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

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

Find Phil Online:

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/philahad

Website: www.toluna-group.com 

Find Jamin Online:

Email: jamin@happymr.com

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/jaminbrazil

Twitter: www.twitter.com/jaminbrazil 

Find Us Online: 

Twitter: www.twitter.com/happymrxp 

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/company/happymarketresearch 

Facebook: www.facebook.com/happymrxp 

Website: www.happymr.com 

This Episode’s Sponsor: 

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


[00:00]

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

[00:08]

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

[01:32]

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

[02:02]

Thanks for having me. 

[02:03]

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

[03:18]

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

[04:21]

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

[05:23]

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

[06:46]

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

[07:28]

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

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

[09:16]

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

[10:08]

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

[10:12]

You know, that’s okay. 

[10:15]

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

[11:32]

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

[11:44]

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

[12:45]

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

[13:20]

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

[14:28]

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

[16:21]

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

[17:52]

Only 17! 

[17:53]

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

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

[19:20]

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

[20:11]

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

[21:21]

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

[21:59]

You mean panel size or…? 

[22:01]

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

[22:28]

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

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

[24:15]

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

[24:59]

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

[25:04]

I’m not.  

[25:05]

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

[25:35]

That’s right. It’s an empty house.

[25:36]

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

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

[28:00] 

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

[28:53]

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

[28:59]

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

[29:04]

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

[30:07]

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

[31:25]

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

[31:58]

Wow! Congratulations. 

[31:59]

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

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

[33:35]

Well, it’s not a test. That’s fine. 

[33:37]

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

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

[35:30]

You think like part of the…  As I reflect on my time in FocusVision, I’ve often wondered if I would have been better off having the individual brands maintain autonomy—kind of like the Google to YouTube, right—versus the single umbrella. I’m not second guessing my decisions. I just wonder, “Oh, would that have been an interesting…?”  Do you think that that sort of framework, is that something that you guys think has a place in the future or is it more of the just the bigger bolt-on brand? 
[36:03]

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

[36:50]

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

[37:34]

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

[39:22]

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

[39:44]

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

[40:46]

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

[41:11]

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

[41:14]

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

[41:29]

Thanks, Jamin.  Take care. 

[41:30]

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

[41:48]

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

Have a great rest of your day.