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Lead Up To The IIR TDMR: Interview With Kevin Lonnie Of KL Communications

In advance of the Technology Driven Market Research event, Kevin Lonnie, President of KL Communications, ruminates on crowdsourcing, ISO, conspiracy theories, respondent engagement, and the future of market research.

The interviews with key speakers at the Technology Driven Market Research event are coming fast and furious now, and each one so far has been a gold mine of thought leadership and innovative approaches by some of the best and brightest folks it’s ever been my pleasure to meet.

Kevin Lonnie

Today’s installment is no exception as we talk to Kevin Lonnie, President of KL Communications on crowdsourcing, ISO, conspiracy theories, respondent engagement, and the future of market research. I met Kevin last year at the AMA MRC and he impressed me then as one of the sharpest leaders our industry has. I think after reading this interview you’ll see why and agree with me.

LM: Hey Kevin, it’s great to talk to you again!

KL: Likewise Lenny; this is going to be fun.

LM: Well, I hope so! Let’s jump right in. KL Communications seems to be making a big splash and generating a lot of interest within the market research space. Why do you think that is?

KL: First of all, thank you for the compliment.  As to why we’re causing a splash, I would say it’s been a combination of experience grounded in sound MR principles, while still being willing to take a leap into the “unknown” regions of new methodologies (such as crowdsourcing and social media).

It’s one thing seeing a new player tout the benefits of new methodologies…it’s a whole other thing when it’s touted by someone who has been making their living off of the more traditional ways for some time, and continues to do so.  We are choosing to make this transition because we see the landscape of how “data” are collected is changing — even the definition of “data” in the MR sense is undergoing rapid change!

As an anecdotal story Lenny, the reason I started KL Communications was because I had an epiphany.  I was challenging the way we were handling deliverables at my old company, especially after we had just submitted one of our larger clients to a “Death by PowerPoint” bludgeoning.  I was championing for a more interactive, compelling experience for both respondents and our clients.  My boss told me “That’s not the way we do research around here.”  That’s when I knew it was time to start my own company.  So the idea of going beyond what is traditional is engraved into the company’s DNA.

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

KL: The major driver is the role of social media, which has simply exploded.  Would there be such organized resistance taking place in Egypt right now without social media and particularly Twitter?

Consumers on a global basis are changing the way they communicate with friends, family, and yes, their favorite brands, so researchers need to thrive on these new channels in order to uncover the best insights. Traditionally, MR has been a relatively passive, reactionary experience.  I ask you questions, you answer as best you can.  But respondents are expecting a more transparent, interactive exchange, that’s consistent with their social media expectations.  It’s important that we recognize this and create an environment for discovery.  If not, then we’re just left with the rapidly shrinking subset of professional respondents.

Also from an operational standpoint, MR companies are becoming more efficient than ever with the introduction of cloud computing. Before, only large corporations were afforded the luxury of robust IT infrastructures, but now everyone can attain this.  In fact, there are some advantages in being a smaller boutique firm, it allows us to continually update our platform and add new modules, such as Crowdsourcing.  I think that gives us a major advantage over larger firms that understandably need to produce an ROI with their existing clunky infrastructure.

LM: I love that answer and story; my experience was similar in why I embarked on my own entrepreneurial adventures! That brings to mind the topic of innovation in MR; it’s certainly been a buzz topic for a while, but there are really only a small group of companies that I consider truly innovative, with KL Communications being one of them. We too often seem to just be putting lipstick on the pig and calling it innovation.    With their being so much evidence that the entire paradigm for market research needs to change in order to be relevant to both clients and consumers, why do you think there is so much resistance to adapting from within the market research space?

KL: Well, I think there are a few factors in play.  One is that MR does not historically attract change agents.  That is changing as the expectations of MR change and as an industry we move from after the fact (CYA) research to producing the insights that truly drive the innovation process.

The second is simply the inertia of current business models.  If you have made a major investment in current technology, you want to see an ROI from that before acknowledging the potential advantages of cutting edge techniques.  When I was serving as the President of IMRO (Interactive Marketing Research Organization) back in 2006, I had a seat on the MRA Board of Directors and I used to get hammered by the Phone Center Owners about the representativeness of online.  What I didn’t appreciate at the time, was that most of them were in the process of putting together their own online research platforms.  Once they had them in place, they stopped slamming online.  So sometimes you have to look at the source of the resistance and figure out what angle they’re playing.

LM: I’m reminded of the old adage about “following the money”; I’ve thought for a while that the push for ISOs in market research is as much about protectionism fostered by the big players that have invested heavily in traditional research model infrastructure as it is a desire for quality standards. It’s seems to be a little too coincidental that the ISO issue became such a hot topic at the same time that new methods based on social media and mobile models started to gain significant traction. Now ignoring the conspiracy theory element of that idea, what is your take on ISOs and developing quality standards for emerging techniques as well? While we’re on the topic and give your IMRO experience, what trade organization is the right one to help make that happen?

LM: Well Lenny, I do appreciate your “Oliver Stone” conspiracy theory.  I think there’s logical concern by the big players that MR might actually be going through a metamorphosis and where will that leave their business models?  That said, I think the ISO push is primarily based on the larger/entrenched players trying to capitalize on a competitive advantage that is the fact that they are using well established methodologies that lend themselves to ISO testing.  So I would say they’re trying to exploit this advantage.  But at the end of the day, the clients paying the checks are going to be more concerned with the research ROI than in the comfort their research was held to ISO standards.  I mean if the results are useless who cares if the methodology met ISO standards?  That’s also why I feel research is more of an art form than a science.  I don’t mean to downplay the need for a solid research acumen, but the ability to design a great study is more of an art than something you can get out of a textbook.

As for your question regarding what association is best suited to hold a frank and honest discussion on ISOs, the 1st criteria would be to choose an association that doesn’t already have a vested self interest. That eliminates a few right off the top.  Reviewing what’s left, I think the MRA would be best suited because the topic would be discussed with objectivity and not as a foregone conclusion.

LM: You’ve developed an interesting model of combining social media, communities, and crowdsourcing. How did you come up with the model and what has the response from the market been?

KL: I firmly believe we’re on the verge of a new paradigm.  The previous ½ century of asking people what they think has worked well for us.  But it’s being shaken on two grounds.  One is the shrinking pool of folks still willing to take surveys; this “Tragedy of the Commons” has left us with a respondent base that some refer to as the lunatic fringe.  The second is the changing mores of the socially connected consumer.   This new breed of consumer expects a reciprocal relationship.  They are no longer content just being a passenger.  You mention our model of combining social media, communities and crowdsourcing; the end goal is feeding this need for involvement and fostering an environment for collaboration.

Towards that goal, I challenge our Community Managers all the time.  Are we feeding into our members’ passions for our client’s brand?  Why would a reasonably sane person want to spend hours each month in our community?  What is our value proposition and how do we improve it?

Everyone has limited free time.  So we need folks to choose spending time in our community as opposed to posting new photos on Facebook or watching Sports Center.  We recognize the fact that we are competing for their down time.

So we need to appeal to their empathy, passion for our client’s brands and most importantly, we have to leave them with the feeling that their time has been well spent and is making a difference. 

LM: Oh this is a fun interview; maybe we should bring in MR Heretic to our conversation and really stir things up! Seriously, that is pretty radical thinking for market research, although more people seem to be embracing the idea of blurring the walls (or bringing them down entirely) between research and marketing. That being the case, what does the industry look like in 3-5 years if we’re primarily focused on engagement vs. a more objective model? What is your sense of how the landscape may look in that scenario?

KL: Yeah, I’ve been following that discussion and it’s quite interesting to consider the possibility that larger CRM based communities might be the future for both marketing and marketing research.  We’ve talked about how social media and mobile have shaken up our industry, but I think they’ve been just as disruptive to marketing.  You hear about more and more organizations switching out their traditional marketing/ad budget in favor of social media campaigns.  And the main reason they do it is because it’s cheaper, generally more effective and easier to track the metrics.  For as long as I can remember “marketing” has been the defining adjective in front of “research” but that could be changing.   We might have as many “social media” researchers as “market” researchers in the next few years.

LM: You’re presenting on “Crowdsourcing Your Research for Co-Creation” at the IIR Tech Driven Market Research event. Can you give me a “teaser” at what you’ll be covering and what do you hope for attendees to get out of the discussion?

KL: I can tell you it’s an evolving presentation as this is an evolving topic.  The term “Crowdsourcing” is borrowed from “open-sourcing” and typically connotes open competitions for a company challenge.  But I think the benefit to MR will be more from “Crowd-Weaving” that is integrating input from your customers throughout a collaborative process.

I am very excited that my co-presenter will be Miguel Ares from Bloomberg and we’ll be talking about collaborative research we recently conducted for his firm.  One project was to help introduce a new service and the second was to revive a service that had not met their initial expectations.  Having the potential subscriber work hand in hand with the developers was critical to the success of both products.  As you know, typically research is brought in either too early (e.g. qual evaluation of the initial concept) or too late (quant survey to prove how smart we all are).  But now the focus is on a continuous iterative process to keep all parties honest and on track.

LM: This has been great Kevin; I really appreciate your candor, wit, and creativity! OK, last question: so what’s next for KL Communications? What new tricks are up your sleeve in the near future?

Nothing like a hanging curveball to end an interview, I appreciate that Lenny. Well, we’re pretty much betting the ranch on our new IC2 platform.  The clever acronym is meant to convey “I See Too” which means we will help to bring potential opportunities into focus.  And the lynchpin to that claim is based on providing a collaborative environment for our community members.   For any company challenge (e.g. introducing/improving a service) we’ll bring together the respective constituents (customers, developers, engineers, etc.) and provide a collaborative brainstorming environment to iteratively work towards a solution.  We’ll also bring in secondary insights via social media scraping to provide additional input and stimuli to our discussions.  This way, our final recommendations will be based on the  holistic fusing of all involved cohorts (now I’m sounding like a research geek).

So lot’s of very cool stuff coming down the pike.  We’re very excited about the company direction and being part of the disruptive movement in MR!

LM: And MR is happy to have you my friend; we need more folks like you! Thanks again for the time and energy Kevin, and good luck on with your IC2 offering! I’m looking forward to hearing more about it in Chicago!

KL: Thank you Lenny, this has been great. Let’s do it again soon. See you in Chicago!

About Kevin Lonnie

In 1974, Mr. Lonnie entered Rutgers College of Engineering with every intention of pursuing a degree in Electrical Engineering like his dad. But he shortly found he was far more interested in his Business classes than his Chemistry classes. With that, he switched to a major in Business Administration. Along the way, without bothering to tell anyone, he also decided to pursue a double major in both Business and Psychology. In the final semester of his senior year, Mr. Lonnie took a course in Marketing Research and realized he had found a profession that incorporated the disciplines of both Business and Psychology. Voilá, a lifelong career in Marketing Research was hatched.

Currently, Mr. Lonnie is Vice President of Communications for the Interactive Marketing Research Organization (IMRO) and also serves on the Leadership Committee for the Journal of Online Research. Until recently he served as VP of Communications for the New Jersey division of the American Marketing Association. From 1983 to 1987, Mr. Lonnie was Marketing Manager of New Products for NFO Research and helped reposition the nation’s largest panel company from traditional mail surveys to an interactive future. From 1988 to 1996, he was VP of Client Services for Visual Research Communications. In that capacity he oversaw all research services.

Mr. Lonnie lives in Red Bank, NJ with his wife Susan, daughter Kathleen and identical twin sons, Michael and Sean.

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