My guest today is Marian Anderson, Director at Microsoft. Microsoft Corporation a multinational technology company creates computer software, consumer electronics, personal computers, and related services. Prior to joining Microsoft in 2013, Marian held senior research positions at Harris Interactive, PSB Research and GfK.
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On Episode 203 of the Happy Market Research Podcast, I’m chatting with Marian Anderson, Research Director of Microsoft. But first a word from our sponsor:
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Hi, I’m Jamin Brazil, and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. My guest today is Marian Anderson, Director of Research at Microsoft. The Microsoft Corporation is a multi-national technology company that creates computer software, consumer electronics, personal computers, and related services. Prior to joining Microsoft in 2013, Marian held senior research positions at Harrison Interactive, PSB Research, and GfK. Marian, thanks so much for being on the Happy Market Research Podcast with me today.
Thanks, Jamin. Happy to be here.
Let’s talk a little bit about your backstory. So, you graduated from University of Utah with a degree in political science. How in the world did you wind up in market research?
Well, does anyone end up in research by….? [laughs]
I don’t think so. Literally, I’ve had one person say that they were interested in research pre-graduation and that only happened…. And this is literally after 47 interviews… And that happened only months before their graduation. [laughs]
I don’t know that I know a single person. That I find interesting in and of itself. Politics was it for me. I was very, very interested in what motivated political behavior and political strategy. I had the opportunity right out of undergrad to go work for Mark Penn and work on political messaging, doing political polling. Honestly, I was interested in working in politics in any strategy regard. It happened to be polling that the opportunity presented itself, and that started my research career. And I haven’t looked back. I was only involved in the political side for a couple of years before it became really clear to me that – at least working with Mark Penn, as a very young researcher, I got zero access to clients and high-level strategy on the political side, but he would let me loose on the corporate-strategy side. It was, “Go figure it out. Go advise. Go get involved on the corporate. Go see what you can build.” So I moved over to the corporate-strategy side of research within my first couple of years and then consulted for many, many years. Harrison Interactive really focused on brand strategy and positioning research, which is kind of my first love in research, and it really is the same in political research. That may be why I love it so much… is that building a brand is building a brand, whether or not you’re talking a political candidate or any given product out there. I was with Harrison Interactive a number of years and then I had the opportunity to build the Microsoft business on behalf of GfK. And I moved to Seattle at that point to build up that business… did that… and then moved over to Microsoft five years ago.
And it’s interesting too that… I believe Mark Penn wound up as an executive at Microsoft at one point.
He did. So not long ago… I joined Microsoft in 2013; in 2014 or so, Mark Penn came to be co-CMO of Microsoft. He did that for maybe 18 months; him and Tami Reller had this co-CMO job. I found it very strange then and still do that we had this co-CMO thing happening. And it was very strange to have Mark Penn back in my world. Then he then moved on to become our Chief Strategy Officer; he did that for maybe a year. (I’m probably not getting my timelines quite right.) And then he moved on. It was coming full circle in a way for me from starting my career to being pretty well established in my career and having Mark back.
As the month of January for us is rolling out in 2019, the topic is Customer Experience, which is a center point in the Microsoft Corporation. My tenure with this brand, your brand, by the way, is very long, and it was literally back in the DOS days. And I still remember the very first version of Windows. I can literally recall where I was sitting when I installed it. Microsoft has built a strong brand on Customer Experience. How is Microsoft using data specifically to help drive and deliver on that experience?
It’s been such an amazing evolution, even in the five years that I’ve been here. The way that we have integrated data in ways that I don’t think we’d ever really done before. Microsoft for a very long time by having smart people and building really good products and then simply our size and scale allowed momentum to go from there, of course, with the very strong vision of having a computer on every desk. Even in the five years I’ve been at Microsoft, the focus on, not just customer experience, but really truly empathy for our customers and understanding what is happening for them and really becoming a company that is interested in operating on behalf of the customer as opposed to simply building something so that they can buy it. It’s a really interesting cultural shift that of course has driven. It shows up every single day in the data space. In order to be customer-centric, in order to build customer experiences, of course, data comes in at every point. We do a lot more… So, market research, in particular, has grown substantially in the sense that we no longer are looking at one source of data almost ever; we are looking at many sources of data, usually to help drive strategies. That means, of course, traditional, kind of qualitative or ethnographic methods. We tend to be very quant heavy here in terms of market research but now are bringing things in like internal telemetry – what people are actually doing on their machines. External kind of telemetry that we purchase so that we can understand what’s happening with competitors in terms of what customers are doing. Then we’re bringing in things like motivations we see show up in social research or what’s happening with revenue and how that’s tied to what people telling us how they feel about a certain thing. We’re much better, for example, about not just measuring satisfaction, overall experience level with a given product, but at a micro-experience. “What was the satisfaction level of that thing you just did?” All of that has happened in the last five years. We really have evolved from an important source of customer data to an aggregator, if you will.
That’s multi-sourced really, isn’t it?
It’s SO hard, and we’re learning and we’re… It’s hard to do it at this scale and pace that is needed to drive the most important business decisions we have. To be honest, that’s been such a privilege to be part of that journey at a company that is so… The amount of data at our finger tips is just unlike anything I’ve certainly ever been part of before.
The story of Microsoft is super-interesting, right? I was actually in high school when Microsoft went public. It had a really crazy ratio between millionaires and employees. I want to say that it was about 1 to 5. I’m not positive about that. That’s just what I recall. So, anyway, the point there being – it really was a product-market-fit story of there being this massive need and Microsoft being the dominant player to be able to meet it. And then just…BOOM! To your point, let’s built stuff that we can then sell. Moving that mentality… if you saw it over time, sort of a degradation in the stock price of Microsoft with the new leadership and focus on the customer (empathy, as you said) all of a sudden really pushing that trajectory completely in the opposite direction with fantastic returns for shareholders by putting the customer in the center. That shift… I’m really interested in. It’s one of the reasons that Reed Hastings has done so well at Netflix, having this customer-minded mentality as opposed to more of the unwillingness to change. I know you’ve been there for only five years, but has there been any practical steps that Microsoft has taken in order to install this shift or has it been more investment-based such as things like research?
Sure, it is investment-based, but that’s more of an outcome in the desire to have a voice in the room that is not the executive team, meaning the customer. And there is much more openness to customers having alternative opinions, shall we say, than what the executive team might have thought coming into something. So there’s a lot of discussion that happens where the question is “What is the need?” “What is the desire?” “What is the problem we’re solving?” Frankly, a lot of people being given permission to try things… You know the X-box adaptive controller is a really good example of this. That was a small crack team of people who really believed that we needed an accessible option for gamers. They worked for several years, trying to drive that product. They were given the permission and the space to figure that out. It was a “Absolutely, we’re going to go do this.” It was a small group of people given the permission to try and to fail and to try again. It’s been an absolute success story for us in terms of making sure we’re developing products that allow everyone to play and to game, to be part of the conversation. I think really at its core it’s allowing all employees to have a voice that I don’t think was important before. In that, we’re gaining so much. In the employees having a voice, of course, customers come through, and there’s a demand for data and a demand for understanding what the customer experience is that’s never been present before, certainly not in my experience.
It’s interesting how when you’re in an executive-based decision versus a customer-based decision. In one case, the first case, on the executive-based, the research (and this is really coming from my background, specifically in the 90s in primary research)… You’d have your business hypothesis that the research was supposed to “Is it true or not true?” or get to. But, at the end of the day, it was really about “How can I make that true?” I’ve had more than a few examples in my career where I’ve had executives say, “No, it’s really important that the answer is blue or whatever.” You wind up crossing some tough ethical lines in that context as opposed to when you put the consumer in the middle of it. Now, all of a sudden, you need a lot more data in order to triangulate their truth. Because just with social media being where it is now empowered in a large part with your corporation, you’ve got a major move from brands used to be who they say they are to now they are who their consumer says they are – and by the way – in real time. Sure as hell, better stop paying attention to your rear view mirror and start paying attention to what’s happening right in front of you.
Absolutely. Do think there are decisions that get made that are based on a belief in the future that is not always based on research? I think those are still important bets for us to make. When you’re thinking three or five years out and you’re really trying to extrapolate what customers can’t tell you today or can’t articulate for you today, those conversations are really important to make sure research informs but that there is a larger conversation happening with technical teams, with executive teams etc. about those longer-term, strategic decisions. I think when it comes to shorter-term decisions, that’s where the feedback from customers really shines: How we should approach a given feature; how we should approach a set of messaging, pricing decisions, etc. even short-term portfolio decisions, brand-strategy decisions. What we’re going to do, for instance, with Skype versus teams in the Office portfolio. All those things use data and multiples of data in ways that just would not have happened five or ten years ago.
That’s a really important point, which is innovation rarely… The Ford quote, right: “If I ask customers what they want, it would just be a better horse.” That’s a 100% correct. It’d be a better version of DOS, not the transformation that Windows brought to the marketplace. But, to your point, that innovation has to be grounded in where the consumer is. That’s one of things that we can learn from Steve Jobs when he launched the Newton, which you’re probably not old enough to remember. But there was this sort of pre-iPhone product that entered the market (I want to say around ’92) and it was, basically, early into the digital assistant space. And it didn’t do very well at all because the market simply wasn’t ready for it. So you need to have that bed of data in order to test the business hypotheses, which then, of course, you see in whatever – 2006 – the iPhone, of course, having tremendous success.
And you also need to be ready I think, as a company, to go ahead and watch things and try them and have failures in the market. You see companies doing this consistently: the Newton’s a good example. We’ve certainly had examples; we’ve tried it and decided it didn’t work. I think that’s part of the culture of technology and making sure we’re pushing forward. “Are consumers ready for this?” or, in our case, “commercial audiences, ready for this or not?” And just taking a leap and launching something – there’s real value in that. Test and learn and at scale as well.
I like that. So, that’s a great segue into my next question, which is really centered around voice assistance like Amazon’s Alexa or Microsoft’s Cortana. How do you see that space evolving and impacting customer experience?
I really see voice as just another channel, by which people interact with their laptops or their homes or in their cars. It enables a layer of communication that is really helpful, but it is just that. It is a tool; it is not a tool, in my mind, different than typing or text. For me, it fits into a portfolio “Ways we are going to communicate with the world around us.” In and of itself, I suppose that’s how a feel about it.
I think that’s true from the view of a way we interact with technology. What’s interesting to me is the opportunities that exist inside of these personal assistants. For me, the conversation is turning a lot more into Star Wars vs. Star Trek [laughs] where you’ve got Star Wars R2-D2 or C-3PO thing that is traveling with me whether that’s the mobile phone or desktop or whatever it is. That individual versus the Star Trek where it’s this sort of always on voice connection. Adoption seems to be primarily centered around music and audio content versus more of the real power of it, which is business-based time saving. You know what I mean like scheduling meetings across two people: just like what we put together in doing this podcast. It DOES seem to me like there are lots of opportunities for betterment of life in time-saving benefits but it’s, to your point, more in the context of instead of typing, I’m saying the words as opposed to it being more of a platform.
I don’t view it as a platform. It certainly enables a lot of things; for instance, the AI behind so much of the voice stuff is no different than what would be required if I asked the same question via text. It allows different… It’s a modality. I do think that there’s something about the real-time nature of it that is interesting. I find myself… For instance, I probably use Alexa a little bit differently maybe than some like I will ask her constantly to add things to my to-do list. I’m at home, walking around. It’s a helpful way to get things out of my head. I find myself wanting to interact with her almost constantly. Like I’m on my way to work: “Oh, Alexa. Oops, Alexa’s not here right now.” You know.
Totally, totally. Believe me I’m a week away from 48, and I get that creature-habit thing more than ever. It feels like every year it’s a little harder to change. I even tried my hand at Snapchat for almost a year and a half, and I just have finally given up entirely. It doesn’t feel organic to me, I guess, is how I’d put it. The one thing that’s also interesting: I had my daughter at the time, she was – I want to say 8. She’s now 11. So, I bought her an iPhone, and we were on a drive together. I asked her about her best friends, and she said, “I have two best friends.” I said, “Oh, that’s cool. Who are they?” “One is Hannah; the other is Siri.” Now, she’s a little bit of a witty child; I thought she was making a joke. But, as I was diving deeper in, she literally didn’t understand that when she’d called her friend Hannah and then she would call Siri, it was like one was a robot. One was an AI based voice assistant. It was crazy for me processing that as a dad, thinking, “Holy, shit, there’s a big potential shift that could happen here. Is this a real human being or not?” Then to your point about now the overall opportunity to interact with that thing becomes all the time, doing all sorts of stuff for me, across different environments, whether I’m driving to work or whatever.
That’s fascinating that’s how she thinks of Siri.
Yeah. She’s matured past that now, of course. I mean it was 100% all in. I didn’t have the heart to tell her it wasn’t real. It took me a couple days to figure out how to have that conversation.
Right. A conversation you never thought you’d have. [laughs]
Right, exactly. As you think about all these different sources of consumer insight – from social to transactional – how do you combine all of that? Is the data stream feeding into a dashboard or is it in some proprietary BI?
Oh, gosh. I wish there was one easy answer to that.
It’s just a lot of different data sources, right?
Yes, and so, in some cases, we are fortunate enough to have customer data connected on an individual level. We can see what people are doing, the revenue it’s generating. And then you use that to research that population. That is a very rare case of… Actually, it’s one massive data set that we have that allows us to do that. And then on top of that, we build things like power BI and whatnot. But having the connections at an individual level, it’s hard, and it is equally valuable. There seems to be a correlation between how difficult it is and the value it brings when it comes to merging these types of data. And then, of course, we’re doing things journalistically as well. I think the rule is we never want to look at anything in isolation, not based on one piece of data. Where we can be more sophisticated about it, and I’ve gone in order (most sophisticated to least sophisticated)… When it is simply bringing together two or three or four sources together kind of journalistically, that is far better and far more valuable.
When I think about… I love this term; I’ve never heard this term before: “journalistically.” There’s two parts of it, right – I guess there’s three. You’ve got the sourcing; so, you’ve got all the disparate pieces of data. And then it’s got to get analyzed (magic happens there). And then the story has to get told. That’s the other part. It’s a differentiation. Then I would put in the normal research camp. Is storytelling a big part of the focus?
Yeah, all that influence. I don’t think you can influence truly without having a point of view told via story. Storytelling is huge. Frankly, it’s one that we’re struggling with a little bit as we think about bringing all these sources of data together. Like it is not enough to throw a dashboard together or rather, for the most important decisions that we’re really trying to be at the table for and influence, throwing a power BI on board and having the room look at it is not sufficient.
I think one of the terms I’ve heard, and I use a lot, is HI. So, it’s that Human Intelligence. We’re going to see a bigger focus on that in an intentional way over the coming years as technology continues to automate different pieces and then also continues to give us more confusion or opportunities (is a better way of saying it) to see the consumer, whether it’s voice in real time or whatever, those consumer experiences. What is one of the biggest challenges that internal researchers like you face and then how do you see or what do you wish agencies would do in order to help meet that need?
For me, indisputably, it is the combination of multiple data sources and decisions that need to get made at speed. Frankly, trying to get a piece of research done quickly to make a decision, in say 48 hours is hard. Trying to get a piece of research done quickly and then layer in multiple other sources of data is exponentially harder. We aspire to that; we want to be at the table where real-time decisions get made, and we’re able to be strong strategy consultants on those decisions. So it is just a constant pressure of “What’s the right data to bring into the table?” “How do you bring it to the table?” “What’s the story?” And then agencies are frankly such critical partners and extensions of our team; without them, we just simply cannot be successful. And we really rely heavily, heavily on our partners to execute the research, to really get interested in the business problems with us. Our partnerships are most successful is when our partners feel as invested the strategic decision as our FTE team does, and they’re in it, trying to figure out the right sources of data, bringing into the table brainstorming. The other thing that, I think, is really helpful is oftentimes when we’re working at speed like that, I find that creativity in how to solve a problem does not always emerge. And I think that that’s a problem. So to the extent that our agencies can help us be creative in how we solve or answer questions, I think that’s something we’re always looking for in our partners.
To make decisions, it’s faster and faster, and that’s one of the neat things that we’ve all seen in the industry is that, through technology and power-data collection, anybody can do a survey now. So the table stakes have really completely changed, leveled up for market research of being whatever it is that we need to be able to do and, of course, triangulating that point of consumer truth at scale is super-hard and we have to do it faster. So that where I think that pattern recognition at the HI level becomes really important.
You know it’s interesting that anyone can do a survey. I mean the tools are certainly there. For me, this is where the storytelling and understanding the “why” and really understanding that whoever your survey population is they can tell you so much and you need to derive so much from it. You need to connect it to other things to really understand what’s driving the thing
One of things that we did not talk a lot about in 2017 on the Happy Market Research Podcast is the way the guests processed risk and were willing to take risks. As I did a lot of reflecting and listening to the episodes, I think in 2018 part of the story needs to be risk tolerance, especially in the framework of research. I would love if you would tell us about a time in your career where you had to take a specific risk and then sort of how you coped with the anxiety, if you had any at all, around that risk in order to take the chance, overcome it, and, hopefully, it has a positive outcome.
Yeah, totally. I think oftentimes in taking a risk, you just have to go in blindly believing that you can figure it out. And if you have that belief, then ultimately something will get figured out; it may not be what you originally intended. I remember very distinctly Chris Cap, our CMO, saying, “Figure out where we suck.” I had no idea where to start… I had no idea where to start. So the first thing I did was we said we’d go figure it out; I wasn’t going to commit to how or when or whatever. It ended up being probably eighteen months of really hard analysis; many, many rounds of focus groups; and maybe three rounds of serious quantitative work before we figured out not only where we sucked but why we sucked and what we needed to do about it. For me, the risk there was not promising I could do it and not promising it in any given time frame. It’s very easy for us as researchers certainly, whether you’re on the client side or the agency side, to say, “Yep, I’m going to do it. I’m going to do it in this time frame.” In this case, I committed to it but without a time frame and 18 months later we had it and we had a campaign entirely written around a new audience and launched which is the AI campaign that you see on the internet.
There’s a degree of… It sounds like two things. One is honesty/humility; and then the other piece of it is successful expectation-setting around that.
That might be the most important. The most important for any job ever is setting expectations appropriately. Yeah, absolutely. There are other risks I could point to, but that one was… I felt like my career was on the line. You know when the CMO says, “Find out where you suck,” and you don’t have an immediate answer…
Right, you had to come up with the answer. [laughs]
Oh, yeah. There was a lot of [unclear – overlapping voices]
It’s not great; it’s not great. [laughs] I immediately start sweating in that scenario.
It’s also in retrospect… I was confident we could figure it out, and I’m probably proudest of that particular journey, in part, because it was truly a beginning-to-end journey. We did not know where we were going at the beginning; by the end, we had full creative launched. It was just an absolute privilege to be part of that. Many moments of sleepless nights for sure!
Right. [laughs] Totally. Sounds like a fun project, stressfully fun project. So, talk to me a little bit about the three characteristics of an All-Star Employee from your career view. I’m interested. It could be like at Microsoft or, if you feel like you’d rather talk about a different… if there’s different characteristics in different contexts, that’s fine too. But what do you see as really the three core values or characteristics of somebody who’s going to be successful in their career.
So, I don’t think this is unique to Microsoft although it certainly applies to our team. I think the first one is an inherent curiosity, just curious. I find that folks that are just constantly asking questions and trying to figure out why – whether or not that be around a customer or around any other given problem… I think that that is an unteachable quality. Along with that comes sudden judgment on when to take that curiosity forward and when to stop. That would be the second thing. And then the third thing is a healthy sense of autonomy. “I’m going to go figure this thing out.” Of course, that has to come with clarity of direction, and it has to come with some energy behind it from the leadership, etc. but autonomy to go figure things out. Again, curiosity sort of bounded by its action and then someone who’s willing to take those actions responsibly and appropriately and maybe even push a little bit beyond that. Certainly, it an organization like Microsoft, any large organization, where hierarchy is just part of the daily thing, I find that people that are willing to push just a little past what’s hierarchically appropriate are far more effective than folks that are like, “Nope, that’s above my pay grade.” Having the ability to take those risks and say, “Yep, that’s not above my pay grade. I’m here for a reason and I can do that.” Those are the people, I think, are great. I find that true every place I’ve ever worked.
I love that: curiosity, judgment, autonomy/self-motivation; that’s really the engine, I think, that drives a successful outcome for a person’s career. You need to operate successfully inside of the hierarchy of the organization, of course but, at the same time, you also need to have a culture of “Yes” among yourselves so that you can bleed into the starts and finishes of specific projects and workflows in order to really understand the output that you’re working on generating, for example.
Exactly, exactly. And sometimes you have to do that not in a culture of “Yes.” You sometimes just have to believe in the thing you’re doing. And you cannot always look for that external validation; hopefully, you’ll get it. But I think pushing forward and, in some cases, pushing past the hierarchy, even if you know you’re taking a risk in doing so, is often worth the risk. Of course, doing it appropriately and within the bounds of being kind and polite about it.
Definitely wrapping things up in the context of appropriateness is super-important if you’re going to get heard but, at the same time, you got to take those risks.
My guest today has been Marian Anderson, Director of Research at Microsoft. Thank you so much for joining me today on Happy Market Research Podcast.
Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.
Stay tuned for this episode’s CEO hack by Merrill Dubrow of M/A/R/C Research.
You’ve got to be self-aware, and you’ve got to be able to allow yourself to have self- evaluation and trust people around you. 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 ______.” So the interesting thing – you mentioned my blog for ten years, which I did three times a week and I wrote every one 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. I was able to – through this self-aware, self-evaluation – understand that, know that, surround myself with people who could help me through that. They didn’t rewrite the stuff: they just made sure that it made sense. So for me, the #1 skill is 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.
This point that Merrill brings out is, in my opinion, the most important hack or skill that you can develop as a leader, and that is be humble enough to recognize you have blind spots and bolster, surround yourself with people that can help see those blind those spots. I would say that, if I’ve had any success in life, it’s because of this one principle. So, thinking about my relationship with Irvine Andreasen, the first co-founder of Decipher, also Jamie Plunkett and Kristin Luck, all three of those were strategic add-ons to Decipher that helped me as a leader to have a fuller, more complete picture of the marketplace. We each consume and process and retain less than 3% of what actually transpires. That’s why having more views of that same environment or that same experience is really helpful because it helps triangulate what is actually happening, what is truth. I also point out that it isn’t enough just to have the visibility; you also have to have the will to accept that you don’t have the complete view. It’s a subtle difference, but it is probably one of the biggest impacts if you can be open to adjusting your point of view, based on that external feedback. That quid pro quo can be a fundamental area of strength for you as you build your team because not only will it help you make the best possible business decisions, it’ll also garner trust and respect by your team and transparency, which will again sort of self-promote and police this culture of a complete view and a better answer, which creates a better business outcome.
Thanks everybody for listening to today’s episode of the Happy Market Research Podcast. An absolute privilege – we are honored that you would be willing to spend so much time with us. I hope you have a fantastic rest of your day. Please, please, please share this episode on the platform of your choice. If you would just tweet it or if you would take the time to post it on Linkin, it would mean the world to us.
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