There is a lot of hype about “big data” these days. But the data isn’t just big, it’s fast. And that means different things to different people. It’s got big implications for the market-research industry, where people are constantly trying to monitor what people want and how they feel.
This combination of increasing quantity of information and the speed at which it is exchanged means big changes for consumer marketing, media, and research. One person who understands this is George Terhanian, Chief Strategy Officer of Toluna, a market-research firm.
Toluna is trying to figure out what the advent of pervasive data means to the market-reasearch industry, which is aiming to provide constant feedback on consumer behavior and attitudes to its clients. Terhanian sees a move to more real-time analysis of customer behavior, including the integration of information from social networks (big surprise!). He says the traditional market-research model is threatened by both the automation and speed of this data.
A couple of weeks ago I interviewed Terhanian on how the ever-connected consumer is changing market research. We talked about what what brands and research companies are going to do in the future to adjust to the endless stream of information.
Rayno Report: Hi George. Tell me what you are doing in research.
George Terhanian: Toluna is in in the traditional online research space. We build a panel, with a large number of people [participating], and store that information. You can invite them to participate in online surveys, and then you pay them something in return. You often have to pay them cash. There are also points and sweepstakes that can work well.
There is no interviewer present, and it’s all digital which reduces the time it takes and the cost. People all over the world agree to take part in surveys. Most of them are consumers. Those companies are everywhere. They might include handset consumers, financial services companies, and automotive companies. And many more.
RR: How long has Toluna been around?
Terhanian: Toluna has been around 12 years and I’ve been here 3 years.
RR: You have multiple ways to approach research, it seems. Tell me how they are different.
Terhanian: We have something called Toluna.com which is a community site. People can learn about it, then they go on it and then individual people ask other individual people questions. People like that. They like asking questions and getting feedback.
RR: So it’s user-generated surveys?
Terhanian: Yes, that’s exactly what it is. So maybe they pay a few bucks for opt-in and they start bugging people for surveys. These people that ask questions, we can also invite them to participate in the surveys that are paid for. These folks provide us with a lot of information so that we can target them.
RR: Now, one of the obvious companies in this space is Survey Monkey, which is widely used but as I understand it, somewhat controversial. Is Survey Monkey a big competitor?
Terhanian: Survey Monkey is free, but if you want to do anything moderately complex they charge for it. The business model is straightforward. They are making the technology available to people, they have done a fabulous job in the US and now they’re tying to go global.
They have unlimited surveys $300 per year, that’s very attractive, especially for people in small businesses or higher education. It’s a small enough amount of money that it’s not even a rounding error for large companies. The problem with it is that it’s so simple, it’s not transformative.
RR: So How is your product different?
Terhanian: We are making our tool available for free. We don’t have their marketing budget. What they don’t have is the people. If you are looking at interviewing a lot of people really quickly, that’s going to be hard. There’s very little targeting in Survey Monkey. And Google Consumer Surveys has a slightly different model.
RR: Google [GOOG] is in this market? I didn’t know that! That has to be scary.
Terhanian: It’s an interesting model. They are working with people that have paywalls on their websites. Individuals will post the survey. It’s completely DIY [Do It Yourself]. It’s very Google. The challenge that they have is that they run out of people, too. They are only doing this in the US, Canada, and I think the UK. They can’t do global surveys.
RR: What about others? Those who do traditional market research? What’s happening to this industry.
Terhanian: We are trying to replace a lot of the people that work for traditional market research people. We read a lot about real-time marketing and things like contextual Tweets. The one example is the Super Bowl when the lights went out and Oreo tweeted “You can still dunk in the dark.” It was free, on point.
This might be the future of marketing. Messages developed real-time and sent out to draw attention to the brand. From where we stand, there is increasing demand for faster turnaround on research. Some people want to turn around [marketing and ad] copy faster, but they are kind of out of luck these days. Testing can take two or three months. Pre-testing isn’t really designed for speed.
If you are developing ads on the fly or buying ads programmatically and you want to test these things beforehand, there’s a need for something fast.
We are developing and engine for quick surveys, and we could develop TV advertising system where the questions are already formatted, you plug in the ad and you get feedback in an hour or two hours.
RR: So this speed thing — realtime research — is obviously a big trend.
Terhanian: Yes. If you are big brand and you have 50 or 100 sub-brands to sell, a lot of these big companies track awareness and consideration constantly. It’s almost recession-proof. Think about a big beverage company that ties awareness messages to 30 country tracking studies. They are collecting the infomration on the monthly basis.
They tend to do all of this through market-research companies which are increasingly doing it online, though some of it are still doing it by people on the telephone. There’s a lag, the point from where you interview somebody to where you see the information, it’s two months or maybe three months. It’s very slow. We see more demand for real-time information.
All of that is beginning to happen to the market-research industry now. You have CMOs [Chief Marketing Officers] doing real-time buys on the exchanges. They are asking the market-reseach organization why it takes six weeks to two months and they want to automate all of that. There’s that pressure to get information faster and cheaper.
RR: So will Toluna’s focus be on real-time information?
Terhanian: Yes, and automation — using technology to speed up data collection and combine that with intelligence. The answers you get in a survey are only as good as the questions. We are trying to develop modules that a very talented methodologist would develop. We don’t have them doing custom work and doing hours of analysis. We would rather they would automate it.
RR: Tell me more about the company, Toluna. Who owns it?
Terhanian: Toluna has been around 12 years. We’re owned mostly by Verlinvest. [Editor’s Note: Toluna was taken private by Verlininvest in 2011, it had been listed previously on the London Stock Exchange]. A major holding of Verlininvest is ABInBev (the beverage giant formed by the merger of InBev and Anheuser-Busch). VerlinInvest were the initial investors in Vitamin Water before they sold it to Coke. They were the initial investor in Popchips. All of these companies commission market research. They are aware of the need for market intelligence and they are aware of how much they pay for it.
We’re not a startup, though there are startup energies within the company. We don’t have a lot of bureaucracy, we try to empower people to make decisions We are privately owned which I think mean things happen faster.
RR: What else do you see going on in advertising and media?
Terhanian: I meet these people all the time and they are talking about insight. We talk to the head of research at General Mills, they are looking for insight. They want to know what people want. They want to find a better way to do it. How do we take advantage of that?
In advertising, that means what is the best way to reach people. What about online, what about mobile? What I hear now isn’t different than what I heard five or 10 years ago, but the tools today are emerging on mobile. There are more options today. They haven’t done a wonderful job but they are starting to figure it out.
RR: Mobile seems to be a difficult problem for everybody in media and marketing, isn’t it? It is changing business models.
Terhanian: Yes, it is challenging. Most people using their mobile phones don’t see a lot of ads. They are not seeing a lot of personalized ads. Even on the sites they develop for mobile, such as Pandora (P), I’m not sure how effective the ads are. It’s very difficult to develop effective ads for mobile. I don’t necessarily want to look at my phone and see an ad. I don’t have an answer to it. Some of the research we do shows that people aren’t seeing ads on a mobile phone. The younger people that see ads don’t see stuff that’s engaging.
RR: So there’s a lot of work to do.
Terhanian: Yes. For example, there is this notion of placing ads on people’s phones as people enter stores. That doesn’t work very well, based on the research we do. Not many people are receiving ads when you enter stores. You need an app. Maybe you have to sign in and receive the information. The people that we interview, very few people experience that.
A lot of people talk about localization and targeting, but in a place like New York, there aren’t a lot people experiencing that. Maybe that will change in the future.&
RR: Very interesting George. Thank you for you time.
Terhanian: Thank you.