As long predicted, tech giants are making more and more forays into the research space. Driven by the ubiquity of data available across integrated platforms and the demand for greater efficiencies in cost, speed, and differentiated insights Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, and many others have launched various models of research offerings. Today Microsoft officially joined the club, with a potentially highly disruptive offering called Pulse for Market Research, which is an extension of their Bing Pulse product line.
The new solution, which is available now for free, offers more advanced functions, like live streaming and moderated response groups, than any competitor on the market today. Pulse for Market Research empowers researchers to collect data and garner insights in real-time, and researchers can set up and host moderated response groups within minutes, giving respondents the ability to communicate their views instantaneously and in-depth.
Participants can use any internet-connected phone, tablet, or PC to respond to questions and can vote on or rate an embedded video stream, advertisement, discussion, meeting, or audio feed.
The product development was led by the legendary researcher Mark Penn, Chief Insights Officer at Microsoft. Mark was a principle of Penn Schoen Berland (PSB) and is widely renowned as one of the preeminent strategy and insights consultants in the world. That is important because it means this offering has been guided so far by a world class strategist who is also a brilliant researcher, which is different than the path similar products by other tech companies have followed. Now the buzz is that Mark is leaving Microsoft to start a VC firm focused on marketing and research plays, but this product has been mapped out already and you can bet your bottom dollar that this early beta version is just the first step in the development of a very mature product suite that will have big implications for market research suppliers and clients.
It’s also interesting to note that the free solution is in line with the new strategy of the company. CEO Satya Nadella is driving the company to a “post-paid software” model, as evidenced by their recent decisions regarding free upgrades to Windows 10 and even free versions of popular Office products Word and Excel. Considering Microsoft has 1.5 billion users, their decision to focus on “the platform” vs. a more traditional product-centric strategy makes good sense. As Google, Facebook and Apple have shown, keeping users expanding their footprint via platform usage extensions works. What is unique about Microsoft however is that the majority of their business is with corporations rather than consumers. Microsoft is the platform that the vast majority of businesses run on, so beginning to build in insights tools for those users is synergistic, to say the least.
Similar to my analysis when Google Consumer Surveys launched, my key takeaways on why this is big news for the market research industry are:
- Further disruption from big, data-driven tech giants of the data collection piece of market research
- The possibilities for platform extensions via Office, Cloud, XBox, Skype, Windows, and all of the other various offerings that Microsoft owns could drive fast adoption
- Microsoft has been suspected as a possible suitor for SalesForce, Qualtrics and Survey Monkey so the potential integration of any of those three platforms could be monumentally disruptive
- The further “democratization” of research via even more DIY solutions
All of that is conjecture and possible implications though, so what do we know about the product today? First, it’s helpful to step back and look at the Bing Pulse tool as a whole. The embed below from the home page sets the stage:
And now what does Microsoft say about the release themselves? Here is an excerpt from the press release:
Gaining insights from current and potential customers is increasingly the difference between success and failure for businesses and brands around the world. Knowing those insights in real-time can give any organization an edge in the marketplace and competitive advantage over their peers.
As part of our mission to empower professionals and enterprises small and large, Microsoft’s Bing Pulse is announcing today the availability of Pulse for Market Research – a self-service solution for surveys, live content rating, and moderated response groups of any size.
Bing Pulse for Market Research is the latest offering by Bing Pulse, a leading solution for real-time TV audience engagement. The new product is now available for free and supports instant sentiment tracking and surveys for response groups, ad and video tests, and audience studies of any size. Researchers are able to set up and host a moderated study group within minutes, giving their respondents the ability to communicate their views instantaneously and in-depth. Researchers collect data and garner insights instantly and for free and without conventional hardware limitations, and the insights can be compared across sessions or can be downloaded for further analysis and later reference.
Participants respond from any internet-connected phone, tablet, or PC to questions and can vote on or rate an embedded video stream, advertisement, discussion, meeting, or audio feed.
“This revolutionary product will be a boon for any market research company,” noted Mark Penn, Chief Insights Officer at Microsoft, who founded and led his own market research firm for 35 years, and oversaw the development of the product. “We have put a powerful new tool in the hands of market researchers that offers unlimited quantitative feedback for ad tests, product tests, audience response, and much more, without any capital investment.”
“The days of dinner-time landline calls or expensive clickers in remote focus groups are gone,” added Josh Gottheimer, General Manager of the Strategy and Insights Group at Microsoft. “Demand for mobile surveys is increasing and smartphones and tablets are the new preferred medium through which insights are collected. Pulse for Market Research is at the vanguard of that trend and offers a best in class and mobile market research platform for any researcher, marketer, and business managers out there. ”
Pulse for Market Research offers brands, research organizations, and professionals an important array of features, including:
• Pulsing (stimulus response) and Polling (survey) functions which allow researchers to gain feedback at any point before, during, and after an event, a video stream, or content pushed out for respondents.
• The ability to live stream a video or event through Azure Media Services or Ustream.
• Customizable voting pages that create branded experiences for each session and organization.
• API access to gather the raw data in real-time.
• Researchers can upload content for participants in the platform, and if wanted, participants can exchange ideas and thoughts with one another through Yammer chat-rooms.
• Pulse for Market Research runs a simple web interface that works on any connected device and can be iFramed into any website or app.
To learn more about Pulse for Market Research and sign-up for it, please visit: http://pulse.bing.com/pulse-for-research/.
In essence Bing Pulse is a free, globally scalable tool designed for device agnostic, real-time audience research. There is no limit on the number of participants; it is free regardless of whether you are capturing data from 12 or 12 million respondents.
That is what it does today, but what will it be like in the future? What’s the strategy behind this launch?
To answer that question I spoke with Lee Brenner, Global Business Development & Media Partnerships Lead at Microsoft, and Dritan Nesho, Senior Strategist, Strategy and Special Projects, at Microsoft. We had a great conversation about the history of this initiative, the strategy behind it, and what the future will look like. I didn’t record the conversation, but I’ll try to convey the high points.
First, this product has been in development since 2012, and came out of an observation by Mark Penn and Dritan (who also came from PSB) that the ability to get real time feedback from audiences, especially during live events such as political speeches, debates, or announcements was very limited. They thought that Microsoft could help address that issue with their technology and began testing early versions of the platform with multiple media outlets like CNN and MSNBC. By partnering with them, combined with their own experience as researchers and the support of the technical and research resources at Microsoft, they have refined the system over the past several years until they felt it was robust enough to stand alone.
Bing Pulse sits as a start-up within Microsoft, so the initial drive is going to be to grow their user base, hence the free beta. Long term who knows if it will stay free as the focus shifts to profitability, although as I mentioned above Microsoft is focusing less on software sales and more on enterprise and platform services so it’s entirely possible they will adopt a “Survey Monkey” type model.
Speaking of Survey Monkey, they are absolutely planning on continuing to roll out new features and capabilities, especially within their survey tool, to make it comparable to similar platforms. Bear in mind that also means continuing to expand the qualitative capabilities, something which their closest competitors do not have. They already have integrated asynchronous community capabilities via Yammer and enhanced video group functions via Skype and in the next few months they will be introducing tools like annotation/tagging, real time crosstabbing within their already impressive dashboards, and the ability to import/export data. The vision today is to offer a self-service, enterprise level platform that can go head-to-head with any other on the market.
For now there is no plan to open the platform to 3rd party developers or open a marketplace model, so all currently planned platform extensions will be driven through internal development resources. In addition, they are sensitive to privacy issues so there is no plan to participate in any aspect of sampling or recruiting other than what occurs through embedding their widget into other sites for site intercepts, and even then they do not capture or store any PII (which should make growth in Europe much easier!).
Oh, and did I mention it was FREE?!
Finally, they are in discussions with every other product line in Microsoft to explore integration, so long term it’s entirely possible we will see Bing Pulse options on Xbox, MS Office, Office 365/Office Live, Minecraft and even HoloLens, although as of today those are just ideas.
Any regular readers of this blog knows that for many years I have said that the days of the research industry owning quantitative data collection are over, and that tech platforms have irretrievably taken over that very sizable chunk of the research industry. Certainly there are still exceptions to that rule such as telephone or face-to-face, but those are increasingly niche methods. For the vast majority of commercial research the future belongs to technologists. Qualitative has been an exception to that truth as well despite many advances in online qual techniques, but now Microsoft is making a major effort to do to qual what DIY platforms did to quant years ago.
More than anything else, this move from Microsoft should reinforce the fact that it’s time for research suppliers to aggressively shift their business models to either add value with unique and differentiated technology (or data) offerings of their own, or make the shift to pure insights consultancies and partner with the Microsofts, Googles, Amazons, etc.. of the world to use their tools to deliver impactful insights to brands. That is certainly something Microsoft hopes to see happen, and they will continue to devote the resources to help support that vision, so we can either be partners with them, or make way for others to do so.
So what’s my bottom line? Bing Pulse for Research is still somewhat limited, but like other tech company entrants into the market the product will evolve in response to market demand. Brands are already flocking to “cheaper, faster, better” and self-service solutions so I expect more of the same with Bing Pulse. It doesn’t replace the need for some operational elements of research like respondent acquisition or project management, nor is there any level of consultancy here, so there is plenty of room for research organizations to incorporate this tool into their toolbox. However, the free nature certainly disrupts the business models of many companies who play in both quant and qual, with any virtual qual (including MROC) providers facing a significant new challenge.
We’ll be hearing much more from Microsoft over the next few years, so get ready now.