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Lead Up To The IIR TDMR: Interview With Warren Sukernek of Alterian

Warren Sukernek

With a month to go until the Technology Driven Market Research event in Chicago, I’ll be posting a lot more of the interviews I have been conducting with various presenters at the conference. I have 6 wrapped up already, and hope to finish a couple more prior to the event. To start off this next wave of posts, we have an interview with Warren Sukernek, Senior Director of Social Media Services at Alterian.

This interview was conducted as a series of email exchanges over the course of a few weeks; so it is a complete and accurate record of all exchanges.

I was introduced to Alterian in 2009 and have followed them closely ever since. I’ve written about them several times here on the blog as an example of the “new competition” for traditional market research, and so far they remain one of the best examples of a technology driven company from outside of the MR space that is making an awful lot of smart decisions in crafting a highly competitive offering in our industry. I continue to be impressed by the exceptional quality of their team, the vision of their senior leadership, and their continual focus on innovation. They are aggressively positioning themselves to be a major player in the future market research ecosystem, and frankly I think many firms will have a hard time winning against them; their value proposition is simply far more in alignment with what clients are asking for from us.

I have never met Warren, but I am looking forward to sitting down with him at the TDMR and changing that. I certainly enjoyed our interview, and I think you will as well. I also think after reading this you’ll agree with me on the point that Alterian is a company that really does change the game in market research; hopefully this will help inspire more firms to adapt to the new rules!

LM: Alterian seems to be making a big splash with your rollout of new products and is generating a lot of interest within the market research space. Why do you think that is?

WK: The research industry somehow knows social is a critical source, but hasn’t worked out how to sustainably integrate it into what they do, how they think and what they deliver; ironically, researchers are happiest when they have one data set, but often struggle when they have two e.g. groups and a quant survey. Our response has been to set up a business that is organized around all the datasets wherever they come from and use them as needed to generate the right insights. Tools like web journey and SM2, and particularly Alterian Alchemy  give clients access to real time data about their customers and the ability to slice and dice the data into actionable segments.  Thus they can then embed insight practices into both tactical and strategic initiatives using technology.

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

WK: Most of the industry doesn’t understand social yet, so they tend to define it and access it through what is easy to see and analyze e.g. Twitter. Our view is that to understand online culture you have to acknowledge its complexity and look to understand what people are saying/ doing/ thinking whatever the platform or source. That’s why we invest in human based investigation and analysis rather than just counting what’s easy to count. We’re therefore guided by the knowledge that people live lives online and in the physical world and that to truly address a client’s needs we have to understand both of these realities to create a complete view of markets to drive the right behaviors and perceptions/ support innovation etc. As one of the first social media platforms to acquire insight skills within its portfolio, Alterian is leading the way in building insight thinking and traditional research metrics into our tools.  We are providing a reporting and insight service that not only looks at public data (social media), but also integrates it with internal and custom data.

LM: I love the model of data synthesis and delivery via online tools that Alterian has embraced although, as you said, it’s a fairly radical concept for the market research community to embrace. How have you overcome resistance to this idea within MR organizations, or have you sidestepped it by focusing on the CMO or Brand Management organizations?

WK: As you know, Alterian has had many long term relationships with big brands and partners.  Thus, our primary focus has been discussion of our solutions with our core constituencies, marketing organizations.  However, there have been several forward thinking MR organizations that gotten very excited about our offerings.

LM: You’re referring to your acquisition of Intrepid when you discuss having those internal insight skills, correct? I thought that was a bold (and smart) move by your company and as a result I often use Alterian as an example of the type of firm that traditional MR suppliers should model themselves after or risk being replaced by. I think we’re seeing a similar trend playing-out with the recent spate of M&A activity of Marketing/PR Agencies absorbing MR-based firms and/or building out more insight-driven offerings. Thinking of your own evolution and in light of similar developments in related sectors, what do you think the market research space will look like in the next 5 years or so?

WK: Thank you very much.  As you probably know, I joined Alterian as part of the acquisition, although my focus was on social media rather than market research.  However, given the proliferation of data that currently exists due to social media, there is a significant demand for actionable insights and the ability to analyze this dataset, particularly in the context of integrating with other data.  We have seen that social media can be very disruptive, not just to brands, but to the agencies that support those brands. Therefore, I think that the successful MR firms will embrace social media as part of their expertise and insight-driven offerings.  The agencies that apply strong insights to all datasets, regardless of origin will be the ones that thrive, in my opinion.

LM: Are you seeing more traditional MR companies just licensing the SM2 platform, or are more going for the broader Alchemy package? Also, for those that don’t know, can you outline the various products and services that Alterian offers?

WK: I think that a lot of MR companies are dipping their toes into the water and trying to get a better understanding of social media monitoring and its fit with their traditional solutions.  Thus, we are seeing more interest in licensing the SM2 platform.  As agencies migrate from crawl to run, I am sure that we will see many focus on the broader Alterian Alchemy framework so that they can integrate multiple data sets into their analysis seamlessly.

LM: OK, last question: it seems that more and more we’re seeing clients leveraging social media to both create deeper relationships with consumers while also gaining strategic insights, an approach that has traditionally been anathema to market researchers.  What are your thoughts on the “blurring of the lines” between marketing engagement and market research that social media has helped create? How are clients using Alterian’s offerings in that respect?

WK: I’m kind of a purist in this area.  I feel that engagement should best be left to the client as they know their product and customers best.  Thus, by responding directly to customers, they can develop those deep bonds with their target audience.  Correspondingly the strategy and insight agencies have the expertise to do the heavy lifting and make sense out of the unstructured data in a cogent, strategic manner.


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