This episode is in partnership with MrWeb’s Insight in the Mobile Age segment and was recorded in February 2020.
My guest today is Ross McLean, Co-Founder, Executive Director at Over the Shoulder.
Over the Shoulder was founded in 2010 as a qualitative technology platform for diary-like studies. On December 9th, 2019, Over the Shoulder announced its sell to 20|20. 20|20 is headquartered in Nashville, with an office in Denver and top-rated qualitative facilities in Nashville, Charlotte, and Miami.
Prior to co-founding OTS, Ross worked on the marketing agency side where he oversaw brand strategy on brands including Kraft Mac & Cheese, Jello, Lunchables, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and State Farm.
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Jamin: Hi, I’m Jamin. You’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. My guest today is Ross McLean, co-founder, executive director at Over the Shoulder. Over the Shoulder was founded in 2010 as a qualitative technology platform for diary-like studies. On December 9th, 2019, Over the Shoulder announced its sell to 20/20. 20/20 is headquartered in Nashville with an office in Denver and top-rated qualitative facilities in Nashville, Charlotte, and Miami. Prior to co-founding OTS or Over the Shoulder, Ross worked on the marketing agency side, where he oversaw brand agency strategies for big companies, including Kraft Mac & Cheese, Jello, Lunchables, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and State Farm. Ross, thanks so much for joining me on the Happy Market Research Podcast today.
Ross: Thank you for having me. Very happy to be here.
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Ross: Yes. So I read ahead, and I knew this question was coming, so I thought about it a little bit. So my dad, he was a marketing guy for a big company in Canada, and I think I learned a lot through just observations and hearing his stories and hearing him discuss what that world was sort of like and how it worked. But I think, you know, I tried to boil it down a little bit more, and I think the thing that affected me most that he taught me was probably empathy. He was very, very big on hold your temper. Don’t ever judge anyone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes, and you really need to understand the perspective of somebody else, even if it’s difficult, even if it’s kind of objectionable, so that you can understand where their head’s at, and you can go forward. So I think yeah, that’s a form of empathy that’s just sort of stuck with me, and made me really curious about consumers and made me really curious about why people do the things that they do, sort of stuck with me for life.
Jamin: As I’ve gotten older, I’ve connected a little bit more on a political base, kind of across the spectrum. Your point about being basically trying to be less judgmental and more empathetic is one that’s really poignant here in the US right now going through an election cycle. So when you think about that, applying empathy specifically to insights, we still are required to come up with a recommendation from those insights, right?
Jamin: So how do you see empathy playing into research?
Ross: I think it’s fundamental. I mean I have spent my career on the- more on the qualitative side than the quantitative side, and I think specifically for qualitative. I mean it’s an empathy-based process. What you’re leveraging to get people to tell you their stories is empathy, and what you’re trying to achieve is hearing it- enough from their perspective that you can get, even if they disagree with you, you understand exactly how they feel and why they think that way. And it’s crucial because when it comes down to marketing, I’ve always thought you can’t cynically market anything to anybody. You’ve got to know them, have a little love and a little respect for the people that you’re talking to, and if you do that, you’re just going to naturally be much better at connecting with them and being able to say things that are going to be meaningful, being able to do things that are actually going to be helpful for them. So I think it all kind of starts with empathy really.
Jamin: Do you have like a moment or an example, some of the brands that you were working with, where they leveraged empathy to connect with a consumer?
Ross: Yes. Definitely. I mean usually if you’re succeeding it’s because you’re leveraging empathy on some level. It’s usually that’s what’s at the root at it, and I’ve definitely been in situations where we really just had a big advantage over our competitors because we knew our consumers and knew their worlds and knew their stories much better than anybody else. So I’ve seen how advantageous that is. I’ve also worked in places where people were cynical about their target audiences and about their brands and about their products, and I’ve seen people really sort of flounder because they didn’t have empathy and didn’t- you know, sometimes didn’t even seem to want it. I think it’s essential if you want to interact with people and you want to build bonds and connections with them. I don’t know another way of doing it.
Jamin: What brand do you think today is doing a really good job of executing on empathy? Like for me, it’s like Coca Cola does a hell of a good job of communicating. Their Coke commercials are really never about Coke. They’re all about the moments that people enjoy the- it’s all about the experience, right? And then Coke happens to have a seat at the table, or it’s almost like product placement. It’s really funny, and yet, the moments that are being communicated in those coke commercials are always very meaningful, where there’s something like first kiss or a wedding night or whatever, right? It’s like these big sort- or hanging out with friends or poker game, right? So there’s this- is that an example of how empathy would be played out at a brand level?
Ross: Yeah, to me, it’s a really good one, and I think coke has been doing a really good job for a very long time. I mean I remember when we were growing up, Coke and Pepsi were vying for the title. 49%, 51% kind of thing. And Coke has done a great job of really understanding their brand, really understanding their consumers, and understanding how they fit into people’s lives and where they’re welcome and where they fit, what they can do, and just amplifying those kinds of moments. And not just in their advertising, but in their packaging and promotions and all of their digital stuff. They just come from a place where they know what they’re about and they know what their consumers are about. They’re not really self-conscious, so they do it in a way where they’re not appearing to try to please a certain type of consumer. They’re just saying here’s what we are, and here’s what we’re about. Do you want to buy into it? But really they know that the answer is yes because they understand those consumers pretty darn well.
Jamin: Yeah, and you see that also with Nike, taking stance- more social stances, and other key brands making more social stances. Where they’re really in a lot of ways by declaring what they’re not, they’re also declaring what they are, and that allows this almost rally cry or umbrella for their customers to be able to rally behind or get underneath.
Ross: Yeah. I don’t think that’s always the answer. I don’t think that the sort of rallying cry and the claim to sort of higher ground is always the way to go. I mean it’s very in the last decade in marketing, just about everything is switched to what’s your cause, what do you stand for, put it out there and let people decide if they want a part of it or not. But I think it’s definitely valid. I mean people, especially in spaces where you have less and less differentiation between products, you can create, maintain loyalty, and maintain relationships and profitable relationships with consumers just by saying it in a way that fits more closely into how they view the category or that just resonates with how they feel about what they’re trying to do and it can be turned into a really powerful advantage.
Jamin: We talked about your dad. What about your mom?
Ross: So my mom was a stay-at-home mom, raised four kids, and I think did a fantastic job, but I would be pretty biased in that. But she was great, and as I thought about that, I think she’s the one who taught us all perseverance and persistence in the sense that she was very, very good at, hey, you know what? Life’s gonna knock you on your backside from time to time. You need to be good at picking yourself up and dusting yourself off and feeling all right about yourself and going and hitting it again. So that was- that’s something that’s really stuck with me, and that’s a pretty powerful thing because you- I mean you get into a space where you’re trying to build things or innovate things or have ideas. You’re gonna get friction, and you’re gonna get- everyone’s not just gonna roll over and go your way. You have to be able to go, all right, that didn’t work so well. What can I learn from this? What can I change? And let’s get right back up there and get going. So I think a lot of that comes from my mom.
Jamin: So OTS. Probably some- definitely some of our audience has heard of Over the Shoulder. Maybe you can give us kind of the elevator pitch.
Ross: Yes. Well, you know what, I’ll give you the backstory because I think sometimes the backstory is better at sort of giving a real sense of who we are and what we’re trying to do. So I always so, you know, this company was started ten years ago, 11 years ago. I started thinking about it 11 years ago. I think we only started it about ten. But it was started by a bunch of strategists and qual researchers and ethnographers. And up to that point, until about 2008, 2009, when smart phones kind of exploded onto the scene, we spent a lot of time doing traditional style qualitative focus groups and interviews, and occasionally, we’d be able to do ethnographies. But ethnographies are expensive and time-consuming, and so you just don’t get to use them the way that you might like to. But we always wanted to do ethnographies because we felt like when we get out into the world and we see these moments and see these experiences and see people’s lives from their own perspective, as opposed to pulling them into a focus group and having them describe their world, if we can actually see part of their world and be in it in some way, we always learned more and we empathized more and we got much more powerful stuff. But traditional means don’t let you really do that, but when smart phones came along, we said oh my gosh, that’s- everyone’s gonna have one of these. They’re gonna be carrying them 24/7, and someone needs to write the software that will allow us to ride along in people’s pockets and purses and interact richly with them and qualitatively but in the moment and over time. I remember doing a project, and it was a crazy one. It was for a restaurant, big sort of middle American restaurant chain, and one of their things was what does mid-week dinner look like for our target audience right now. And they didn’t know. And so we did a project where we put together all of these FedEx envelopes into which we stuffed self-addressed FedEx envelopes with flip cameras and SD cards and envelopes that said things like don’t open this up until you’re just about to sit down and have dinner one night this week, just to try and get- desperately see what’s going on in those people’s worlds. And someone’s Blackberry was sitting there, and I remember just going wow. You know what? The world’s probably not- probably can’t do it yet, but this process is gonna be massively more powerful when we’re doing it instead of by FedEx back and forth, we’re doing it through the devices that people are carrying with them as they live their regular lives. So that was really- it just started that practically, and you know, we went out there, realized, OK, well, there isn’t software that does that. So we kind of took a flier and pulled some money together but it was small, pretty small amount and built the platform so that we could start just playing with it and testing it and seeing if we were right. Seeing if this was actually going to be more insightful and who knows. We didn’t know if it- we weren’t sure if it was gonna work. So we just went out and we did, I think for about the first four years, we were the researchers and the analysts and the strategic consultants, and we developed the software and did the work. So it was a lot of work. We went four years. We did over 400 projects way back before people were really doing this kind of stuff. And I always joke we bumped into every sharp object out there, and there was- we had to figure out how to do it because it’s different from [INAUDIBLE] and it’s different from face to face qualitative and it’s different from just about anything else out there. We just had to- we learned every lesson and we’ve improved the software dramatically. Focused really hard on participant user experience, which we just feel is the most important thing to get right in terms of actually getting good interaction with people and quality insight. And we built systems. We learned how to design assignments so they would really engage people and they would kind of have fun and it would kind of draw out their creativity and their imagination and emotional side of things that were going and just get us better and better responses as a result of it. Hey, how do you recruit these people? And how do you incentivize them so that they stay engaged? And how do you treat them and manage them? So we improved the software and we improved the system around it in that four years. And then by the time we got into 2018 and 2019, the situation had changed. I remember in the beginning we would make 20 phone calls or ten presentations, and people would go that’s awesome. That’s amazing. Very cool. And then they would never call. Because they just weren’t ready for it. They just weren’t ready to give up the old stuff and try new things. And then it flipped. I think it was about four years ago. We didn’t make outgoing presentations anymore. People just called because people realized, OK, well, it’s actually really beneficial to be three taps away from your consumer and be able to interact with them in this way. And I guess the- the first sign that you’ve- you’re on to a smart idea is when you get a lot of competition. And we ended up with a whole lot of competition in this space. To say nothing of the online competition that was already there when we jumped in and all smart phone specific. So yeah, the market really changed, and I think now, you know, we have competitors who have tens of millions dollars in venture capital funding and hundreds of employees. And as we looked at it, we said gosh, in that space, we are- it’s going to be increasingly hard for this little software company that’s very highly specialized to continue to develop the stuff that we want to do. So the 20/20 thing was great because it just puts Over the Shoulder alongside of some other fantastic online qualitative software, like QualBoard and QualMeeting. Puts a really nice package together with 20/20. Brings recruiting into the- makes it easier, smoother, and better through 20/20. Gives us a ton of resources that we didn’t used to have. So in addition to just being great bunch of people and a company that we really respect a lot, they also have scale and sales teams and marketing and structure that we’re going to be a lot more competitive because we are part of that and because we have access to it. So it was really a change in the marketing- in the market that made us go OK, it was fun. We’ve had a great decade. But as we look to the next one, we got to be set up differently to make sure that we’re still one of the viable players at the end of it.
Jamin: And that’s really smart from my vantage point, and a similar story perhaps coming from Decipher into FocusVision, right? And the one plus one equals three scenario, since there’s this obvious scale benefit and opportunity to cross sell customers on both products. And of course, Isaac Rogers being one of the best people I’ve ever met in this space, and he didn’t pay me to say that. He’s not a bad person to having to interact with.
Ross: Definitely. I mean the vision that he’s got and that Jim’s got and that 20/20 in general has- was a very big part of- we looked for a very long time to figure out, OK, what’s gonna- what is the best move for us to make. And really, 20/20 was the number one on our list, and then when we wanted to maybe have them host, I think. And it has a lot to do with sort of practical factors, but it definitely has a lot to do with the fact that you got a leadership team there and a development team and they’re all very much focused on, OK, this stuff’s not good enough yet. How do we make it better? How are we gonna invent the next round of stuff? That’s where it gets exciting to me. So I think it also opened up the door to much more ability to go, all right, so what should the toolset that qualitative researchers have to make their work more efficient and smarter? What should that look like? Because nobody’s not that yet. That’s still sort of work to be done, and we’re lined up with a group that we’re very pleased to be sort of doing that journey with them because they’ve got a vision and a track record that we’re really impressed with.
Jamin: How old were you when you started Over the Shoulder?
Ross: I was not that- I was not very young. I was 41, I guess.
Jamin: And that’s really interesting that you were 41 years old, and almost two decades, successfully managing some of the largest brands today at a strategic level, which is a lot of fun, and it’s work, like everything else. But it’s still a lot of fun. And then you decided to make a material change to your life. I mean I love the sort of the ethnography approach, the whole meta of I saw a Blackberry while doing this flip phone recording study and I realized wow, this is the future. That makes a lot of sense to me, but there’s- it had to have been a risky proposition to kind of like pause the 401(k) or what have you and step into this unknown universe. What was that motivator?
Ross: So it was not a comfortable thing to do, honestly. But what it was, there were a few factors. I had been working in advertising for a long time, and advertising is another one of those careers where the higher up you get, the less you’re doing what they hired you for. So the less strategy work and actual [INAUDIBLE] that you’re doing, and you end up with more involvement in politics and fixing badly broken accounts that no one else can fix and that kind of becomes your thing, as opposed to being a strategist or being an ethnography. So I think the distance from the actual work that I loved was getting it so that I was beginning to be done with that. Second thing, I’ve always been a bit of a tech geek. I’ve always been really fascinated by the possibilities of technology, and it was very clear to be still working in the advertising world that that space was about to get heavily disrupted by digital social mobile technology. So I kind of became a student of it for the last eight or ten years that I was in the advertising space, and so I was kind of fed up with the business and came up with this idea that I was just very, very passionate about. This needs to exist. I’m sure this is a good idea. Let’s make it happen. And no, it definitely felt like jumping off the edge of a cliff. It was definitely scary. I mean very fun as well, but it wasn’t something that I- I never saw myself as you’re going to start a company or you’re going to develop software. It was just hey, the world needs that. That’s a great thing, and it happens to be at the intersection of two things that I’m very good at. One being human storytelling and qualitative insight stuff, and the other one being just knowing just enough about technology to go, hey, this is what’s possible. This is what can be built, and then having the means to go and give it a try.
Jamin: So you’ve been on the strategy side with brands. You’ve been on the technology side or around the technology side. And on the services side and also at the fundamentally a researcher. What is gonna be different in our space over the next five years? Do you have any predictions on- is there another Blackberry, if you’ll excuse the connection, or a similar product that’s on the dining table?
Ross: Yeah, you know what, I suspect that there probably are. I don’t know that there’s anything that’s as big as the smartphone and as prevalent. But there’s certainly other bits of technology that can be leveraged to do qualitative insight in more and more interesting ways, so I think it’s a really exciting future. I think there’s a lot of work we’ve got to do to make this more efficient and make it as quick as we can without sacrificing the quality that’s being put out there. But so yeah, I think there’s- it’s an exciting future for this specific space, but I do think that if you put a five year time limit on it, I think it will look quite different because I think that we’ve got a couple of reckonings that are gonna happen. And I think they’ll happen mostly in the next couple, five years. So I think that one thing is I’m very interested to see what some of these plays where they are taking block chain and applying it to respondent identity and credibility and stuff like that. I think that’s gonna be big, and I think it’s gonna be really positive. Because I think the reckoning that we’re sort of having now is that online surveys and things like that are nice and efficient, and we’ve got lots of very interesting ways to sort of pull them together and make them happen really quickly. But I think we’re also realizing that, hey, there’s a lot of bad data in there, and this space really needs to be sort of reformed, so that we’ve just got greater confidence in the data that we’re taking in at a very base level. And I think that we’ll be able to do that, but I think that reckoning is coming for us. And then the other big one that I think about a lot is right now, we’re using people’s data very liberally and paying them very little. And I think again once people have more control over their data and what they share, I think they’re going to start to realize how much it’s worth, and they’re gonna- we won’t be able to do quick, cheap, and cheerful stuff nearly as well as we used to be able to. We don’t really do that now. We’ve sort of gone into that space where, hey, you know what, if we’re gonna take two hours of someone’s time to interact with our project, it needs to be worth their while to do it, and it needs to be respectful of the time that they’re gonna put into it. But I think that in a lot of cases, participants are forking over data without having any idea of what its value is. And I think that’s gonna change. So again, I think it leads to a future where there’s- the work that’s being done is better and smarter, but the process of getting there might not be very easy. And I think that’s- those two things are gonna both pop up in the next five years for sure.
Jamin: I agree with that sentiment by the way or that thesis. I think that we have moved from an era of unstructured processes or operations to, in some cases, over engineered or more black box research approaches, where it’s like stimuli come in and then boom, insight comes out, but we don’t actually know what happens in the middle part. And so I do believe over the next few years, you’re gonna see that get cleaned up as researchers are demanding transparency, like point of origin for respondents, incentive paid, frequency of participating in research. Just those basic kinds of things are gonna start calling the 25 cent completes that are being paid out for a 30-minute survey.
Ross: I think ultimately it will be good. It will be better data. It will be more reliable. It will be more fair. But I think it’s gonna hurt getting there.
Jamin: I totally agree, and the brand people that I’ve spoken to about this issue, they recognize that there’s a problem. But when asked would you pay more for higher quality, inevitably there’s a- I get a little bit of coughing and, you know. The answer is always, well, I got a fixed budget unfortunately, but they would pay twice as much for half as much, right? So that’s the other piece of it, I think. So you might have an overall CPI that increases, but you’re gonna have fewer responses. So I mean I don’t know how it’s gonna materialize, but that is gonna be interesting. All right, so last question, and then I’ll get you get on to your Friday evening. What is your personal motto?
Ross: You know, I struggled with this. I think it is lift with your head, which I think my friend, Paul, who I used to work with had a hat that said that or a t-shirt that said that. But I think lift with your head is a pretty good motto and a pretty good sort of guiding light. So I’m gonna go with that.
Jamin: My guest today has been Ross McLean, co-founder, executive director of Over the Shoulder. Thank you, Ross, very much for joining me on the Happy Market Research podcast.
Ross: Thank you. It was a real pleasure to talk with you.
Jamin: Everyone else, I hoped you enjoyed the episode. I certainly did. If you found value, please take time, screen shot, tag Ross, tag myself, LinkedIn, Twitter. We would appreciate it. Have a wonderful rest of your day.