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Monitoring Marissa: How MR And Yahoo! Face The Same Uncertain Future

Yahoo's continued existence probably depends on the success of Marissa Mayer to make the internet giant relevant and engaging to consumers. I think it's no exaggeration to suggest that ours may very well depend on these same factors.



By Jonathan Deitch, Ph.D.

This essay represents my personal point of view about the challenges we face as an industry that increasingly struggles to acquire its essential raw material: respondents. My belief is unambiguous: we are the problem, and we need to change to survive. We must re-imagine our offer, which will only happen when we understand what the online survey research experience looks like in today’s context from their point of view, from the moment they decide to spend time with us through survey and reward, from environmental context to screen size, from comprehension to duration. We need to re-engage them—and make them want to be engaged— in our journey.

The fast-paced multi-billion dollar world of internet search, advertising, and content is not easy to follow. Tools and practices change quickly. To continue to exist, companies must innovate routinely and quickly. If they don’t, someone else will. A stale experience means fewer eyeballs. When nobody returns, advertisers flee. When advertisers flee, there is less funding for innovation, and so on…

This is effectively what happened at Yahoo and what ultimately led to the appointment of Marissa Mayer. I’ve been following her appointment at Yahoo because, though our industries are very different, I believe we face essentially similar challenges.

The Rise and Decline of Yahoo

Not quite two decades ago, Yahoo started as a small site that aimed to “organize the Web”. This seemingly grandiose mission was possible in those days; the web was still small enough to manually curate. Websites were brochures and offered little to actually do. As a portal for discovery, Yahoo was the unequivocal leader in those ancient times.

A few years later, an upstart company began doing the same thing, except they had automated algorithms that served to weigh a site’s importance by the extent to which others thought it was valuable. They began to lure away Yahoo’s users as their results were seen as more relevant, complete, and even democratic. Yahoo’s importance dwindled, and Google rose into prominence.

History clearly shows who won this battle. Yahoo’s response to Google was insufficient. Google launched new products (like Gmail and Google maps, two products Marissa oversaw) while continuing to improve and capitalize on their core search product. They attracted more visitors, and with them more advertising dollars. Yahoo failed to innovate and steadily lost ground. Google’s market value went up. Yahoo’s went down. Over the last several years Yahoo has gone through one CEO after another, but none have been able to reverse the decline.





Enter Marissa Mayer. An early Google employee, Marissa’s strength was her ability to blend a real understanding of technology with strong vision about how to mold it into appealing products. Her success with Gmail and Maps made her one of the “superstars” of Internet business and Yahoo sought her out because of this. The fact the Yahoo Board chose her over more experienced general managers is all the proof we need to conclude that, to them, perspective mattered more than tenure.

While Marissa’s profile as a leader is thought-provoking, what interests me more are the parallels I see between her mission at Yahoo and ours in the MR industry. Let me be clear here: I don’t believe we have lost our way like Yahoo did. Nevertheless we face similar challenges, the biggest of which is our ability to captivate and retain our audiences.

Marissa’s Plans

So what is Marissa going to do to reverse Yahoo’s fortunes?

The trade press suggests she’s focusing on two things. One of them relates to key infrastructure; the other, to Yahoo’s users themselves.

Yahoo is losing out on advertising revenues in part because they lack top tools. For Yahoo to attract advertisers, they need to be able to deliver highly targeted ads that maximize ROI for all parties. With a new engine to run the business, they hope to revitalize the key driver of Yahoo’s revenue. Yahoo is also betting heavily on mobile. The conventional wisdom is that Yahoo has no mobile products that are on par with Google or Facebook. To think that this is simply an “app” problem misses the point.

For Yahoo, mobile means more than just shrinking content to a smartphone screen. It means understanding that the environmental context, needs, use cases, and methods of interaction exhibited by a person on the go are different from when s/he is sitting at a desk. To be successful at mobile for Yahoo means no less than reimagining their offer by taking their great content and delivering it to people in a way that’s useful, accessible, meaningful, and engaging. For Yahoo, mobile is neither the end nor the means. It’s a change of paradigm, a new way of thinking that is as fluid as the name implies. The endgame is to keep users coming back.

Parallels for MR

What Marissa is doing at Yahoo is exactly what we need to do ourselves.

We are in the middle of our own change in industry infrastructure. Sampling has evolved from the utilities of panels to being the heart of survey ecosystems and routers that are integrated with field and project management platforms. Technology is allowing us to not only leverage the latest in online research and sampling methodologies, but to also more efficiently manage the flow of respondents. These integrated platforms are becoming our new engine and a necessary but not sufficient component of our broad strategy.

What’s our analogy, then, to Yahoo’s quest to become more mobile?

Some would argue (I’m one of them) that we need to (quickly) become more mobile in the literal sense of the word.

Using the Expanded Definition by ESOMAR as the basis for calculation, online only approaches account for 55% of global spend at $33.5B. According to Comscore in 2014 60% of all internet traffic of any type originates on a mobile device. That means that $20.1B of our industry revenues are likely driven by mobile as well.

One simple thing “mobile” means for us is having a survey that displays properly on a small screen. The grid question format, one of our most widely-used (yet indisputably painful for respondents even on big screens), simply won’t work. Fortunately, everyone on the sample and data collection side of the business see this and are pushing to become mobile friendly. The work now lies with helping clients manage through this transition.

Mobile success requires more than new interfaces though. Marissa knows—and Yahoo hired her because—she understands that product success is first and foremost dependent upon understanding how users will engage with that product. With each revolutionary wave of how people engage with technology, Marissa’s challenge is to make sure Yahoo remains connected with its users and engages them with compelling and relevant offers that elegantly package content and context.

If Yahoo can’t make this work, it will never return to its former glory. Indeed Yahoo’s continued existence probably depends on her success. I think it’s no exaggeration to suggest that ours may very well depend on these same factors.

Unlocking Engagement

Our industry faces a very stark future unless we figure out how to reengage with our respondents.

Low response and high attrition rates are the symptoms. In an attempt to cure the disease, we developed new methodologies like routers and river sampling. While these give us greater reach and efficiency, they are mechanical solutions that still treat people as if they were an inexhaustible resource. To use an analogy, it’s like we’ve treated a water quality problem by simply opening the taps wider hoping more water will dilute the contaminants. We still have dirty water and we haven’t done anything to stop the pollution at its source.

To address the real cause we have to understand what our offer looks like from the perspective of our users. This means two things.

First, we must understand that our competition isn’t from other other research firm. It is Facebook, YouTube, Angry Birds, the television, the telephone, the kids, email, text messages, apps, the loud person next to us on the train, and so on. We ask for someone’s valuable time and their full attention when both of these things are in increasingly short supply. We need a better understanding of the constraints when we do this, and we need to change our expectations.

Second, we need to stop treating the respondent as a commodity and his actions as a one-off transaction. The answer here lies in trying to create relationships like those that exist in community panels. Community panels (we used to simply call them proprietary panels!) are making a big comeback in these days of extreme social connectedness. This approach leverages the natural affinity panelists have for the brand sponsoring the panel. Through new types of research-centered participation, people keep coming back. This is exactly what we as an industry need to do more of.

Imagine if our panelists were proud to be a part of the research process? Imagine that, through a satisfying survey experience and the feeling their time was well spent, the average panelist who might ordinarily only complete 5 surveys in her life gave us just one more? The benefits would be dramatic.

Our Actions

The implications of the above reasoning are manifold.

Our survey experience must change. It needs to be top drawer. It must be modern, interesting, and engaging. It shouldn’t be clunky or abusive or difficult to do. Rightly or wrongly, our panelists are comparing us to sites crafted by a corps of super-skilled designers, engineers and developers. They are the benchmark, and we need to put out a much better product, one that feels more welcoming than an application for a bank account.

We need to truly understand what our offer looks like through the eyes of our potential respondents. From the first ad they see enticing them to take our surveys, we then need to maximize the likelihood that they respond accurately and completely, whether they’re on their laptop, or on their smartphone on the bus, or on an iPad while watching television while instant messaging with a friend.

We need to think like brand managers. Retention isn’t just about incentives. Saatchi and Saatchi sell their clients on a vision that says if you give people an experience they love and you earn their respect, they will show you loyalty beyond reason. Is it ambitious to think respondents show us loyalty beyond reason? Maybe. But the fact is we have to aim for this peak. If we don’t, our fate is surely sealed.

We’ve taken the first step in this journey by hiring a senior leader to oversee our engagement efforts.


Marissa Mayer’s challenge is to change Yahoo: to transform it from being a “legacy” Internet company to a modern one, one where users can engage with the company however they want, wherever they want. This is an article of her faith. Yahoo’s existence depends on it.

Though our situation is not (yet) as dire as Yahoo’s, we face the same challenge. We need to transform our industry from being a “legacy” data provider to a modern one. We must reengage our respondents. We need to see the world from their eyes. We need to give them an experience that is more satisfying for them. We need to treat them and their time with respect. This is an article of my faith, and I believe our existence depends on it.

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4 responses to “Monitoring Marissa: How MR And Yahoo! Face The Same Uncertain Future

  1. Agree with you 100% – excellent article. Focus Group Facilities are being asked to “hold” respondents that are close to an algorithm but not fully aligned. This is a long term trust issue that needs to be addressed because these respondents will cease to be available for the initial interview. If they feel over time that the process is too difficult. No amount of money is sufficient to compromise their respect and trust.

  2. Great article. I agree with your assessments but I think Yahoo and MR are on two different trajectories. Yahoo is trying to create a mainstream appeal while MR is headed toward a more consumer centric format.

    Yahoo as a company has to quickly figure out a way to increase revenue and in that process has increasingly integrated native advertising and “forced” advertising within their content as well as moving away from content news toward entertainment. Remember when Yahoo used to have a strong bent toward financial news. Probably not….

    MR, on the other hand, is moving away from its statistical roots toward a more behavioral perspective. This is a necessary move because of response bias and the realization that stated responses often don’t track well with subsequent actions or necessarily reflect completed transactions.

    Behaviors, on the other hand, especially when related to products or choices provide a world of information with regard to what happens when buyers are exposed to products at various stages of the buying cycle. The questions that remain unanswered are often related to the mindset of the buyer when the moment of purchase is presented.

    It’s really about consistent tipping points and finding that unique combination of factors that resonates with buyers in a way that carries past the purchase point. Marketers often make it more complicated than it needs to be by adding in factors that dilute and often derail the process. If you create true differentiation in the product it should be apparent, otherwise it’s just another choice in a crowded field.

    For MR to thrive it needs two things, more proactive reasoning behind product development (it doesn’t matter how good the research is when the products are marginal), i.e. a stronger focus on innovation and secondly, a better understanding of how that product fills in the gaps. Within that second point is a differentiation between style, ergonomics and actual usage. Those touch points aren’t explained in a traditional study and in fact most marketers today know this and use their quant work to rule out rather than refine.

    One has to wonder how many discarded outliers of the past had great insights on nextgen ideas that didn’t fit nearly into a spreadsheet.

    Lastly, we need to be more respective of people in general. There is far too much rule out and far too little refinement going on. People are pretty good about evaluating a concrete item but they struggle with opinions and likelihoods because interactions often occur with specific circumstances not present when they are asked to evaluate.

  3. It’s refreshing to hear a market researcher speak like a marketer. This is a necessary mantra to transforming the research industry. We have been concerned with similar issues when we started building our MR automation platform, so I’m on the same page with you JD. The first thing we tackled was the common digital survey. Why did they look like we’re still in the paper and clipboard days? So we introduced a tool to capture insights in the way people communicate today, through pictures and videos. For those of us who thrive on change this will be a most exciting journey through one of the largest industry transformations in our lifetime.

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