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The CEO Series: An Interview With Kristin Luck of Decipher

I doubt many of you need an intro to Kristin; she may be the single most visible person in the industry. She speaks at almost every conference, is regularly featured in industry publications, and is a prolific member of the #mrx “twitterati”.

Continuing my series of interviews with CEOs of companies that are shaping the future of market research, today I bring you my chat with Kristin Luck, President of Decipher.

I doubt many of you need an intro to Kristin; she may be the single most visible person in the industry. She speaks at almost every conference, is regularly featured in industry publications, and is a prolific member of the #mrx “twitterati”. Kristin is one of those rarified personages in our industry: a true star. If you want to know more about her Tom Anderson recently conducted an interview with her as well that delves much more into her background; you can check that out here.

I’ve had the great honor and fortune to get to know Kristin over the past few years, and I can tell you that she is one of the smartest, most authentic, and downright cool people that I know. I’m very excited to have an opportunity to share my conversation with her; I think you’ll agree with me after reading this.

We conducted this interview via email over the course of a few weeks during the holidays and early January.

LM: Thanks for agreeing to chat with me! You recently presented at the BAQMaR conference on the future of mobile research and will be giving a similar talk at Market Research in the Mobile World in Amsterdam. Since I missed the BAQMaR event, can you give me a “preview” of your presentation by laying out your premise a bit more?

KL: My presentation was really focused around not only educating attendees about how mobile technology is evolving but also actually showing them, hands on, how you can evolve a “traditional” online survey into a mobile friendly format. I’ve sat through so many presentations in the last year on the future of mobile, which has been amazing for the industry, but if researchers don’t have the practical skills to start the transition then we’ll never move mobile forward in a significant way. We can’t educate our clients about “how to” if we haven’t mastered the basics.

LM: What do you think  is the most exciting short term opportunity for mobile research, and what does the industry need to do in order to capitalize on that opportunity?   

KL: Short term, I believe the greatest win is with WAP (mobile browser based) surveys. Apps are sexy and cool and offer additional functionality, but until Smartphone penetration increases we’re going to struggle with getting a representative sample. WAP surveys offer full survey functionality (including multimedia) and can be accessed from any phone with a web browser (which is roughly 90% of all mobile devices). As an industry we need to get comfortable with mobile survey formats because there are fundamental differences in survey design and we also need to be focused on building out mobile capabilities as part of our sampling practice.  

LM: 2011 was a whirlwind year for you and Decipher; it seems that you were everywhere and that the company really emerged as a leader in the data collection platform space. How are you translating that momentum into new opportunities in 2012? What’s next for you and the company?

KL: We definitely feel like we’ve created a niche for ourselves in the research services space by creating true partnerships with each and every client. To date, we’ve seen firms that provide research services (like programming, hosting, etc.) OR firms that license software (like the Confirmits and IBMs of the world) but not really any firms that have mastered both practices and offer a flexible solution to clients. We have clients that strictly rely on our service bureau, others who license our platform (Beacon) and do all the work themselves, and now we’re seeing more and more “hybrid” users who are venturing into the DIY space but still want to have a programming team to fall back on if they get into a pinch. At Decipher, we’ve mastered both verticals which gives us a pretty compelling competitive advantage. In 2012 we’re going to be focused on building out the Beacon platform to accommodate emerging research methods, with particular emphasis on our online reporting module. Our first release of the year is just a few weeks away.

LM: You’ve been a strong proponent of embracing new consumer communication channels such as mobile and social media for market research. What’s been your sense on how well the industry is embracing change, and how can we do even better in the next year ahead?  

KL: I’ve certainly drank the mobile “Kool-Aid” you could say and I think mobile methods along with social media are poised for huge growth in 2012. That said, I also believe clients are really struggling to understand how different mobile is from online. We’re seeing a lot of interest in running studies on mobile but an equal amount of resistance to tweaking the design to work within the platform. In general, we always advise clients that the method needs to drive the technology- not the other way around. Mobile is unique because there are certainly some unique advantages to using mobile that make changing the method compelling. If, as an industry, we’re really going to make the move to mobile then we need to be ready to embrace shorter more frequent surveying – it’s good for research and it’s good for respondents.

LM: What’s the biggest challenge you see facing the industry right now, and what are you and Decipher doing to deal with that?

KL: Based on the conversations I’ve had with clients and partners over the past year, the largest challenge seems to be simply t staying on top of new technologies and research methods. . There seems to be a new industry sweetheart every month (crowdsourcing, gamification, big data…) and by the time there is a basic understanding of the method and technology there’s a whole new evolution. I’ve said this before during my speaking gigs -as a researcher, or a services firm, you have to make a decision at some point…do you want to be first to market or best in market? First requires an unbelievable amount of attention and resources- it’s committing to existing in a constant state of evolution (or revolution in some cases). At Decipher we’ve clearly been focused on “best in market” – we’re constantly developing and watching what others are doing so we can create technically sound and uniquely compelling research tools and technologies.

LM: I’ve often thought that one of the gaps in the data collection platform space is a platform that integrates not just data analytics and reporting, but also advanced visualization elements such as interactive dashboarding and even an infographic engine. Is that a pipe dream, or do you see a future where Decipher is providing an end-to-end solution for the research project lifecycle? And most importantly, is that where you see client demand heading?

KL: We absolutely see client demand for an end-to-end solution that includes more visualized/interactive data reporting solutions.  I don’t think it’s a pipe dream at all. We’re seeing more and more traditional marketers digging into the market research space, and as such, traditional ways of surveying and presenting data just aren’t going to cut it. There are certainly more effective ways we can display data that will compel marketers to utilize research data on a more frequent basis. It’s all about making data more accessible (or as one client put it “less scary”). Having everything in one platform (panel, survey, reporting, dashboarding) means you don’t have to license or piece together multiple tool sets- which can be overwhelming both from a cost and time perspective.  That’s really a major focus for us at Decipher- creating a one stop shop.

LM: There certainly seems to be a movement toward convergence right now, specifically between online data collection, mobile, and text analytics (mostly centered around social media analysis). This seems to be pushing many of your competitors more into the EFM or possibly even ECRM spaces. What’s your take on that trend and how is Decipher going to differentiate itself in that type of converged marketplace?

KL: Differentiation is always tough in the research services space since it’s one that’s typically been highly commoditized. We’ve fully embraced mobile and tablet collection methods – we’ve been pretty outspoken about NOT doing the app route which seems have to set us apart in the space. We’re definitely looking at the CRM space as we expand our Beacon software platform and exploring ways we can integrate text analytics into our existing reporting platform (which is undergoing a major re-launch in March). One of our strengths is really taking the time to explore different technologies and methods before embracing them so that we can make sound, smart recommendations to our clients- many of which are full-service research firms who really depend on us as their technology infrastructure.

LM: Let’s jump ahead a few years; what do you think the market research industry is going to look like then? Will we see a big shift in the nature of the major firms, what will be the dominant methods, and what will be the model for success for both tech providers like Decipher and full service firms?

KL: Without a doubt, mobile as a data collection method is going to revolutionize our industry-but it’s not just a change in how we collect data, it’s going to require a complete shift in mindset in terms of the research design. After years of collective industry debate about research quality and how it relates to study design (primarily as it relates to length of surveys), mobile may be the catalyst for finally making some real changes in how we communicate with respondents.

The speed at which we’re evolving technically as an industry is going to make specialization paramount. Certainly there was a lot of buzz a few years ago about the advent of DIY survey tools and what that would mean for full-service research firms. Regardless of the technology, what full-service firms really bring to the party is thought leadership in design and analytics and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Even clients that have a research team in house and use DIY toolsets generally work closely with full service firms for insight generation. I don’t see a shift away from full service suppliers as much as I see “supply chain specialization” where full-service suppliers are focused on design and analytics and firms like Decipher are focused on the executional elements of the research process.

LM: What are going to be the “big ideas” that you’re personally going to be focused on in 2012?

KL: Educating clients on mobile research and design principles has become a major focus this past year and I see that continuing into 2012. It’s great to push mobile but clients need to know HOW (in practical terms) to transform their traditional research so it can really shine in a mobile environment.

I’m fascinated with the concept of gamification and how it’s evolving from interactive questions into an interactive survey environment. Certainly a “game changer” (no pun intended) for our industry if we can really figure out how to embrace it in practical terms.

Finally, I’m going to be more focused on WIRe (www.womeninresearch.com). I launched WIRe in LA in 2007 and, with the help of Cassandra Rowe (Netflix) and the ARF, we’re just taking off in NY. There’s little emphasis in our industry on promoting women in research and in particular, on women in senior management positions. This group is all about connecting women in our industry and providing opportunities for networking and career growth.

LM: That is a lot of stuff, and I can’t wait to hear about how it’s all coming together. Thanks so much for your time Kristin; it’s been a pleasure. I can’t wait to catch up more in Amsterdam!

KL: Thank you Lenny; this was fun. See you in Europe in a few weeks!

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