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Lead Up To The IIR TDMR: Interview With John Williamson of Qualvu

I have not had the pleasure of meeting John, but I've been following Qualvu since their launch and have always kept their platform as one of the weapons in my arsenal when working with clients. Qualvu is a company that has persevered, refined their model and technology continuously, and has now emerged as a leader in redefining how we think about qualitative research. As more researchers have embraced online and mobile methods, Qualvu has not rested on their laurels but instead has co0ntinued to pioneer new ways to change the game for all stakeholders in the research value chain. I am impressed with John, the company he has built, and the vision he has of the future: I think you will be too.

John Williamson

In a little over 2 weeks the Technology Driven Market Research Event will kick off in Chicago, and I am getting more and more excited. Over the last few months we’ve been presenting interviews with speakers at the the event, and I think you’ll agree that we have a stellar line-up of thought leaders, innovators, and visionaries within the market research industry participating. I am humbled beyond measure to be a part of this great group and I can’t wait to sit down and talk shop with everyone in Chicago!

Today’s interview is the last one I have completed. I am working on trying to get a few more wrapped up but in case that doesn’t happen we’ll end the series on a high note with a great conversation with John Williamson, CEO of Qualvu.

I have not had the pleasure of meeting John, but I’ve been following Qualvu since their launch and have always kept their platform as one of the weapons in my arsenal when working with clients. Qualvu is a company that has persevered, refined their model and technology continuously, and has now emerged as a leader in redefining how we think about qualitative research. As more researchers have embraced online and mobile methods, Qualvu has not rested on their laurels but instead has co0ntinued to pioneer new ways to change the game for all stakeholders in the research value chain. Oh, and they are also a “DIY” solution, so the company is another example of how that model can be successfully applied within the market research industry.

I am impressed with John, the company he has built, and the vision he has of the future: I think you will be too.

Like the others, this interview was conducted via email over the course of a few weeks. Enjoy!

LM: Qualvu has been around for a while, but you finally seem to be making a big splash and generating a lot of interest within the market research space. Why do you think that is?

JW: I believe any disruptive and meaningful innovation takes some time to marinate in the marketplace before a critical mass of adoption. Qualvu is just hitting that tipping point and it’s exciting to see the buzz.  It doesn’t hurt that we’ve quietly gained a lot of big and influential brands clients, which validates our promise to deliver qualitative research that is faster, cheaper, and simply more truthful than traditional methods.  After hitting 700 projects and 100,000 video responses in 2010, people are starting to notice!

It’s fascinating to me that a very big industry – qualitative research which is a $6 billion space – went virtually unchanged for over 50 years.   Focus groups were so entrenched that most brands didn’t realize there was a better way of doing things.   We knew that to make those brands believers and get them to switch from focus groups, we had to deliver insights that were not just as good as the status quo – they had to be better.  We proved we could do that, but it still required that we relentlessly took our message to the industry – and proved it time after time  — to generate the momentum we now have.  We recently announced our DIY platform for clients to do their own research using Qualvu’s platform, as well as a Smartphone app for video data collection, and they’ve generated additional buzz.

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

JW: There are several drivers right now.  Certainly the economic conditions are prompting companies to seek innovations that deliver cost-efficiency, and that’s helped Qualvu.  I don’t think it’s an accident that tough economies see a resurgence of breakthrough innovations – it’s typically when more mature firms are re-trenching, and there are opportunities for scrappy start-ups to outflank old ways with innovations.

Also consumers have changed.  Social media – Facebook and Twitter being the largest ones of course – allow people to share their thoughts, experiences, and even beliefs online.  As a result all of us have entered a new age of web-based transparency, with virtual podiums for our unique voices.  Qualvu taps this naturally.  Plus we connect our clients with consumers through online video and smartphones – which proves to be the most candid and truthful form of feedback because it is on their time, in their settings, and exactly during the consumer/brand interactions.

LM: That “sticktoitness” is inspiring! I agree that we’re in a new era of innovation driven transformation for the market research industry, and a lot of the exciting new technologies seem to be centered around a DIY approach vs. the more traditional service provider model. What do you think is driving that shift and what impact do you see that having on the broader industry over the course of the next 3-5 years?

JW: That’s an interesting question.   Online platforms naturally empower the buyer.  Think about buying music – intuitive interfaces that vertically integrate the music business means you no longer need to drive to Tower Records to buy the latest Justin Bieber album (sorry, I have an 11-year old daughter at home).  Instead you log in to iTunes from your PC, tablet, or Smartphone, play a sample or two, and buy the tracks you want.    That’s extremely empowering – with lots of benefits for you by lowering cost and complexity, and giving you exactly what you want, when you want it.

Researchers and companies are no different – they win in DIY environments that strip out cost and complexity, and deliver exactly what they are looking for.  I believe that if we deliver an interface that is delightful to use and allows you to customize any consumer feedback project to your needs at lower cost – I believe we can spark the same level of disruption in qualitative research that iTunes did in the music business.   What this means is that the industry changes in fundamental ways — it gets bigger and healthier.   Because brand researchers are empowered, and because it’s more cost effective without compromising any quality, they can do more.  Plus the cost benefits naturally invite companies that do little or no qualitative research to the experience.  Online video insights are extremely important to decision making – and now they are cheaper, faster and better than traditional methods.  It’s what researchers want, and now they get them when and where they want them.

LM: Are there plans to integrate QualVu into MROCs or even broader based social networks like Facebook to provide a true social experience for participants? Also, will you be using the mobile app to build your own sample population?

JW: We are indeed exploring interesting ways to integrate our collection capability in a variety of environments, and already Qualvu utilizes Facebook to attract consumers who want to share their insights to shape the brands they care about most.   The mobile app expands our reach significantly – it instantly enables millions of consumer for video-based qualitative feedback using the Qualvu platform.  We are adding sample every day at increasing speed as a result, and allowing our clients to access these smartphone-powered consumers via our self-serve and custom services.

We recently conducted a webinar about the implications of the smartphone and tablet becoming the central gateway for communication, sharing, and information.  Qualvu’s vision is been that visual, candid feedback will be centralized within this medium over time as well.  We’re laser focused on video, and turning that video into meaningful intelligence – and intent on leading the way for an evolution from focus groups to web-based interaction.  Certainly the mobile app factors strongly in that.

LM: I could not agree with you more regarding mobile devices quickly becoming the primary channel for all electronic interactions, and utilizing the evolving capabilities of these devices present some very interesting opportunities for insight professionals. If you are already integrating social elements into your video-based qualitative offering, any plans to add in more functionality such as bar code scanning, finger tracking, LBS functions, or even more quant-based components?

JW: You could get me talking for hours about our mobile strategies!  The smartphone is front and center in our mid and long-term strategies for gathering ever more valuable consumer insights.  The mobile phone is the central device of the future for how people access information, communicate both verbally and visually, conduct commerce, and share their thoughts.  We have some remarkable advances in store – from bar code scanning, geo-location, instant screening and more.  One of our promises to our clients is that we realize the ante is better intelligence than any other method, period.  From there we are developing increasingly more advanced capabilities to push the boundaries of what’s possible in brand-to-consumer interactions for qualitative insights.

LM: I’ve noticed a real change within the Qualitative supplier community recently around embracing new technologies and techniques; it seems that these more nimble firms, focused more on producing strategic insights vs. specific methodology-based products, are driving innovation in some very interesting ways. Have you noticed the same trend within the qualitative space? Also, given your focus on engaging with enterprise-level clients, have you gotten much traction from the supplier community?

JW: When Qualvu launched in late 2008, we faced quite a bit of skepticism from traditional qualitative suppliers – that a web-based approach could deliver the depth of focus groups.  We know now in most cases, it’s significantly richer, more candid and truthful because of how we leverage video.   However that early skepticism forced us to take the message directly to enterprise, and it arrived at a crucial time when the economy was forcing them to look for innovative and cost-effective tools – essentially to do more with less.  Plus they saw their consumer bases changing before their eyes.  Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and other influences were changing how people were communicating, and sharing their thoughts about brands.

So the Qualvu value proposition sparked a powder keg of interest at the end user or buyer, and it had a remarkable positive impact on the vendors.  Qualvu gained quick credibility, and once vendor-side researchers realized we had easy DIY tools that allowed them to conduct online video research and apply their unique expert analysis, it was a great fit.  It’s allowed us to continue to take our message to every sector – all businesses big and small, ad agencies, healthcare, education, and research vendors.  In fact we are developing a webinar series starting in May specifically targeted to research vendors, to train them how to use Qualvu to innovate and grow their businesses.  We have lots of vendor success stories to share.

LM: Can you give me some examples of how your clients are using the Qualvu platform? What’s been the most interesting project that you have seen?

JW: There are a lot of really interesting ones – I think that once our clients realize there are virtually no limits to where they can go to learn from their consumers, it really drives home how inefficient focus group settings can be.  So we get them right into the lives of real people, right during those “moments of truth.”  We have one large CPG client who tests new razor concepts among male and female consumers, who literally shave every morning on camera, right from their bathroom, while they talk about the shaving experience and reaction to the new prototypes.  We’ve done lots of projects where moms talk about making dinner, or trying new paper towels, right in their kitchens during the bustle of family dinner.  We have consumers showing us their clogged drains the moment they occur – and show us in great detail what works and what doesn’t.   We see students talking about search engines and social networking from their dorm rooms at college; the list just goes on and on.

The most interesting?  Has to be a project recently we did for a retail client where consumers took us on shopping trips with cameras that were built into ballpoint pens!  You wouldn’t believe the footage, and the client was just blown away at what they learned.  You just can’t do that with traditional methods.  Wrap all those in a price point that is a lot less and a lot faster than traditional methods, and we believe Qualvu will change the game in this industry.

LM: I think a lot of folks are still leery of online qual period, let alone video-based mobile qual. Here is your chance to convert them John: can you sum up the value proposition for your approach vs. other methods for our audience?

JW: I’d love to Leonard.

Properly deployed, Qualvu will deliver more truthful data than any other qualitative method.  The platform gets researchers directly into the candid lives of consumers in new ways that only video-based mobile qual can deliver, and the Qualvu solution is faster, easier to deploy, and a lot less expensive than traditional methods.    It’s not about just data however – it’s about better, more engaged decision making.  Give us a shot and we’ll prove it to you.

LM: Last question! It seems that a lot of innovation in this space is coming out of the Denver area; there is you, iModerate, GutCheck, Egg Strategy, etc.. Is it something about the mountain air that has unleashed all of this innovation? Why is Denver emerging as a kind of “new qual” equivalent to Silicon Valley?

JW: That is a great question!  The fact is, Colorado is a spectacular place and it’s attracting world-class people looking for a place to pursue both professional and personal passions.  We’ve been able to get some of the most talented and innovative people – from Seattle, Dallas, New York, and lots of other places – to move to the Denver area in a heartbeat to join the Qualvu story.  So I’m not surprised the start-ups to watch are incubating right here in Colorado.  I’m betting Qualvu won’t be a local secret for long!

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