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A Brave New World: Thoughts On The Research Now/Vision Critical Partnership

Research Now and Vision Critical announced a new strategic partnership today, giving a clearer vision of the Brave New World of marketing insights. Lenny Murphy interviews Kurt Knapton and Scott Miller about the partnership and the future of market research.



Today a clearer vision of the Brave New World of marketing insights emerged through the announcement of the strategic partnership between Research Now and Vision Critical. Here is the core of the announcement:

Vision Critical, the leading provider of insight community technologies, and Research Now, the global leader in digital data collection, today announced a strategic partnership to provide Research Now clients and prospects with Vision Critical Insight Communities. The combined offering provides businesses and organizations with a deep understanding of specific consumer insights for select markets.

The Research Now global sales and delivery teams will now offer and fully support Vision Critical Insight Communities to benefit its clients and prospects. Vision Critical Insight Community technologies enable businesses and organizations to engage directly with hundreds to tens of thousands of customers on an ongoing basis to gain feedback and insights. Through insight communities, clients are able to gather, analyze and translate customer feedback into quick and meaningful business decisions. Continuing to evolve with the industry, Research Now offers clients the benefits of comprehensive customer insight communities.

“We’re excited about teaming up with one of the largest research service providers in the industry to offer Vision Critical Insight Communities to the Research Now audience,” said Scott Miller, group CEO of Vision Critical. “Research Now is a true innovator in research and we’re pleased to see the company drive insight communities to its clients by choosing Vision Critical as a strategic partner.”

“Our passion for building quality online panels for our clients is at our core,” added Kurt Knapton, president and CEO of Research Now. “Vision Critical’s Insight Community technology allows us to offer the most customized private panel solution available, now fully integrated with our advantaged panel assets.”

Big news indeed.

Full disclosure: I knew about this a few weeks ago, and suggested to all involved that an interview with Kurt Knapton and Scott Miller would be interesting and would help the industry get a bit more contextual understanding of what this deal means for all the stakeholders involved, but also to think about the potential implications for the industry as a whole. Luckily they agreed to humor me, so Kurt, Scott and I had a chance to chat for a bit and they have been generous enough to let me share it with you.

It’s a wide ranging interview and very meaty. We explore the deal a bit deeper than the press release allows for, their motivations for going down this path, impact on clients for both companies and the broader implications for the industry as a whole.

About 1/3 of the way into this video we really get into the vision these leaders share about the emerging future of the industry and that deserves close attention; they recognize that two hallmarks of the future of research are engaging with consumers on their terms, and leveraging multiple data streams for a holistic view of the consumer at an individual level. The Vision Critical Sparq platform is the hub of that engagement strategy (with mobile, social, etc… feeding it) while the Research Now sample platform is the data repository that will enable that integrated view.

Frankly, if you are a leader in this space, this should be required watching. I think their take on where the industry is today and where it is going is spot on. These aren’t guys who take blind risks; they have shareholders, Boards, hundreds of employees and clients and touch the lives of millions of consumers around the world every day. They see the massive change the industry is undergoing and are positioning their companies for success in the future.

We used the Adobe Connect platform which isn’t very friendly to embeds, so click on the image and it will open up a direct link to the video in Adobe Connect:


RN & VC Interview
Link to interview:


So what’s my take on this deal?

First, I’ve known Kurt for a long time; when I was CEO of Rockhopper Research e-Rewards was my primary sample supplier (although partner is a more accurate description of  how they engaged with us) and I have profound respect for his integrity, brilliance, and business sense. He’s a former Accenture & Booz Allen Hamilton guy and the story of when he was working with Accenture and convinced Brierly & Partners to launch e-Rewards in the beginning of the online era is a testament to his ability to see the future. He is also a good man, as I know first hand from my experience at Rockhopper. That counts for a lot in my book.

I’ve known the Vision Critical team for just as long, although only in the past year have I gotten to know Scott well and the same is true for him: he is a good man who has gone out of his way to help people, is incredibly smart, and is a clear-eyed visionary leader who took over what was effectively a large family business and is driving it forward in new directions and with great results. Let’s not forget he was CEO of Synovate North America, and was a driving force behind their explosive growth and successful sale to Ipsos. He has a proven track record of success.

Why the character references?

Because these guys just made a big move that will potentially impact every single player in the market research industry globally. When companies as important to an industry as these two are join forces, a measure of trust is needed, because the reality is that if they set their minds to it they could do much to disrupt the businesses of even the largest of players.

Think about this: whether you’re a tech company, full service agency, consultant, client, deal in qual or quant, or are big or small odds are that you do business or compete (often both in the sample part of the business!) with these firms. Research Now is the Microsoft of MR; they are part of most projects through their sample business (especially if it’s B-toB) and as such are a deeply integrated business enabler for global MR. And if Research Now is analogous to Microsoft, Vision Critical is closer to Apple: the bold innovators with a sleek and stylish offering that may have a smaller user base, but have set the standard for new thinking and a keen design sensibility for the industry. Together they power much of the research industry in one form or another.

But their objective isn’t to use their unique statuses in the industry to take away from full service agencies; instead they want to empower. And I believe their sincerity.

Similar to Survey Monkey, Google, and Qualtrics they are sending a message to research companies that technology will continue to be the driving force behind the functional aspects of research and the role of most research agencies will be focused on the consulting piece of the business by delivering insights enabled by that technology. The tools used to collect and manage the data that drive insights is the purview of technology companies now more than ever before. They are the tool makers; we are the mechanics. They are clearly listening to the marketplace (especially clients) and are crafting solutions to deliver on the demand for more integrated capabilities that capitalize on the broader social and technological shifts we see rapidly evolving in front of us.

I don’t see this as a particular threat to other MROC providers either; most of them have already built full service solutions around their businesses and are moving up market into a consultative role; their businesses will continue to grow driven by their service business, not their tech. Those firms (Communispace, Insites, etc…) will continue to be somewhat tech agnostic; they will plug in new capabilities as needed to continue to meet market demands. I don’t expect to see them lose market share as a result of this; their value proposition is different.

However, it will create more competitors for them, and those competitors may have a few advantages driven by access to Research Now sample:

  1. Decreased cost of acquisition for community members
  2. Increased speed of recruitment
  3. Integrated incentive systems

To a great extent, this now positions Research Now as one of the biggest “DIY” players in the market, although in this case they clearly are planning on their primary client base to be agencies. They already have the keystone of research: access to consumers. They also have a suite of proprietary data collection tools including mobile, social media, micro-surveys, and traditional surveys. Now they have communities, proprietary panels, and the robust tools embedded in Sparq to wrap around all that and can deliver to their clients a very robust end-to-end platform  that can support new business demands for the foreseeable future.

Empowering indeed.

On the Vision Critical side of things, their core identity is as a tech company. They have evolved to deliver the needed full service capabilities to meet client demand and I suspect they will continue to follow a dual path of technology driven innovation and world class full service support, although I wouldn’t be surprised to see them begin to put more emphasis on the tech business now to create some truly groundbreaking solutions in the near future.

Overall I see this as a great win/win for agencies, clients, and of course Research Now and Vision Critical. But there are always losers in these deals, so who will that be? I think that answer is the same as it ever is during periods of disruptive change; those who fail to adapt to the new world order.

Near the end of my interview with Kurt and Scott they both chime in with a very telling point. Recent reports from Nielsen, WPP, and Ipsos regarding the decline in their traditional research businesses should not be construed that market research is declining; rather the revenue is being redistributed to non-traditional players, many of which are primarily technology players and who often engage with marketing and IT groups within clients vs. insights groups. As they go on to point out, their businesses are thriving and experiencing very healthy growth. I suspect the same is true  for most tech-driven firms.

Are budgets being reallocated? Without a doubt. Tracking surveys are being shifted to social media or micro-survey models, more client spend is going to tools to measure behaviors and unconscious drivers of decision making than attitudinal and self-reported data. Mobile in all it’s permutations is growing more quickly than online ever did (since we reached the tipping point last year) , especially in emerging markets. Companies that are following those trends and adapting their business models will continue to grow. Those that have been slow to adapt to changing client demands or built their businesses off of easily disrupted products (like trackers or data syndication from outdated methods) are feeling the pain and will continue to do so.

The Research Now/Vision Critical deal contrasted with declining traditional research should serve as a loud alarm bell to all involved in this industry that the tide is turning rapidly and innovation must be the focus of the future. The choice is ours on whether we listen or not, but I suspect more and more leaders will see the opportunities inherent in this brave new world and will make the right choices for their businesses just as Kurt and Scott did.

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8 responses to “A Brave New World: Thoughts On The Research Now/Vision Critical Partnership

  1. Lenny, it’s good to see your health issues haven’t blunted your need or ability to bloviate (your $10 word for the day). When the #25 research firm (VC) partners with an unranked company (RN), its hard to see how this “big move that will potentially impact every single player in the market research industry globally”. Not saying I’m not happy for them, not saying it’s not a good thing for them, but it is hardly earth-shattering and game changing for anyone except VC and RN. That said, feel better.

    1. Ah Steve, you’re a victim of Honomichlitis my friend: Research Now is a BIG company; well over $100M which would put them in the top 10 if they were counted.Just like Survey Monkey, Google, Qualtrics, etc.. we ignore them as “research companies” in our league tables at our peril and detriment. Those companies have market caps just as big as the largest of traditional research companies. Not only that, but their fundamentals are better and growth opportunities more significant; they have recurring revenue streams, technology, data assets, and very low service overhead. You don’t see VCs flocking to Ipsos, WPP, Nielsen, etc.. but the opposite is true for firms like Research Now and Vision Critical.

      I believe Research Now is the largest sample provider in the industry on both a retail (working with direct clients) and wholesale (working with every other sample company) basis, and as such they do touch most projects in some form or fashion. No bloviating on that front my friend. For a company of that size and influence to start offering the ability to build communities from their sample (which I consider to be one of the best sources in the industry) to their hundreds of clients, combined with their mobile and social platforms, signals a tectonic shift in the industry. Oh, and lets not forget they also have a deal with Experian to augment panel data with all of the info Experian holds. It moves them much further to the “Big Data/Single Source” model that many much bigger companies (Google, Facebook, Apple, etc…) are working hard to get to. When (not if) that happens, it will utterly transform this industry.

      But, I’m just a guy with too many opinions and an over abundance of imagination, so what do I know? 🙂

  2. OK – I’ll bite – I could be well suffering from Honomichl-itis. Why are they not included in what is purported (and I’d underline that if I could figure out how) to be a complete reporting on the research business? This may be instructional for many of us.

    1. Hi Steve, the Honomichl report is excellent to understand 2 things: the performance of those full service research companies that submit their information or submit to CASRO and other trade orgs. It doesn’t count technology companies, sample providers, “next gen” firms like social media analytics or mobile data systems or any company that doesn’t submit their financials. It is a great snapshot of a very narrow segment of the industry and is directional at best for the broader sector. That said, Jack and Larry and the whole team at Inside Research do an exceptional job; it’s just not complete. And as much as I love what they do, the ESOMAR report is also incomplete and limited to self-reported data via members and partner trade orgs.

      Last year the MRS worked with PriceWaterHouse to do a resizing of the UK MR market that encompassed a much wider definition of what a modern “research company” is. The results were significantly larger than what had previously been reported through more narrowly focused industry reports. Some may argue it was too broad, but leaving that aside it proved the point that as an industry we have been very myopic in how we define ourselves and in measuring our selves. Kinda ironic, huh?

      Not to beat a dead horse, but remember recently when SurveyMonkey received a $1.3 Billion valuation? Everyone was shocked because we didn’t consider them a “real” part of the industry. There are many companies like that out there (I’d argue Research Now is one) that are a far bigger part of our ecosystem than anyone gives them credit for and we need to be inclusive of them.

  3. Lenny, great stuff! This is a very informative interview on an area of growing importance to the market research/insights industry and the clients it serves. I enjoyed hearing Scott’s and Kurt’s discussion about their new partnership and their vision for the future. In the future, I really would like to see a lot more of these type interviews as they are invaluable in seeing what other industry leaders are thinking and doing. I completely agree, Honomichl is one way of looking at the market research industry but in reality the industry is much broader and getting broader by the day. As any astute industry observer can see, the industry is being transformed and stretched by technology and client side needs. This is a good thing as there is definitely room for improvement and technology is rapidly making it more possible. In order to deliver a more fully integrated view of the customer and markets, there are also some needed integrations between areas that have traditionally been considered outside of the traditional market research/insights industry. These integrations are required to deliver the insights that client side customers need to make solid business decisions. IMHO, these two market research leaders are definitely moving in the right direction. Lenny, thanks for the insights!

  4. Well I guess we know which side of the fence you fall, Lenny. But to those of us sceptics, it’s a bit less clear cut. For example:
    “But their objective isn’t to use their unique statuses in the industry to take away from full service agencies; instead they want to empower.”
    erm… right. Any proof here, reasons why we should believe that two large research companies (one a little stale, the other aggressively growing) have come over all altruistic?

    “those competitors may have a few advantages driven by access to Research Now sample:
    Decreased cost of acquisition for community members”
    Similarly: “2 of the providers globally to partner up; prices to fall” is not a natural story that comes from any partnership deal – care to expand on this with examples?

    1. Hi Nick, and thanks for the comments. I wasn’t aware of there being a fence, but if there is I am firmly on the side of folks creating ways to add value, deliver efficiency, and drive impact for research organizations. I think I addressed why full service agencies shouldn’t be concerned in both the blog and the interview, and Kurt and Scott said it; their goal is to empower researchers with access to new tools and greater efficiencies. Since I worked with both organizations for many years myself when I ran a full service agency and know their values, I believe them. I guess we’ll both see if that’s a good call, but the bottom-line is they will do what they decide to do and the industry will adjust. Oh, and it’s not altruism, it’s good business sense and enlightened self interest. Why compete when you can convert? It increases scalability, drives revenue growth, and creates synergy that should continue to drive more growth for all involved. A rising tide floats all boats.

      I’m not sure where you’re coming from regarding pricing. Increased efficiency and scalability tends to decrease costs; it’s basic supply chain economics. That is what is happening here. Cost of acquisition is one of the biggest line items in community building because generally you have to do custom recruits; that cost will come down since you are now simply targeting from an existing panel population. Plenty of other folks own the commodity piece of the business; I think this model allows RN and VC to play in both the commodity and the premium markets and serve all constituents.

      I hope that helps!

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