Des Moines Business Record: Question this; Socrates improving market research

We promise, this article won’t use the Socratic method to lead you by question and answer to a higher understanding of the $14 billion market research industry. You probably never liked your freshman college philosophy class anyway.

But here’s a quick refresher. The great Greek philosopher Socrates once said, “I know you won’t believe me, but the highest form of human excellence is to question oneself and others.”

Guess even Socrates couldn’t predict that computer programs, not humans, would bethe ones doing the questioning.

At least this software got his name.

Ankeny-based Quester, a qualitative primary market research business that builds customized research reports for other companies, is blossoming in part because of its unique software program by the name of Socrates, which has automated the laborintensive process of conducting one-on-one interviews through a Q&A style, a la the Socratic method.

Quester has used Socrates to do qualitative studies for companies including PepsiCo Inc. and MillerCoors. Its success comes from the roots planted by Dr. Charles E. Cleveland.

Quester was founded in 1977 by Cleveland, at the time a Drake University sociology professor, and for years the business specialized in doing one-on-one qualitative market research in a call-center style for its clients.

Cleveland trained his callers in a regimented way to interview respondents like a psychiatric interviewer would, probing and delving deep into basic responses to questions.

Cleveland always wanted to do large samples, but also wanted to find a way past the laborious and costly nature of compiling qualitative reports using a large amount of callers in a call center.

By 2001 Quester had developed Socrates by taking the same psychiatric evaluation methods his callers were using and incorporating them into a piece of software.

Through an interface like an instant messaging conversation, survey participants type back answers to questions that are pre-programmed into Socrates, which then adjusts follow-up questions to probe further based on the participants’ responses.

“So you could talk about your life experience, I could talk about mine, and since you are going to be typing in different words, phrases and ideas, it is going to use that in its follow-up probe,” said Thatcher Schulte, one of two Quester vice presidents. “So it will use that language to probe you, and the response it will have will feel very unique and organic to you versus to me.”

So organic that sometimes respondents haven’t realized there isn’t a person asking the questions.

“Because that happens, people start swearing at it, they treat it like a person at times,” Schulte said. “We’ve had people flirt with it.”

Though not the ideal date, Socrates allows Quester to do large projects with large samples. The vast quantity of textual data Socrates compiles is then scanned by a separate text-processing software, Aristotle, which highlights the most representative phrases and statements from the interview.

Quester employees, who practice linguistic analysis – studying people’s language and their use of it in their attachment to ideas and beliefs – compile a report based on an analysis of the key elements highlighted by Aristotle.

“Our end clients, what they really want to know is what is easy to implement, what is actionable and what is going to impact my business,” Schulte said.

Schulte said most of the world’s qualitative market research is done through focus groups, but Socrates has given Quester the ability to do studies that interview more people than a focus group at the same price.

Schulte said that the cost of Quester studies can range from $5,000 to $200,000 depending on the size and scope of the project.

“We have kind of a unique technology in that, for the price of a focus group, we can interview 10, 20, hundreds of more people than a focus group can, just because it is all done by software.”

Speed is another big reason Quester has been able to garner large end-clients who are attempting to design a strategy for their future direction or trying to solve an ongoing problem.

“I did a study two years ago where we did 3,000 respondents,” Schulte said. “And our client said, ‘if you would have done these traditionally and listened to them back to back from start to finish, no sleeping, no eating, if you started on Jan. 1, by the time you finished your taxes would be overdue.’

“Well, we did those interviews in 12 days.”

Though a majority of the information Quester finds is proprietary material for its more than 50 clients, it recently worked out an exchange with the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) that allowed for results to be public.

Quester conducted a study at no cost for the CVB, which was hoping to gain insight on perceptions from recent Midwest visitors to Des Moines.

Along with reaffirming some existing beliefs about the effectiveness of marketing Des Moines as a family-friendly destination, it helped the CVB determine that marketing one specific event as a reason to come to Des Moines was more effective than providing multiple reasons.

“Right now the research shows that we really don’t have an identity, so that is our action plan as the CVB, is to move forward and determine what we want to identify ourselves as,” said Tiffany Tauscheck, CVB vice president of marketing.

Tauscheck said she was very pleased with the insight they gathered and has recommended Quester to several other companies in Des Moines and Chicago that had been talking about problems gaining the same type of valuable information the CVB received.

Although point and click surveys that give quantitative data are generally cheaper and easier to conduct than qualitative surveys, the information provided often is less valuable.

“For instance, if I were to ask you out loud what’s your favorite color, you are going to be able to tell me. If I give you a presented list of purple, fuchsia, pink and white, and (your color) is not on the list, that’s a problem,” Schulte said. “Additionally, why you like it, we can’t figure that out.”

Recognizing an opportunity, Quester developed a plug-in application that allows Socrates to be built into traditional point and click surveys, so respondents must provide reasoning for their responses. Since then, Quester has been building relationships with and acting as a contractor for about two dozen market research firms.

OTX, a global consumer research firm with offices in Los Angeles, London and Australia among other locations, integrated Socrates into its AdCep ad testing system, which measures quantitatively how emotion, message and context affect the performance of advertising.

“Basically (using Socrates) is a way for us when we are evaluating advertising for clients to get some richer understanding of how consumers are reacting to the ad,” said Jim Forrest, OTX’s senior vice president, advertising and brand insights. “We get our quantitative measures, we measure how motivating the ad is, we also measure strengths of the emotional response the consumers have to the advertising, but it is very hard for consumers to fill out a scale in relation to their gut reaction to the ad.”

Although Forrest had seen some tools similar to Socrates, he said none of them were close to as intelligent, and that after about a year of using Socrates, the program has helped OTX get past seeing reactions to ads in numbers.

“Quester allowed us to do some subjective sort of questioning to get people to explain beyond the ‘I like it,’ ‘I don’t like it,’ which ties into the ability to measure the impact of the emotional role of advertising,” Forrest said. “In many cases, the Quester tool helped us round out a lot of the story, or helped direct us into what we needed to dig into a little bit deeper in order to provide a very good product to our clients.”

Schulte said that the company really hit its stride after developing the plug-in during 2007. They did three side projects in 2007, 37 in 2008 and more than 150 in 2009, and have seen quarter-to-quarter growth during the last four quarters.

Since Socrates began operating, it has handled more than 2 million respondents, and it has gotten to the point where the program is almost constantly at work.

“When we first launched (Socrates), we would find these dead times, like times late at night, to do a software upgrade or something like that,” Schulte said. “And physically right now I’m not sure we have had a window of more than an hour in probably a year and a half.”

So, if you run into Socrates in the future, please, remember, no flirting. Socrates isn’t looking for dates; it’s way too busy. And besides, it asks way too many questions.

©2010 Business Record