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Lead Up To The IIR TDMR: Interview with Vivek Bhaskaran of Survey Analytics

Vivek Bhaskaran

3 weeks to go until the IIR Technology Driven Market Research event in Chicago, and we’re down to the last few interviews with presenters! Today I bring you my conversation with Vivek Bhaskaran, CEO of Survey Analytics, and it’s a doozy! Always outspoken, irreverent, and most of all smart, Vivek revels in challenging the status quo.

I have gotten to know Vivek fairly well over the past few months; for a while we were exploring working together to co-develop a new offering around the convergence of mobile and social media, but that opportunity never came to fruition. During those conversations I quickly developed a deep respect for his energy, technological savvy and business acumen. I also discovered that Vivek has a passion for harnessing technology to create innovative solutions with a low barrier to entry for small and medium sized enterprises. One example is their recent flurry of mobile research solutions such as SurveyPocket, a mobile platform for tablets. Where many other enterprise-level software firms are still struggling to deploy mobile survey solutions, Survey Analytics has already moved from smartphones to tablets, and they are targeting client-side researchers as their clients with these solutions.

This strategy has put them dead-center in the “DIY” debate, and getting his take on that issue is one of the highlights of the interview. I think you’ll find this discussion lively, engaging, and very relevant to what’s happening within the market research industry today.

Like the other interviews in this series, this was conducted over a period of weeks via email.

LM: Survey Analytics has racked up an impressive list of accomplishments lately, especially with your consistent roll out of new technology and approaches for data collection. Why do you think that strategy has been so successful? What about your message is resonating with the industry?

VB: I think one of the key drivers we think about is ease-of-use combined with powerful complexity. This is partly because of the businesses we run – we have such a wide variety of audiences that we’re forced to think about usability as well as complexity. We’ve always been in the leading edge of research, although we’ve traditionally not looked at ourselves as a research provider. We look at ourselves as a software company servicing not only the market research industry, but what we call the “listening” business. This includes customer sat, social science research as well as helping the florist small business listen to their customer’s opinions.

Recently we’ve rolled out major initiatives that we believe will disrupt the status quo and look deep into the future. SurveySwipe is one such example, and as you know, we’ve bet big on mobile research. We think this will change not only research, but data-collection and interaction in general. I am glad most of the research industry is looking forward to exciting opportunities with this medium, as opposed to say 5-6 years ago when online research was frowned upon by many researchers in favor of phone based research. History has not been kind to them. Lets not make the same mistakes.

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

VB: The primary driver is actually coming from the consumer. The idea that a consumer can be convinced to fill out a 40 question grid, in today’s 140 character twitter and FourSquare location checkin world is almost to a point of being delusional. The only folks who fill out 40 question grids are of a particular archetype that is frankly not what most researchers want. For example, getting anyone below the age of 24 to fill out an online survey is nearly impossible. Not because they are not online; on the contrary, every study has shown they are spending more time online, they just don’t want to spend their time filling out surveys!

As my dear friend Chris Robson of Parametric Marketing, a small full-service research company out of Portland said – “MR today is defined by Online Surveys and Focus Groups” – we need to find better models for insight gathering outside the context of just running another online survey.

We here at SurveyAnalytics have many ideas around the notion of location based and mobile research. We have many ideas on inverting models of data-collection and harnessing data that is volunteered, not asked. We suspect that the data gathered from such methodologies has a higher propensity for insight than self-administered surveys!

LM: I could not agree more; the paradigm has shifted, it’s the MR industry that is now struggling to keep up! You’ve been rolling out lots of interesting new offerings such as IdeaScale for crowdsourcing ideation and co-creation, BadgeFarm as a social engagement system, and of course your mobile offerings via SurveySwipe and SurveyPocket. Where do those all fit within the context of your overall platform? Are you planning to integrate them into a single “insight management” DIY platform? Also, what about social media monitoring, text analytics, more qualitative offerings such as mobile video or lifestreaming, and business intelligence systems integration; any plans to bring those into the mix?

VB:Yes. As you know, we are big believers in self-service. We are a software company and we look at ourselves as bringing solutions to the market that empower business to “Listen” — through any number of channels. If you look at it from that context, SurveyPocket is our iPad App for “Offline Surveys” — BadgeFarm is an engagement platform for rewarding consumers and building a social reputation model that is federated across multiple sites and platforms.

SurveyAnalytics will be a loosely federated groups of services that enable business to gather insight. We will obviously leverage from an aggregate standpoint all the elements of feedback into a unified process – but we’ll also let our customers pick and choose what they want and what is important for them.

On Social Media – Yes – It’s something we plan on doing in Q2 of this year. We will be launching a Social Media Research and Monitoring tool as part of our platform. Can’t say too much about it, but it’ll be almost negligent on our part if we don’t add social into the mix for listening systems.

Lifestreaming is an interesting idea. I don’t think we have enough demand for it right now. Adding it to our mix would be relatively easy given our reach into the mobile and the engagement space via SurveySwipe and BadgeFarm respectively.

LM: Since your primary client base is enterprise end users vs. MR firms, what feedback have you gotten from that segment that has driven your development? What criticisms have you heard regarding how MR suppliers are not meeting their needs effectively that has driven them to look at a DIY solution?

VB: The big feedback I get from my clients vis-a-vis inhouse research is about execution. Cost is a factor, but execution is a bigger factor. Most of our enterprise clients use our system because they can control the research and execute as and when it’s needed. They want to get their hands dirty. They want to create their own panels. They want to use mobile for data collection.

Part of why we don’t sell much into MR is because we very often will collaborate with clients in developing new solutions. For example, we collaborated very heavily with Zynga to develop a Population Level Max-Diff Scaling model to measure features and tools that are important to Zynga games as they are playing games. This involved showing a simple 2 question survey, across hundreds of thousands of players and applying the max-diff scaling model on it. Now, take that same issue and look at it from the prism of MR – Almost everyone in MR wants to do a multi-task (10-20) Max Diff model. It does not work anymore – no one (including Zynga’s users) want to go through a 10 minute survey!

LM: What is your vision of where market research will fit into client organizations in five years from now? Will it be more of a BI/IT centric function, more strategic marketing insights focused, or some other model?

VB: I think MR as a sole function will almost cease to exist and substantially change. In fact it’s already changing and we all have seen that first hand. The challenge is that most of what clients want today is directly dictated by the technology available. So, a “Pure” MR player usually is caught between a rock and a hard place. Technology providers like us will want to push the envelope and will try and make as much as we can self-service. This is the natural flow of disruption. Its our job to do it. I think MR companies that tack along the technology or strategic market insight focus will be able to do very well. Keep in mind that MR companies have very deep relationships – that is their core asset!

LM: That’s a pretty bleak outlook, but I tend to agree with you overall that MR has to let go of the focus on “how” and instead begin to position ourselves as the masters of the “what and why”. With that in mind, how can market researcher learn to leverage platforms like the Survey Analytics suite to help drive that transformation? What advice would you give?

VB: Like I mentioned above, we’ve done many projects where we’ve partnered with clients to develop new ideas. Many MR firms have great ideas and methodologies, but lack sorely in technology prowess. Its simply a different DNA. I would encourage MR companies to look for technology companies not as “suppliers” but as partners in this quest. This will result in a better outcome for all parties involved. Technology changes fast – and we all see that in front of our eyes. You and I know, we did the very first State of the Union Live Dial testing using smart phones, ethnographic studies during superbowl etc. – and we’ll all continue to innovate in many different axis. My thought would be that obviously at a practical level use the technology to their advantage, but also work with us as partners. One such example is our Panel Management Platform — where we don’t charge a large upfront licensing fee, but more of a revenue split over time. This again, is just an example of what I call the shared risk initiative. I think these innovative business models are out of the box, but yield disproportionate results!

LM: It’s interesting that you have a relationship with Zynga; you and I have discussed “gamification” many times and of course Zynga are the masters of developing engaging games that could easily be adapted as research tools as well. Where do you stand on the idea of incorporating game play elements into either the engagement model or as the actual interface for data collection?

VB: Well, I don’t think anyone has cracked the nut yet. Same can be said for social media research. I think we definitely cannot do “surveys” as games. Its too shallow and won’t work — in my opinion. Yes, it can increase response rates, but really — lets step back and think – is that all that we all want? Increasing response rates? What we want is better insight and unobtrusive insight from the consumer. So, that being the objective, I do believe that games, especially social games, can be leveraged to gather insight. We have a couple of ideas around this with our BadgeFarm product line, but again, this is a vast and unexplored territory and I believe there is much more to innovate here.

LM: You’ve done a great job of harnessing the power of social media as a primary marketing channel, something that few MR firms have learned to do effectively. Can you share a little bit of your strategy and thinking on that and offer some suggestions to others on how they can get started?

VB: Thanks Lenny. We are big on direct marketing. Even before social media, we’ve been very good at SEO — before SEO was sexy — to be brutally honest, SEO is a large part of why we are even in business today.  Our strategy around social media is pretty simple – its another channel that we want to push our message. We not only push our message through social media, but also listen to users there.

I don’t want to sound like the proverbial “social media expert” — but I do believe that every company has to have an authentic voice – a blog is obviously the easiest way to do it. Once you get a blog running, you then link it up to Facebook and Twitter and keep pushing your ideas! As TED’s tagline says “ideas worth spreading” — if your ideas are indeed worth spreading, it’ll go out!

LM: OK, last question. “DIY” research has been a hot topic lately, with a lot of folks chiming in both for and against it. I view it as the logical evolution of technological efficiency and think it will force the market research industry to drop their dependence on defining our industry by the “how” and enable us to instead focus on the “what and why” of our true value proposition.  That said, it’s a convenient term that does carry some negative connotations for some. What is your view on the “DIY” debate, the terminology in general, and how can MR embrace the opportunities created by these technological innovations?

VB: Lenny, I am glad you addressed that with me. You’ve been keeping up with the debate! I want to address the nomenclature here – DIY. This is a term the full service market research industry has coined for tools like SurveyMonkey, QuestionPro, Zoomerang etc. DIY implies – less than professional. We all know that, and lets not pretend otherwise. However, no one in the MR business calls Confirmit, Dimensions (from SPSS)  DIY. I fail to understand the difference. Yes – there are feature, functionality, price and target audience differences. It simply is factually inaccurate to state that a set of tools, based on features are somehow “unprofessional” than another set that is “professional” – in today’s world. Is ConstantContact DIY and ExactTarget not?

Is the head of digital marketing for Qatar Airways, Washington Post, CareerBuilder, FCC, McGraw Hill unprofessional? Well – here is another piece of news – no one outside the MR industry uses term DIY to describe tools. In my judgement, the full-service MR industry is looking for a scape goat as the industry transforms, and it’s almost too convenient to lessen and blame the disruptor.

LM: Well, there you have it folks! This debate is far from over, but I think you’ve give us all a lot to think about Vivek. Thanks for taking the time to do this and see you in Chicago at the TDMR!

VB: Thanks Lenny, this has been fun. See you next month!

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