Last year I had the great pleasure to be introduced to John and his company as part of another venture I was working on. I was immediately impressed by the innovative approach to data collection and truly unique business model that the firm had developed. I’ve mentioned them in several other blogs as examples of the type of disruptive innovation that will help define the future of market research and I continue to be impressed by their ever increasing creativity and the potential applications of their technology for market research.
John is a great guy and it’s always a pleasure to speak with him. After reading this interview, I think you’ll understand why.
LM: Hi John, thanks for making the time to talk with me today.
JD: Hi Lenny. It’s my pleasure.
LM: Thanks John. So, CivicScience seems to be making a big splash and generating a lot of interest within the market research space. Why do you think that is?
JD: We’re just a bunch of software engineers at our core, so we’re still outsiders in the space. That novelty may have something to do with it. Or maybe, as someone once told me, it’s because we’re making survey research cool again. So much attention has shifted to social media listening because it’s scalable and contemporary. But researchers still need to be able to ask direct questions, know the types of people they’re talking to, and build a structured, quantitative set of data. Hopefully, we’re helping researchers meet that challenge.
LM: What do you think are the major drivers of change in the market research space right now and how is CivicScience planning to take advantage of those trends?
JD: We see two big catalysts in the market: First, consumer opinions are changing faster than they ever have before. Quarterly or monthly research is stale by the time the report is printed. We need to find ways to measure consumer sentiment in real-time or we’ll just be guessing. This can only be solved by engaging people during their daily lives, on a website they visit, on their phones, when they ‘check-in’ at a retailer, over their TV remote, gaming console, or anywhere else in their digital footprint. Our engineers are building the technology to power this engagement.
Secondly, customer demands are changing. Research buyers expect more accountability. We’re even hearing about “pay-for-performance” models infiltrating the market. The winners in this new paradigm will be the companies that can best leverage crowd-sourcing, automation, and syndication to drive down costs while generating massive amounts of insights. Everything we do at CivicScience is geared toward these objectives.
LM: I agree with your assessment of the where the industry is headed, especially from an engagement standpoint. How does your technology help foster that new level of consumer engagement?
JD: One of our scientists likes to say that every time you add a question to a survey, you increase the level of bias in the people who will complete it. Lengthy surveys are a pain, which is why respondents often need payments or rewards. This is especially challenging with young consumers or busy professionals. So, our goal is to limit engagements to only one or two relevant questions at a time, delivered conveniently to people where they already travel online. Technology then allows us to connect all of those short answers, process millions of answers in seconds, and mine them for insights through automation.
LM: I think of your approach as being the quantitative equivalent to the social media firehose; can you explain your “macrosampling” technique and why it’s a viable alternative to a traditional online survey?
JD: We engage consumers in very short one to three-question polls inside third-party polling applications all over the web. Our engine delivers professionally-designed questions to users from a syndicated question library we manage. Initially, we match questions to the content of a website and deliver them to respondents at random. Then, by identifying return respondents through a persistent cookie or other digital ID, we can personalize the questions they see, based on their response history and proxy-based demographics.
Over time, we’ve cataloged millions of respondents who’ve answered sometimes hundreds of questions across multiple sites. By mining these massive data, we can begin to predict unobserved attributes, deliver questions with high information-yield, and target custom questions to specific users for paying customers. Web publishers love us because we achieve significantly higher participation than homemade polls and we give them deep audience analytics that they can’t get from tools like ComScore or others…and we do it for free. In return, sites agree to let us aggregate their site data with others, from which we then sell custom and syndicated research products.
Because we don’t pay respondents or pay to deliver the questions, we start with a very low cost structure, which enables us to produce low-cost custom research and daily syndicated research with high margins. We pass these savings on to customers who can now get access to real-time information from millions of highly-profiled respondents.
LM: That is certainly a fairly radical view compared to “traditional” research approaches; have you met with any resistance or skeptics? How do you handle the “classical” researchers when explaining the benefits of your model?
JD: Of course we’ve met with skepticism – and even some downright animosity. And frankly, we’re not impervious to it. We have a long way to go to perfect our model. Right now we’re really strong in a few consumer segments, like Millennials and others, and so we can deliver value to specific types of customers. But we’ve only scratched the surface at this point.
As for “’classical” researchers, we’re really trying to involve them in our development. As you know, we have a number of formal advisers, business partners, and mentors ranging from political pollsters to anthropologists to economists to marketing research executives. We want the research community to challenge us, which is why we talk so openly about our methodology and technology. We want to be a utility for researchers, not a competitor. The more industry experts are involved in guiding us, the better our end products will be.
LM: You are on a panel discussion regarding Ethics and Privacy at the IIR Technology Driven Market Research event. What is your take on the current state of the industry regarding privacy and, considering your thoughts on the future of MR and profiling methodology, what will this issue look like in the future?
JD: Obviously, the issues surrounding privacy, particularly when you’re dealing with digital types of data collection, are getting extremely complex. Companies like Facebook and Google have turned this world upside down. Our core philosophy is simple: First, people need to know what kind of information has been collected about them and what it’s being used for. Secondly, that information should be made available back to them so that they can learn from it and be empowered by it. Beyond that, people will have to tune into the IIR panel discussion to hear more!
LM: That is a great core value John, and one that I think will resonate well with our colleagues. I can’t wait to hear more at the TDMR! I know you have a lot going on, so we’ll end with that. Thanks again for taking the time to chat. See you in Chicago!
JD: Great Lenny, I’m looking forward to it. See you there!
About John Dick:
John is the Founder and CEO of CivicScience, headquartered in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Prior to launching CivicScience in 2008, he was the Managing Partner of GSP Corp, a government relations and business development company he founded in 2001. Under John’s leadership, GSP grew to include 9 offices around the country before his successful exit from the company in 2007. John also serves on the board of numerous start-up companies and non-profit organizations. He is a frequent lecturer at the Carnegie Mellon University Tepper School of Business and Donald Jones Center for Entrepreneurship.