Market research has to change – a retail industry chat with Vision Critical’s Tyler Douglas


Whenever I get the chance to hear about alternatives to spray-and-pray “personalization” and generically-dumb customer surveys, I’m all ears. Tyler Douglas of Vision Critical made his case for why market research needs to change – and how customer communities provide a different, and more effective model.

woman-shining-lightVision Critical always seems to come through with spicy interviews. My first run-in resulted in Angry customers – what do they cost and what do they want? Then it was survey-hell-catharsis in The survey epidemic is upon us – and something must be done, which managed to offend some market research die hards.

I had the chance to ruffle a few more feathers when I spoke with Tyler Douglas, Chief Sales and Marketing Officer with Vision Critical. Since we were at a retail show (NRF 2017), the angle was why market research needs to change – the retail edition.

From survey spam to customer communities

If market research needs to change, what takes its place? The short answer: customer communities. Douglas slowed me down a bit here – he doesn’t want to throw the data baby out with the legacy bathwater:

Retail, I think, is an obvious example, because we live these brands every day. How do we help people, How do we turn traditional market research into something that makes a difference? I’m always careful to say traditional market research, because I believe market research is more valuable than ever today – but the ways that we’ve done it in the past need to change or die.

One thing that needs to change: the survey deluge. Douglas:

Thinking back to your survey article, I think you said, “If Crest knew every time I brushed my teeth, would they send me a survey?” [Answer: yes, they would]. Spam surveys are a great example. How do we help a retail brand get to know their customer? How do we help them close the gap between their stated mission of becoming customer-first, or customer-centric and the impersonal experience of the spam survey? How do we humanize the brand?

Sending generic, time-consuming surveys after one interaction is like getting too fresh on a first date. What’s the alternative? A buildup of interactions based on trust earned:

Our premise is to build a relationship with people where you learn more and more about them over time. Where you actually bring something to the table about them that you know. You amalgamate their behavior, their transactional data, behavioral data, whatever it is, but with a human approach – which I think is critical in the automated future we seem to be on the cusp of. You want to put the face and the voice of the human being into that conversation. Eventually, you can really start to personalize that.

So what’s the end game? Yes – a customer community. But not a free-for-all Internet community. The community we’re after is eager to help on specific projects. This is not unlike the principles of advocate marketing. One result: a different type of market intelligence. This can provide regional nuances overlooked at corporate headquarters. Douglas cited a South African example:

One of the largest cinema chains in South Africa uses our software. They pre-released a trailer to a movie that they realized was going to flop in South Africa the way that that trailer was cut. They sent it back to Hollywood, redid the trailer based on the feedback from that community, and for that market. With this approach, potent customer feedback within 48 hours is doable. That type of turnaround is a pipe dream for traditional research.

He shared this retail scenario:

I think of Elizabeth Arden, who’s working to try and understand beauty enthusiasts, and trendsetters, and fashion-forward people, but not at a point in time. They want to engage them in an ongoing basis – get to know people as they grow and change. You can’t do that any other way. You can’t do that with traditional market research, where you get that report and you say, “I wish I could just ask this follow-on question, or that follow-on question.”

What does the consumer get out of it?

When I hear about insight on demand, I’m always skeptical. I see the benefit for the brand, but what’s in it for the individual? Douglas says that I’d be surprised at how responsive people are. Obviously, brands with emotional affinity have an edge here. The keys to engagement are pretty simple:

  • Invite people into the community with a VIP style, so they get the message that their views matter.
  • You can use extrinsic motivations like community recognition and free gifts, but they are not the only way to earn engagement.
  • Give communities easy-to-use UIs, including an intuitive mobile option.

When people have brand affinity, all a company has to do is ask:

.I have three little boys at home. We go to the same grocery store every Saturday morning. We spend more time there than we do with some family members. Would I love that experience to be better if they were willing to reach out and ask? Of course.

Healthcare is another:

A more serious example might be in healthcare, where you’re advocating for your own health, your own human wellness. Do you want to be a part of that? Of course you do, if you believe that somebody is genuinely, authentically trying to get to know you, and that that information will lead to change.

That last part is the kicker. I’m not going to give feedback for long if I don’t see any change. Transparent follow-though is a must:

From there, we want to inform yo on how you’re being heard. We want to share back with some of the changes and the things that you’re making, what other people like you think, what other people who perhaps aren’t like you think, and how that’s influencing the brand.

How do we connect this approach to retail as a whole? Douglas:

I think we know this intuitively, but brick and mortar’s not going away. Despite what we might read, the doomsday of brick and mortar, that’s just not what I’m hearing here.

Small, upstart retailers are keen on data personalization:

We’re seeing more and more the boutiqueness of personalizing in category. It’s not quite the long tail of it, it’s a similar idea, where I might be able to get something unique and distinctive in a retailer, that is made for me.

That personal touch might require a storefront. Douglas sees some e-commerce retailers learning that lesson. But he refuses to call it “omni-channel”:

We’ve got an example in Vancouver of custom made suits where they started their business with online ordering only. Then they realized people want to be able to go into a store and get measured, and feel the fabric. Then they outsource the actual fabrication of it. I think that’s the way forward. It’s more of a personal experience. You get exactly what you want. I’m not going to use the word omni-channel. It combines multiple channels to deliver on the expectation of that personal experience.

The wrap – earning attention isn’t easily solved

Vision Critical believes that customer communities can be built on the basis of “relationship memory.” This is vastly different than a transaction-based approach to customer insight. Their 700 customers span a number of verticals, but retail is appropriate given they are trying to scale the experience of the neighborhood storefront.

Two-day turnaround on research questions is impressive, but I see plenty of obstacles for companies along this path. Brand affinity is hard to win and easy to lose. The temptations to blast people with pseudo-personalized messaging is hard to resist. I’ve seen plenty of companies that play both sides: quality personal engagement in one hand, but cover-your-ass with impersonal volume tactics on the other.

But hey, if companies like Vision Critical can reduce the survey flotsam in my inbox while giving companies a fighting shot at treating me/us like human beings, I’ll take it.

Image credit - Woman and scary forest © kevron2001 -

Disclosure - NRF provided me with press access to NRF 2017, where this interview took place. By the way, Douglas and I aren't picking on Crest - it was just the toothpaste brand that came to mind.