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Lead up to the IIR TDMR: Interview With Chris Hobson of txteagle

Continuing our series of interviews with the stellar line-up of presenters at the IIR Technology Driven Market Research event, today we have my conversation with Chris Hobson, COO of txteagle.

Chris Hobson

A little back-story: I have mentioned txteagle several times in previous posts as a company that I think has tremendous potential to impact market research in a very big way. In other words, I am a fan, and I was excited to have the opportunity talk with Chris about what txteagle is doing. I think you’ll find it interesting as well!

LM: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me Chris.

CH: No problem Lenny; I’ve been looking forward to it!

LM: Great. Well let’s jump into it! Txteagle seems to be making a big splash and generating a lot of interest within the market research space. Why do you think that is and how did you determine that this market was right for you to target?

CH: I think txteagle has generated excitement in the research industry because we deliver on several key unmet needs. At a strategic level, global organizations are acutely aware of the fact that their “next billion” consumers will be in traditional developing countries such as Brazil, India, China, Latin America and Indonesia and less traditional frontier markets such as Turkey, Vietnam, Malaysia and much of Africa. And they also know they must develop deep consumer market insights as they enter these markets.

In order to conduct effective research in these emerging markets, txteagle has built a large community of 2.1 billion people in almost 100 countries. Importantly, because we have integrated with over 220 mobile phone operators around the world, we have the ability to not only communicate with these community members on their mobile phones but also to compensate them for answering surveys in the form of mobile airtime.

We determined that market research was the right place to focus by simply listening to our customers. We have engaged with dozens of global brands and other multi-national organizations over the past two years and they consistently re-iterated the importance of leveraging mobile to learn more about their future consumers in emerging markets.

LM: What do you think are the major drivers of change in the market research space right now and how is txteagle planning to take advantage of those trends?

CH: Well, the first change, as I mentioned earlier, is the recognition of the importance of emerging markets. The OECD and McKinsey both estimate that about a trillion dollars in new spending power gets created each year in emerging markets as millions of people join the new middle class. Global brand companies like P&G, Coca-Cola and Nestle have all publicly stated that a large portion of their revenue and earnings growth over the next decade will come from these markets. We feel like txteagle is uniquely positioned to help them profit from this historic opportunity.

The second change is the growing importance of mobile as a means of data collection. Mobile helps researchers connect with hard-to-reach demographics who may not have access to a computer and the Internet, something that is especially important in emerging markets, where the mobile phone is the most ubiquitous computing device. Also, there has also been growing concern for a while about the validity of certain methodologies and the advent of the professional survey taker. Another key advantage of mobile is that because each phone number is by definition unique, it helps to generate more valid responses and insights for our customers.

LM: Your point regarding the need to gain intelligence in emerging markets, where mobile penetration is ubiquitous but internet connectivity is low makes perfect sense. That said, mobile research, especially as a quantitative technique, has been slow to ramp in the U.S. but that seems to be changing with the advent of the “App Revolution”; with many of the emerging markets that seem to be your sweet spot still being on 2G networks and feature phone heavy, how can txteagle help researchers overcome the resistance to SMS and WAP methods?

CH: I think it’s a question of alternatives and the analogy I would draw is to the advertising business. Major brands have many, many options for communicating with consumers in Manhattan or London or Hong Kong, where TV, Internet, broadband, social networks etc. are ubiquitous. The story is very different in rural India, small villages in China or the favela of Brazil, so innovative marketers looking to reach their next billion consumers have figured out ways to use mobile phones to engage with those consumers, despite the low penetration of smart phones.

We are seeing that many in the research business are doing the same – recognizing that mobile may have drawbacks but also that there are innovative ways to get great insights and information by focusing on the strengths of mobile in these markets – ubiquity, low cost, close match with the desired demographic, ability to start a dialog. txteagle makes it easy for researchers to experience this because we combine the survey technology, access to respondents and incentive mechanism into one offering.

LM: You mentioned concerns about validity of methodologies and I assume you’re thinking of the non-representative nature of online panels and the switch to convenience samples as the prevailing norm for online research. How is your offering different? How can you help researchers get back to something closer to the glory days of RDD sampling?

CH: We have integrated with over 220 mobile phone operators in 100 countries, which gives us access to 2.1 billion mobile phone numbers. The exciting thing is that this enables us to do population-level surveys of mobile phone subscribers, which, given the penetration rates of mobile in emerging markets, is one of the closest matches to a random sample available.

LM: So if someone wanted to conduct a study among rural populations in India via mobile, how would that work? Can you walk me through the process of working with txteagle and explain how your model compares to an online panel provider?

CH: Probably the best way to get a sense for how it works would be to visit our web site where we walk through the whole process [Editors note:]. The core of it is that we combine a massive pool of potential respondents (2.1 billion people in almost 100 countries) with survey technology (web or mobile) and a universal currency for compensating respondents (mobile airtime).

So a client comes to txteagle, defines a survey, selects target respondent profiles by location and demographics and then defines the level of incentive. We then locate the appropriate respondents in our global community, execute the survey, compensate respondents for completed interviews and present the findings back to the client. The client can be a market research firm or the end-user of the research, but the overall offering is very different from an online panel provider.

LM: Looking ahead 3-5 years, where do you see the market research space headed and where will txteagle fit into that vision?

CH: In keeping with the international nature of txteagle’s value proposition, I’m going to start with a caveat based on a quote from Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu: “Those who have knowledge, don’t predict. Those who predict, don’t have knowledge.”

With that in mind, I do think that it’s a fairly low risk proposition to predict that the trends around using mobile as a way to generate new insights in developing markets will continue and probably pick up steam. txteagle has an opportunity to be a leader of that trend given our ready-made base of mobile-enabled survey respondents, integrations with 220 mobile carriers and ability to compensate 2.1 billion people. One thing I do know for certain is that it will be a lot of fun being part of that future unfolding.

LM:  agree; the next few years are going to be a lot of fun as we watch things play out! You’re moderating a panel discussion on App Based Mobile Research at the IIR Tech Driven Market Research event. What is your take on the subject and what do you hope for attendees to get out of the discussion?

CH: App-based mobile research is an exciting space that is creating many opportunities to generate new insights through the intersection of location awareness, immersive non-survey experiences (e.g. games) and ongoing dialog as opposed to a one-time survey. It will be great to hear how researchers at innovative companies are using these techniques and what kinds of new insights they are generating. I hope that attendees can leave with a sense for the opportunity, a couple of thought-provoking ideas and some issues to consider as they embark on exploring the space.

LM: OK, last question! So what’s next for txteagle? Are you going to primarily focus on being a global source for mobile sample, or are there some more tricks up your sleeve in the near future?

CH: Yes. Today we can provide access to 2.1 billion mobile respondents and an incentive mechanism in almost 100 countries. Expect to see those numbers grow to 4 billion mobile respondents in almost 200 countries in the next year or so. That said, we do have several tricks up our sleeve that will take advantage of this massive global reach and unique compensation mechanism. Stay tuned…

LM: I absolutely will! Thanks so much for your time Chris. I’m looking forward to seeing you in Chicago at the TDMR!

CH: Thank you, this has been great, and I am sure the conference will be as well. Talk to you soon!

About Chris Hobson, Chief Operating Officer of txteagle

Chris Hobson leads txteagle’s efforts to create value for our customers and partners. He brings to txteagle over fifteen years of leadership experience in sales, marketing, business development and general management. Mr. Hobson began his career as a Brand Manager at Procter & Gamble and prior to joining txteagle he was SVP Operations at eCredit (now Cortera), which was acquired by Fidelity Ventures in 2006. He is currently an advisor to several Boston-area technology start-ups.

txteagle helps global organizations learn, educate and grow in emerging economies by leveraging the power of the mobile phone. Through a network of over 2.1 billion mobile phone subscribers across almost 100 developing countries, txteagle leverages the emerging market community for two inter-related services; i) GroundTruth: gathering local data and opinions ii) GroundSwell: leveraging those insights to improve consumer engagement.

Mr. Hobson is a graduate of McGill University and received his MBA from Harvard Business School.

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