Consumer Insights Lead to Activation: Q&A with MotiveQuest’s Brook Miller

Brands search constantly for consumer insight, seeking to understand customers, prospects, and market directions and to discern what works in creating desire, response, satisfaction, and loyalty. These latter concepts seem straightforward, yet they’re not so easy to compute. Measures that are typically applied, for instance the Net Promoter Score, paint an over-simplified picture based on attitudes rather than actions; they lack predictive ability. The prevailing method of studying actions, in the online world at least — digital analytics — falls far short due to lack of explanatory power. And these methods provide what are in essence point-in-time measurements. They record only a small portion of an often-extensive set of customer interactions that occur across multiple channels over time, the customer journey.

Brands get better answers, according to insights agency MotiveQuest, via study of motivation and advocacy. We inhabit a big data world; we’re entering an Age of Algorithms. Insights voodoo doesn’t cut it. Instead, marketing science dictates application of a rigorous analytical framework, and clients demand that findings be presented in useful form, translated into useful, usable strategy. Technology including text and sentiment analysis is a key element, but in the words of MotiveQuest CTO Brook Miller, “We’ve done interesting work to understand the emotional states along the customer journey, but it always has to come back to making it actionable for our clients.”

Brook Miller, CTO at MotiveQuest
Brook Miller, CTO at insights agency MotiveQuest

I interviewed Brook in the run-up to the next Sentiment Analysis Symposium conference, taking place July 15-16 in New York. Brook will be speaking; his talk is titled “Segmenting Advocates to Develop Marketing Strategies and Communications.” As a preview, here’s an —

Interview with MotiveQuest CTO Brook Miller, on brands, listening, insights, and value

Seth Grimes> In just a few sentences, what does MotiveQuest do and how do you do it?

Brook Miller> MotiveQuest delivers consumer insights to our clients to help them improve their communications and marketing strategy, as well as uncover new consumer segments and product opportunities for growth. Our strategy team uses our proprietary software tools to listen to billions of organic consumer conversations happening across online communities and social networks, and then turn that data into insights, opportunities and recommendations.

Seth> I see three judgments implicit in the Web-site statement, “At MotiveQuest, we leverage custom curated consumer data from online communities to help our clients see the world through their customers’ eyes, by listening, not asking.” I read into that statement that MotiveQuest is dissing surveys (that is, asking), open-social listening (given that you favor communities), and uncurated data. So where and how, exactly, do surveys and social listening fall short?

Brook> Is it ok to use the word “dissing”? This is fantastic! Expect to hear that during my presentation at the Sentiment Analysis Symposium.

Our approach delivers the qualitative nature and deep understanding of focus groups at tremendous scale and we can do it faster and more efficiently. Surveys have their place; for example consumers rarely talk about advertising unprompted, so if you need to test a specific copy or creative some sort of asking based research will be involved.

Our listening research can also be very complementary to traditional. Many of our clients find that traditional research methods are much more powerful after they’ve engaged with us to identify better questions and even new consumer segments to evaluate. Then they are able to direct additional quant and qual into sizing and clarifying opportunities. In some cases, we’ve even partnered with technology enabled “asking” based research companies to provide our clients with a holistic view of their consumers by combining asking and listening research at scale.

Over the last 10 years there’s been a tremendous expansion in the number and type of social channels and we absolutely use the broad social networks to inform our analysis, but the communities with consumers talking back and forth with each other (typically outside of the brand / company’s influence) gives us the best fodder for deep understanding. A lot of our analysis starts with the perspective of consumers / category rather than looking at the brand.

What sort of signals do you look for in the data, that is, what do you measure and how do you transform what you measure into insight?

Typically we’re casting a wide net to surface the key topics and drivers for consumers in a given category and then we’ll want to see how those ebb and flow over time. We’re looking for the dynamic trends and interesting changes that our clients can act upon. We really try to not get too bogged down in all the “interesting” data but to focus on data our clients can use to make decisions and move their businesses forward.

One more inference from that Web-site snippet: Does “[we] help our clients” imply that do-it-yourself doesn’t deliver for brands, even for the majors among MotiveQuest’s customers? Or is the crux of the matter not capability but rather the degree of access clients are allowed to core assets such as the curated customer data and analytical framework?

Have you ever seen someone that worked in I-Banking at Goldman Sachs build a financial model? I’m pretty handy with Excel, but at Kellogg [School of Management] I’d just be opening the file and they’d already have 15 tabs with a 3 year forecast completed. Our strategists spend more than half their week deep into our software utilizing our existing or building new frameworks to understand consumers.

Our best clients are looking to push their businesses forward and while the insights we deliver are a part of that, they also have to execute, manage, plan, etc. We deliver the insights with recommendations for our clients to act upon, which we think drives a lot more value than just a toolset.

Your SAS15 talk is about segmenting advocates. How do you define an advocate, what sorts of segmentation deliver value to clients, and how may that value be measured?

Advocacy has been a linchpin of our ability to provide insight for the last 8 years. We worked in conjunction with professors from Northwestern to build a model tying the people promoting brands and products to others to sales and share. I think it’s an accepted fact that the most effective promotional channel is word of mouth from people like you and with our tools, we’re able to listen in on the online set of these conversations, that have always taken place.

Once we understand advocates, we can break them apart by interests. Is this person a Gamer or Mom, or both? For each group which driver is more important: customization or price?

I think the segmentation depends a lot on whether our client is trying to find white space for a brand extension or a hook to spur their social campaign launching next week.

A recent MotiveQuest blog post stated, “Brands that stand tall for something have many advantages, the most important of which is a strong emotional connection with their audiences.” The focus on emotional connection is really interesting. What technology and methods do you apply to discern, measure, and exploit emotional connection?

We’ve built frameworks and linguistic sets of the ways in which people express emotion as a pretty standard part of our toolkit. We’ve done interesting work to understand the emotional states along the customer journey, but it always has to come back to making it actionable for our clients. Knowing that people are “frustrated” in customer service is not so helpful. Knowing consumers are 10x more frustrated with wireless carrier A vs. wireless carrier B’s customer service can start to spur some action. Being able to then unpack that frustration into topics can create the need for change as well as a recommendation for what that change should be.

Seth> What role does data visualization play for you and your clients?

A MotiveQuest visualization: Emotions detection for brand-category understanding
A MotiveQuest visualization: Emotions detection for brand-category understanding

I will probably sound like a luddite, but line charts, bar charts, x-y plot with straight forward axis make up the majority of what we do. We employ stream graphs, clustering, heat maps and force directed diagrams as part of our toolset but try not to include those just as eye candy in our work for clients. We see a lot of “interesting” visualization ideas but are often left scratching our heads by the ambiguity the visual creates and we ask, “why didn’t they just use a bar chart?”

Where are you heading next? What would you be measuring if you could, that you aren’t already measuring? Are you working to bring new or improved algorithms to bear on the customer-understanding challenges?

The visual web is fascinating, and we utilize a lot of the imagery that consumers create to bring our ideas to life, but going beyond “does the visual have a logo in it?” or counting how many times a particular visual meme is shared in an automated fashion, to be honest I don’t know exactly what that will look like yet. We’re certainly not ready to extract emotional states from imagery… (Google might be, if you haven’t used their photos app, you have to try it.)

I think we’re still on the precipice of what value can be delivered through listening insights. Rather than innovation in methodology, I think I’m most excited by innovation in the marketing organization and process, such as what happens when we’re able to deploy a lean start up approach to the marketing org.

If we can build a virtuous cycle where consumer insights lead to activation ideas that get piloted and then scaled across marketing channels, I think we can usher in the new era of agile consumer research, leading to more effective insights, and marketing tactics.

Again, hear directly from Brook at the July 15-16 Sentiment Analysis Symposium in New York. Attend either of the two days or both, and mix-and-match attendance at presentations — our speakers represent Instagram and Affectiva, Verizon and Lenovo, Face Group and Cision, IDC and Forrester Research, and many others — and at longer-form technical workshops. And stay tuned, by following @SentimentSymp on Twitter, for additional interviews in this series.

An extra: MotiveQuest CEO David Rabjohns’ 2014 Sentiment Analysis Symposium presentation, Mapping Human Motivations to Move Product…

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