This video interview is part of the Dig In series. You can view other episodes on the Dig Insights YouTube Channel.
Today I’m talking to Mike Stevens.
He’s the founder of insightplatforms.com, the leading online resource for learning about, discovering and choosing digital tools.
He’s also a consultant on all topics technology, strategy and research related. Prior to this, Mike held roles at various marketing consulting firms and also Vision Critical and Kantar.
Hi Mike! Thanks for joining me today.
Hi Ian. Thanks for having me, and thanks for getting the name of the website perfect. That’s not a given because sometimes some people call it ‘insights platform’ or various other things. So thank you.
So it’s a really interesting site. Can you can you give us a little bit of background about Insight Platforms?
Yeah sure. I guess the site has been running for about two years now, and for about a year before that – after I left Vision Critical – I was doing consulting with insight teams and agencies, helping them figure out their planning, and a lot of it was around technology, strategy and training. I don’t know whether you’ve found the same – but consulting is a lot of hard work. You’re either doing it or you’re selling.
But I built quite a lot of knowledge and resources on the technology side, so my first step was to publish that online as a listing – a directory of tools – because where people normally start when they’re looking for a new research platform is on Google.
Obviously there are directories – there’s Greenbook, there’s the trade associations and the research bodies. And then on the other side you’ve got the B2B software directories and comparison tools like the Gartner, Capterra, G2Crowd.
But between those two, there was quite a gap if you wanted to go deep on technology for research. So that was that was the starting point, and my assumption was if I built it then I’d figure out how to monetize it and I’d retire by the time I was 50. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.
So it also became a place where I could publish thought pieces, articles and my own content. Not that nobody else would publish it … but it’s nice to have control yourself. So it’s actually grown quite a lot now. As you said in the intro, there are these three pillars now.
One is the directory, which is growing all the time. There’s nearly 900 companies on the website and there’s another 200 on the list to add to the website. The research-tech and analytics-tech space is really exploding.
The second pillar is learning. We run a lot of webinars, we have ebooks and white papers to download, articles from experts and now we have taught courses – live online courses for people to take remotely.
And the third pillar is events: online events and virtual summits, which – until three or four months ago – looked like a really winning and quite niche proposition in the insights space. And suddenly we find that there’s plenty of these events going on, so maybe not such a retirement strategy after all.
But that’s really what we’re offering, those three things: learning, directory and events.
Well you still seem to be getting some pretty good turnout to your webinars, and we just signed up for your next one so that’s great!
So you said there were about 900 platforms on the directory as of right now. That’s massive growth when you think back to when you were with Vision Critical, when there were obviously far fewer platforms in the space. Having seen that many platforms, are there any overall trends that you’re identifying?
I think the way that we define research-tech and analytics-tech in the directory is maybe a little broader than some other people might think of it.
It includes obviously the core market research tools. It also includes UX research, some analytics and data visualization, customer experience management … so it’s quite a broad perspective.
I think at a high level there’s undoubtedly just an increase in demand for customer insight, for understanding people across the board – whether you’re coming from any of those perspectives.
So if you’re in analytics, if you’re in market research, the demand is increasing constantly. That’s not always obvious from a lot of industry reports. When we look at it in market research, we see agencies struggling for margin and growth, we see budgets being cut back. There’s a survey that runs every quarter in the UK – the IPA Bellwether Report. It surveys marketing managers and CMOs, and every quarter that I can remember – this is probably about 10 or 15 years’ worth of data – market research budgets have apparently contracted.
It’s just not a reflection of the real appetite for insights, which is driving a lot of these technology tools. If you look at what’s happened even through the COVID period, we’ve had big funding rounds for companies like Attest (15 million dollars), Quantilope in Germany took 30 million euros last week.
There’s a lot of money going into certain places. Some of the areas that I’ve seen booming, – even over the last few months during lockdowns – are online qualitative research, which has exploded; there’s huge growth in social audience intelligence – not just social listening but analysing trend analytics, picking up behavioural signals; there are plenty of booming sub-sectors.
But at a macro level, I think there are three big trends that cut across all those different groups.
The first is all about ease of use. Because if you can build a UX that makes it easy for people to adopt and to get up and running very quickly, you’re reducing friction and time-to-insight. Your de-bottlenecking around the insights team, you’re putting that insight capability into the hands of stakeholders and end users.
Underneath that ease of use is the embedding of complex methodologies into simple interfaces. If you want to do pricing analysis or forecasting, that’s some very complexstuff beneath the surface. If you want to make that push-button, you have to think very carefully about your interfaces, about your guard-rails and so on.
So ease of use, I think, is one big trend that I see right across these technologies.
The second one, and this has driven a lot of growth in marketing tech and business tech generally, is integrations: the ability of tools to pass data between each other, to connect, to share information.
Only yesterday, there was the launch of TSAPI, a new API for interchanging data between survey platforms. It’s an attempt to just make it easier for a survey done on one platform or by one provider, to be to be rolled up into another system.
We’ve also got different systems talking to each other to connect, say, different parts of a project together. So you might want to have some observational data, you might have some behavioural data, some survey data – being able to package that up and mine it in one system.
That’s all one angle – let’s call it horizontal integrations.
I think another angle is the integrations that enable people to run consumer insight work inside their existing workflows.
So if I’m a designer, if I’m working in a prototyping tool like Figma or Sketch, I can now – without any background in research – just plug my prototype straight into a User Testing panel for a usability test. Maze is another user testing platform where you can automate remote user testing of mock-ups and have that feedback come straight into me as a product designer.
So there are lots of ways I think that integrations will change how we work.
I think a third angle may be the emergence of a big central player into which other platforms will integrate. Inevitably people will think that’s probably Qualtrics, but I’m not convinced … the jury’s still out for me as to who that’s going to be.
Long term, I think there are many other players who might start to see this market as attractive. It’s not really been big enough or high margin enough for them yet – the Googles and the Microsofts – but I think it may become that way as we start to merge these different technologies.
So that’s two macro trends for me: ease of use and integrations.
The third thing for me – and I struggle to express this clearly is the shape of the industry. It’s developing this hourglass or dumbbell shape that has large bulbs at either end and the middle is being squeezed away.
There is a lot of investment going into big data analytics, into huge data lakes, into the ability to mine these sources of data. They are coming from different places: you’ve got panel data, you’ve got behavioural, e-commerce, and all of your big survey data. We’re putting that into some very sophisticated analytics, allowing us to visualize across data sets.
That’s one end of this dumbbell: call it big data analytics, for want of a better term.
On the other end, there is this need for real human insight and connection. Obviously this drives the demand for qualitative insights, some of that close observation work in UX research, niche areas like semiotics.
These are capabilities that AI and machine learning are a million miles from being able to achieve because it’s essentially human. It provides context, it helps to explain outliers, it’s about lateral connections and creativity.
For me, the big analytics piece is about measurement, evaluation, it’s about de-risking decision-making and increasing predictive accuracy. It helps us ensure that if we do launch the product, then we know we’re going to put it in the right channels, we’re going to have the right kind of attribution on the marketing and so on.
The human qualitative end of the dumbbell is the generative side of things. That’s where the real sparks of innovation and ideation come from, that’s where you get your empathy if you’re if you’re in a design thinking framework. That’s where your real breakthrough insights are going come from to drive your next innovation or your next communications campaign.
So I think those two things are crystalising into these two ends of this dumbbell. And in the middle, we’ll find many of the ways that we’ve tried to get to customer insight in the past will be much less in demand. By that I mean the kind of basic surveys that don’t do either thing very well.
They might have a couple of open-ended questions, you might try and get a big enough sample – but it’s never going to rival the sort million-record data sets you get from e-commerce or location analytics.
Some of that survey research in the middle – and maybe some other legacy techniques – will be squeezed in that process.
You talked a little bit about integration. I took away from that a couple of things. One is that there’s even though some platforms are positioned as marketplaces, there’s no central marketplace like there would be for instance like a Salesforce.com – a marketplace where tons of people can plug in.
While there are sample providers like Lucid, who do programmatic, they don’t necessarily have a marketplace.
What do you think is going to happen next in the industry? The big players, the Ipsoses of the world, they can build their own platforms and they do. But they haven’t really done so to the same level as, say, Qualtrics – who came out of nowhere not that many years ago and then got that eight billion dollar valuation.
So what do you think is going to happen next? Obviously you don’t have a crystal ball …
I think it’s difficult to say right now.
Let’s deal with the large incumbent agencies to start with. I previously worked with Kantar, and I’ve got a lot of affection for a lot of the people there. But I think one of the challenges for the big players in the insights space at the moment – looking at our big players like Ipsos and Kantar – these companies have a very strong services legacy. They’re on a consultancy model, and it’s not easy to transition from that to a software-driven model and a technology business.
There are so many things that need to change for that to happen. I know that’s probably behind a lot of the investment that’s gone in from Bain Capital, and Ipsos have been busy buying technology companies – but it’s very challenging for them.
I found that difficult to manage at Vision Critical – trying to balance the differing needs of a technology business and a consulting services business. It’s hard to make the right margins from the two at the same time.
I think what may be more likely is that the current insights industry will end up being absorbed into something where there are bigger budgets at play.
You mentioned Salesforce.com, for example. One of the reasons why we haven’t yet seen a Salesforce emerge in the insight tech space is that our budgets tend to be so much smaller than sales or marketing; and the direct link to revenue is harder to demonstrate.
Then the locus of decision-making usually sits below the C-Suite. Insights will often be led at VP level, or by someone who’s reporting into the CMO.
On top of that, we have some organisational barriers to adoption of insight tech – especially when you’ve got privacy issues around customer data.
So when you put all that together, it actually makes it quite challenging to build something for insights that’s on the scale of Salesforce: the budgets aren’t there, the technology barriers are high, the privacy barriers are high. S
So I think what may happen is that insights will migrate to being a function within a broader customer intelligence or customer data ecosystem.
But as to who will emerge as the winner – it’s a big question. I would hate to hang my hat on one company at the moment. I’ve also made some terrible predictions in the past. If you search on the internet you’ll find me saying some terrible things about the iPad’s chances of success before it was launched in the UK ten years ago. So my predictions don’t hold a lot of water.
What’s happened over the last six months is that we’ve seen this real acceleration of long-term trends in insights that have been bubbling along and then suddenly gone vertical.
We talked already about the adoption of online qualitative research.
Then there’s the in-housing of research using technology – where budgets are being slashed, where insights departments effectively have a gun to their head with fewer people and less discretionary budget. So you have to get creative with technology.
I don’t see those trends reversing.
There’s a lot of technology now that has effectively replaced things that would have needed an expert services person even just two or three years ago.
I think we will see more interest in this space from some of the bigger tech players who are looking for more growth in their B2B cloud businesses. Google, Microsoft, potentially even IBM might see the broader consumer insights space as interesting – particularly the data-driven side, the machine learning side of things – and then bolting in more of what we think of as traditional research-based approaches.
I think we will definitely see consolidation. We started talking earlier about the sheer scale of innovation. 900 platforms in this directory, and many more that I haven’t identified or catalogued yet.
If I’m honest, I think a lot of these businesses will look at the market and realise they’re not really standalone businesses over the long term – they are really feature that should be part of something else. So there’s undoubtedly going to need to be a lot of consolidation.
If you want to see the real explosive growth of one or two person startups in the research space, look at UX research tools. They really exemplify that. For example, there must be 15 or 20 tools for user research repositories and analysis that have launched in the last couple of years – and that’s a pretty niche area to support so many startups. Maybe two or three of those will survive long term. It’s a similar story that’s replicated across the industry.
But the big consolidators are unlikely – in my view – to be one of the large existing agency groups. Possibly it could be one or two of the technology players in the industry at the moment – but I think it’s more likely to be an external player. It could even be Salesforce. More likely Google Cloud or Microsoft.
But someone will emerge as the operating system for our industry.
Well thanks so much for your time today. This has been a fantastic conversation, I’m definitely gonna have you back if you have time!