are some of the big take aways you had while working at those companies that enabled you or empowered you to start Georama?
[00:07:06] Yes, you know I started off at both those companies and learned a ton as to how to deal with customers, how to manage customers, manage relationships. I was also in product roles by the end of it. Strategy roles, analysts. So I was in a bunch of roles all those years and kind of allowed me to deal with different types, manage people, understand how to deal with developers, cross country teams and so I took all of that when I was launching my company. That said no matter what you learn at a big company when you go to a small company, as I’m sure you’re aware of now, it’s a whole different ballgame. It’s just, you don’t have the budgets, you don’t have any planned equity. You’re just starting from ground zero and so a lot of stuff you learn in a big company actually just goes. It doesn’t really help in that environment because you’re building things from the ground up. So although you take some of those things and many of them help a lot, there’s a whole bunch of other things and a whole bunch of other challenges that you’ve never ever faced remotely even faced at a large company that you start to deal with in the small company and that’s really the hard part.
[00:08:06] Yes. You know, market research is interesting because obviously you’re servicing that industry. Did you apply market research in starting, as you started your business? Maybe you could walk us through really that journey.
[00:08:18] You know, I did but probably not enough for the first time around and we did make a big pivot in between and when did make that pivot, we made sure to do a whole bunch of research to make sure we pivoted the right way. But when we started we were doing a whole bunch of things wrong. Live video and the platform was used across things like inspections, education, from campus tours to virtual field trips to a whole bunch of different scenarios within mobile, live environments and although we had some success, things were not necessarily having the hockey stick goal that we were hoping for. So last year we sort of hit the reset button because we always had great technology, we probably perhaps just hadn’t found the right market yet and that’s when we did a whole bunch of research to figure out that, just turned out that research or customer insights was where our technology was most fit. Because previously we were helping people explore places remotely and now it’s all about helping people understand people remotely and so that’s sort of that pivot that we made.
[00:09:14] What advice would you give an entrepreneur who is just starting out?
[00:09:18] First, do your research so that you can try. Your business of course is always going to change, so do as much research as you can. Don’t waste too much time though because many a time it’s all about iterating and having that late start up mentality. But beyond that, pick something you love because this thing is not going to be easy. It’s going to be more stringent than you could have ever imagined, but as long as you have that passion, you have that persistence and then you have the ability to pivot, I think you’ll be in good shape. I call it the three piece of a startup and so that’s really what I think it takes.
[00:09:51] So being new to the marketing research – or relatively new I should say to the marketing research space, what were some of your early roadblocks to getting into customers and how did you address them, how did you know them down or how are you knocking them down now?
[00:10:05] Yes, I think one of the key things for any start up in any new space is just how you raise awareness and we’ve actually – we still have a long way to go but we’ve done a pretty good job in that we’ve used a couple different techniques. One is of course showing up at industrial conferences and we’re now going to start a whole thought leadership aspect of things. I think that’s one of the opportunities for us, but we actually use AI because we think of AI all the time to find a way to actually do sales of skill. Because we do have a small team we utilize especially on the business side. We have a much larger technical team than our business team and so we’re like, how can we reach more of these clients in a very personalized way even though we don’t have as many people who can be sending an email or making a phone call and so we’ve used AI based tools to actually reach out to a whole bunch of people and get our names out there and I’d say honestly over 90% of our clients or our pipeline come from very strategic email marketing through AI. So that’s been one of the things we’ve done really, really well that has helped us kind of get known but there is still a long way to go and getting your name out there, being in a space, having some nice clients that you can show in case studies you can show of course goes a long way.
[00:11:14] Do you have a head of marketing?
[00:11:17] We currently don’t. We actually just, going through a transition on that. So I’ve been closely involved on the marketing side. I do have a marketing background myself, but yes. We did recently, actually earlier this week hire somebody in the marketing department but we will having a head on top person as well.
[00:11:34] What do you see is the role of social media as it specifically applied to selling into marketing research?
[00:11:41] It’s interesting, they’re still speaking aloud in our past iteration of the company we did use social media quite a bit and did fairly well at it. Now we’ve started – yes, we’re kind of resetting our strategy but one thing I think is a good avenue is kind of using thought leadership [INAUDIBLE sounds like: or quick nuggets]. In fact, one interesting plan we have is leveraging our own technology to do quick qual research for hot topics interesting insights and actually using social and of course skewing more business social but any kind of social to kind of put out those insights there to not just give people some interesting things to think about so subtly promote how we did this so quickly through Georama. So that’s one of our strategies we’re about to put into place soon. I think social can be interesting, it just has to be done right considering it’s B2B and not just pure B2C.
[00:12:25] Yes, I think that’s a really interesting point that you’re making. When you move into social, the thing that I am finding is resonating is how the sausage is made as opposed to the actual sausage itself. So the behind the scenes application of your technology and how you gather that information is part of the narrative beyond just the Britney Spears did this silly thing or whatever the trending topic is. So certainly you can hack through and get some followers that way and eyeballs. That’s fantastic. I completely agree, but the other side of it that I think is interesting is as you narrate your story in social media while you guys are actually doing your projects, then internal then it starts giving the consumer an opportunity or a script to then follow and apply to their own workflows. Anyway that’s cool. I’m glad to hear you guys are thinking about that. That’s all I’ve got. Do you guys have any technology you want to highlight or anything coming up?
[00:13:23] Sure, yes one of the things is so far we’ve been focused on in the moment projects and that’s been great, but what we’ve realized is there’s so much more to qual. and so actually over the next month we’re about to very rapidly ramp up our capabilities and offer sort of across the gamut all kinds of qual groups and so a company, whether it’s a brand or an agency can now come to Georama starting next month for any type of qual. project. Whether that be an IDI, focus group type project or in the moment or a diary type study. So that’s a thing we have, the most exciting update that’s coming from Georama.
[00:13:55] Yes, perfect and I’ll go ahead and link all that in the show notes. So be sure to, if you’re listening to check out Georama and the appropriate links in the show notes. Sir, that is it for the Happy Market Research. I really appreciate your time today.
[00:14:10] Same here. Thank you so much.
[00:14:11] Have a great day.
Tell us a little bit about your background.
Jamin grew up on a farm in Visalia which taught him the grit of working hard. His father had the foresight to know that tech was going to set the future of industry and bought an Apple 2 for the family. He gave Jamin the opportunity to learn programming and tech, which he parlayed into a small web development business.
How did you end up in the market research space?
From the web dev jobs, Jamin was hired as a market researcher at a boutique firm where he met Jayme Plunkett. It was there that Jamin first realized that using the internet to distribute surveys would cut research time (and therefore cost) into a fraction of what it was before.
Why did you start Decipher?
Jamin is always looking for ways that tech can reduce time, difficulty, friction in daily lives. That first test of web delivered surveys was the seed of Decipher.
What does happiness mean to you? Why is the podcast titled Happy Market Research?
Jamin loves to have fun, and one of his favorite ways to spread joy is to provide that “aha” moment for clients. When they really understand what the data means for their business, they are able to make the right decisions.
What core belief is most essential to your worldview?
During a father-daughter dinner in Sacramento, Jamin noticed homeless people setting up camp for the night on the lawn in front of the capitol building. He pointed this out to his daughter and asked her, “Which would be better, to spend our money protecting and bettering our family or on the people out there?” Her response was that to spend it on the people out there is to spend it protecting their family. Making the world around you better, makes it better for oneself in the process.
What does market research really do for businesses? Why should businesses pay attention to it?
At core, market research facilitates answering a question. Businesses want to ask questions of their consumers. If you have millions, hearing them clearly becomes very difficult. That’s where market research comes in.
What is one of the biggest opportunities for market research?
Market research isn’t merely about finding the data and delivering it to the businesses. It’s also about interpreting it. As tech progresses, businesses have more, faster, and easier tools to directly access customer data. But market researchers have the training and background to deliver big insights — to be the “keepers of why”. We should continue to provide that and do it even better in the future.
Where are you now? What are you looking to do in the future?
Obviously Happy Market Research which has this podcast as well as MRx News. Happy Market Research also has a consulting arm. Jamin is also doing small tech and market research investments through Vine Venture Capital.