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Lead Up To The IIR TDMR Interview With Tom H. C. Anderson, CEO of Anderson Analytics

In the fifth installment of our series of interviews with presenters at the IIR Technology Driven Market Research event, I go head to head with renowned industry business leader, blogger, speaker, and founder of the “Next Gen Market Research” social network: Tom H. C. Anderson, CEO of Anderson Analytics.

Tom Anderson

Tom and I met via social media (of course!) as I began to explore various platforms and networks back in 2008. He stood out to me as someone who had obviously learned to leverage the power of multiple social media channels to grow his brand, and honestly was a bit of an inspiration to me in developing my own strategy.

As we began to interact I quickly learned that he was a passionate and outspoken  advocate for change in our industry, and although perhaps he is a lightning rod for controversy, his wit, intellect, and integrity shine through. We’ve butted heads a few times and don’t always agree on things, but I’ve learned to value his perceptions, experience, and business acumen. I’ve been lucky enough to work with Tom on a few things now, and it is always interesting!

So, it’s with great pleasure that I get to share with you my interview with Tom. I hope you enjoy it!

LM: Tom, thanks so much for making the time to do this; I know you have a lot on your plate now.

TA: I’m happy to do it Lenny; it’s always fun and interesting talking with you.

LM: Well, the feelings mutual my friend! Let’s jump right into things. You have built quite the reputation for yourself as a thought leader and advocate for disruptive change in the market research industry, with many people paying attention to your blog and the activity on the Next Gen Market Research LinkedIn Group. Why do you think you’ve struck a chord with the research industry?

TA: I never expected anyone to read my blog or follow me on Twitter. Both of those were an internal “research on research” thing. Because of all our work with text analytics, Anderson Analytics was being asked to do more and more with social media, including screen scraping and blog mining. I figured if we were going to be analyzing what bloggers and tweeters said it would be a good idea to understand how it works from the other side. The biggest revelation was how much traffic it generated. LinkedIn was a different story. I realized from the start the value of a large professional network.

So, in analyzing why the blog is so popular in retrospect, there are several reasons. I think perhaps foremost is that professionals in our industry who still bother reading anything related to market research are tired to death of reading about another study comparing Likert scales in different countries.

I’ve been in research in some role for more or less my entire working life, so I’m perfectly comfortable talking about any research methodology, including the most advanced. But most of us, especially clients, certainly aren’t interested in reading another article about an old research technique. Unless of course you’re new to research, in which case there are several good statistics books and training seminars available. No, they are interested in, and realize that to get ahead you need to gain, an information advantage. And you don’t get an information advantage by doing what everyone else has been doing forever.

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

TA: There is convergence between all marketing disciplines (MR, CI, PR, Advertising, CRM, etc…) and even BI/IT. We’re all scrambling to become more quantitative, more automated, more powerful and social media because of the reach, engagement level and measurable nature seems to be one of the main targets for us all. I believe if you can discern the cute useless stuff from what really can generate actionable insights, and do it before others, that’s how to get ahead.

LM: So has social media (including blogs, groups, twitter, etc…) emerged as the home of thought leadership and innovation vs. traditional media channels? What does that mean for industry trade organizations, publications, events, etc…?

I don’t know about thought leadership. I guess that’s how some of the traditional channels would like to refer to those who are frequently featured at their events/articles. I have never tried to reach this “Good Ole Boys” group, at least not purposefully, since they have not been our customers.

Since 2005 my firms’ key focus has been on reaching fortune 1000 client side market research buyers. Most of them don’t care about the ‘traditional channels’, wouldn’t attend an MR specific conference or read an MR specific journal/magazine. They will however Google a certain topic if they need info on something. So if they Google “market research and text analytics” or “segmentation textanalytics” for instance, I want Anderson Analytics to come up in the first page of the results. That usually means they’ll call us.

Now admittedly, I’ve been asked to speak at A LOT of conferences during the past few years, and early on I wrote a few articles and white papers. I think a certain amount of that is good for credibility. But to me the advantage of social media is closing the distance between you and your customers. It’s getting to know people virtually. I usually say what I want and say it honestly. This is rare these days, believe it or not.  So I find most appreciate that, whether or not they agree with me.

The purpose of social media for me is not about thought leadership, it’s about creating relationships over time. And it’s self serving, because the reason I do it is so I won’t have to travel all over the place to conferences or in person new client calls!

LM: You’re considered an expert on Text Analytics and I know you are doing a lot of interesting things in that arena right now. First, what can you tell me about what you’re doing, and second, where does Text Analytics fit within the range of “traditional” and “emerging” tools? Is it best used as an adjunct to other methods to help, as you say, “discern the cute from the actionable”, especially within social media data sets, or is it a standalone method in itself?

TM: I’m afraid there is not a lot I’m allowed to tell you right now about the software we’re working on, though a lot of our early work on best practices in text analytics is available on our website or in journals/market research text books.

As for “Text Analytics” in general, while it’s certainly still emerging, and is now doing so faster than ever before, it’s not something I would place on a scale of methodologies. That would be sort of like asking “are the use of numbers a traditional or emerging tool of research?”. While the technology to leverage text is here now, few have done so intelligently.

What I am seeing though with both text analytics as well as social media analytics is a lot of amateurs claiming they have either built useful software or know how to leverage these tools properly.

In fact though, in some ways I think what we’re seeing is similar to what happened when HTML first became popular. A lot of amateurs came out claiming they could build your website for you. Do you remember how bad it was? Flashing buttons, bad content management, a lot of “under construction” images. Do you remember why that ended (Thank God)?

The younger generation picked it up, came out of college proficient at it. Those graphic designers who were tech savvy enough created best practices around its use. Eventually these skills were absorbed into companies across the board. That’s what will probably soon happen with these two areas of research. But for the moment we have to avert our eyes from all the blinking and cute poorly thought out software and consulting advice.

But don’t get me wrong, they’re definitely both here to stay!

LM: You’ve taken some pretty controversial public stances on issues like offshoring, ISOs, privacy, and the roles of trade bodies in supporting the industry. I can’t see where you’ve suffered any ill effects despite pressure from a few different sources; quite the contrary, your visibility seems to be increasing. First, can you explain why you’ve taken the positions that you have and second, how do you feel about being the “voice of dissent” within our industry?

TA: Are they controversial stances if the majority of your peers agree with you?

FTO and ISO, while different things, are also closely related.

I’ll start with ISO though. Cute quality programs come and go. They are made popular by those who profit most from them, usually the consultants who push them (in this case two research trade orgs as well). During my career I’ve had to sit through training on “Quality Circles”, “TQM”, and “Six Sigma” to name a few. If any of these have a place anywhere in business, it’s in manufacturing, not in something as far up the value chain as market research.

As CEO of a market research company I certainly was going to voice my opinion on a proposed measure that would eat up a lot of time and money and create absolutely no advantage for my firm.

Now if you believe that rather than sophisticated research which relies as much on science as art, and is usually rather customized, you are in the business of making simple widgets, then ISO might make sense. Standardize the widget making process to reduce error, controlling to make sure each widget in the process is never off by more than +/- 1mm in size, well then great! You’ve successfully commoditized it so that you can look for the lowest cost country around to produce the widget without risking quality.

That’s, in my opinion, why these trade organizations thought the ISO process might take hold. The top ten research firms, who also are the largest revenue source for the trade orgs have invested a lot in captive offshore centers. The ISO process would then help legitimize this practice, which by the way is done very quietly.

The Foundation for Offshoring Transparency (FTO) on the other hand was seen as a threat by these organizations for this very reason. I’m a believer in transparency and doing what’s right. With the legal risk and protection related to both PII (personally identifiable information) and IP (intellectual property) varying so greatly from country to country, not being totally upfront with your clients about what you are offshoring and where was something I felt was totally irresponsible.

That’s why the FTO is more popular than ISO, and why the majority of the 855 market researchers on the supplier side and all on the client side we surveyed on the topic strongly supported the ideals of the FTO. Had there been similar research conducted on ISO, I’m sure we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

LM: At the Technology Driven Market Research event you’re part of a panel debate on the topic of Social Media: Scientific Technology or Business Practice. Now I think I know your answer as it relates to the analysis of social media data via text analytics (scientific technology, right?), but what is your overall take on the impact, and ultimate evolution of, social media in the research space?

TA: Social media is an awesome marketing and PR tool. Not only that, but for the first time it’s getting possible to measure ROI in a number of ways not possible before. This is the low hanging fruit for research now. Companies will only continue to increase their marketing spend in this area, and so there will be greater demand and pressure to prove ROI on this spend. Companies will want to know who they are reaching and how effective their campaigns are and how to improve them.

What I don’t understand or agree with on the other hand is trying to force every single research problem onto social media. Just plain silly to think you can, at least as it is currently.

Don’t get me wrong; we are not even close to leveraging social media for research at its full potential. But some of the amateurish Twitter based studies that are being touted as innovative research, well that’s what I was referring to earlier in my comparison to amateur website developers 10 years ago. That will be coming to a halt, thank God!

There are already so many ways we could technically leverage social media for exponential gains in insight that we never dreamed were possible. However, we’re not likely to see these anytime soon, at least not from traditional research. Traditional research is very risk averse, not just in terms of privacy, but also in investing dollars without a sure return. So these innovations will either come from client side or ad agencies, BI/IT, a major social network, or dare I say even from academia. I hope I’m wrong here, but from what I know about the MR industry we just don’t have the R&D budgets to truly test the possibilities.

LM: Last week it was released that Anderson Analytics was perceived to be one of the Top 10 Most Innovative companies in the industry, and in the multivariate analysis there were some surprising results for you regarding how your company is perceived in relation to some of the largest in the industry. What is your take on the results?

TA: I guess social media marketing really does work!

Seriously though, I was touched to see that so many voted for us. I really wasn’t surprised that there were just as many small companies mentioned as billion dollar companies, exactly five of each I believe. Large companies just haven’t been able to wrap their heads around this new marketing as well as small and medium sized players.

In terms of Anderson Analytics positioning on the chart next to Nielsen, well I kind of talked to that on my blog a little. While I’ve been a big proponent of new techniques, especially advanced analytics and data mining including text analytics, everything we’ve been doing is based on sound methodology. So I think it speaks to the fact that the work Anderson Analytics has done, whether for clients or presentations at conferences, white papers etc. is of high methodological caliber. We’re not about anything goes and pretty twitter word clouds.

So while at first it was a bit surprising to not be considered more “Disruptively Innovative”, I’m glad that almost the same type of customer who considers Nielsen will also considers Anderson Analytics. This is after all where I came from, and I value and respect these classically trained researchers immensely.

LM: So what’s next for Anderson Analytics, NGMR, FTO, etc..? What new tricks do you have up your sleeve for 2011 and beyond?

TA: That’s a great question and a tough one I’m struggling with right now. Our industry is changing fast. I see a lot of opportunities and my viewpoint on full service research has changed quite a bit since starting Anderson Analytics.

I think there’s a lot of opportunity for analytics right now. However I think the old way of growing a research firm by adding consultants in various sectors is coming to an end. You can’t fight the DIY trend. Data is everywhere, and clients want a hand in how it is analyzed. I believe the new frontier for us is in helping clients do just that.

LM: OK, last question Tom. I know you work like a madman, but tell me about your downtime. What do you like to do to relax? Any hobbies, interests, or passions?  What’s an average Saturday night like at the Anderson household?

TA: The toughest questions for last huh?  My wife and I were grew up in families that traveled a lot and lived abroad, so we were both exposed to a lot of different cultures in US, Europe and Asia. That has stuck with us and so we enjoy travel and food. If I speak at a conference somewhere interesting and she can get away from work we always try to mix business with pleasure.

But that’s where our similarities end. She’s a city girl so every chance she gets she’ll try to drag me into NYC to a restaurant, play or for shopping. I don’t mind too much, but to recharge I much prefer heading the opposite way, North to our family cabin and back to nature. Not her idea of excitement!

So on any given Saturday, the situation may be very different.

LM: Sounds like a good life Tom; thanks for sharing. And thanks for your time and openness; this has been great. I’ll look forward to seeing you in Chicago at the Tech Driven Market Research event!

TA: Thanks Lenny, this has been good and I’m always happy to chat with you! See you in Chicago.

About Tom H. C. Anderson:

Tom H. C. Anderson is the founder and managing partner of Anderson Analytics, a full-service market research consultancy that takes a “next generation” approach to research by fusing advanced analytics and traditional methodologies with leading edge technologies like data and text mining.

Recently named one of the industry’s “Four under 40” market research leaders by the American Marketing Association (2010), Tom has also been proclaimed the “Uncrowned Father of Web 3.0 Market Research” (Research Business Report, 2009). In addition, Tom is a prominent blogger, recognized authority on social media, and the founder of Next Gen Market Research (NGMR), one of the most active networking groups for market researchers on the Web.

Tom is chairman of the Foundation for Transparency in Offshoring (FTO), a non-profit organization he founded in 2009 dedicated to educating buyers and suppliers of consumer research and analytics services on considerations related to offshoring, and to promoting disclosure standards.

Tom is a frequent lecturer at universities and industry conferences, and has been widely published in trade journals and decision science texts. He has previously held positions at global marketing research companies including TNS, NFO Worldwide, and ACNielsen BASES. Tom holds an MBA in Marketing, Finance and International Business from the University of Connecticut and a Master of Economics from Lund University, Sweden.

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