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Big Orange Slide

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

Grip interviews: Shane Skillen

November 30, 2009 by Dave Hamilton


Shane Skillen is the president and founder of Hotspex, a market research firm based in Toronto, Canada.

1) Hotspex is to consumer research as _____ is to _____?
Hotspex is to consumer research as Google is to finding answers.

2) How does Hotspex’s digital orientation make it different from other research companies?
There’s a lot more flexibility. We are able to immerse respondents in virtual worlds (e.g., grocery stores with resolutions comparable to your kid’s favourite Xbox game) to see how they interact with new products, packages and point-of-sale advertising. We’ve even created online social networks called “Playgrounds” for brands where we get 300 people to do various activities. We find enormous value with this type of research, especially when consumers communicate with each other about things we may not have thought to ask. Being digital also allows us to conduct research in over 19 countries, in many different languages with all data collected centrally on our servers in Toronto.

3) How do people respond differently to online questionnaires versus more traditional methods?
There is a whole new level of honesty, and as a result there is increased data accuracy in online questionnaires. One of the big reasons is that there is no need to socially impress a moderator in a focus group or the interviewer on the other end of the phone. For example, in a recent phone survey 67% of American’s claimed to work out – while a web survey done with a similar sample reported only 41% work out regularly. Phone survey: 15% drink alcohol regularly. Online survey: 48%.

When you remove the need to give a socially acceptable answer to a person you get data that more accurately represents true behaviour.

4) What’s the most surprising insight about consumers you’ve uncovered in your work over the years?
People don’t say why they do the things they do and thus survey research typically results in the wrong recommendations. It’s why 85% of new products fail each year even after billions are spent on market research.

For example, if you ask people “Why did you buy that brand of tires on your vehicle?” they will almost always give “safe” and “long lasting” as their top reasons. It’s a lie! It’s a rational alibi to emotionally driven behaviour. Subconsciously, how cool the tread pattern and logo look has much more of an impact on buying tires than the perception of safe and long lasting.

5) Do you ever feel that clients (or agencies for that matter) are asking the wrong questions?
Most focus purely on rational questions while, in fact, emotion has just as much impact on behaviour. Everything we do, buy, eat, touch, etc., starts with a subconscious emotional urge to do it and then the rational brain is recruited at the last millisecond to either allow that action or veto it.

We’ve proven through extensive research with 10,000+ consumers that about 50% of decision making is emotional. In some categories, such as alcohol, it’s as high as 85%. Yet when testing new alcohol concepts people ask rational questions to determine if the product will succeed. Instead of asking “would you buy this” we need to ask “how does it make you feel?”

Knowing how a concept or a brand makes consumers feel and knowing the impact of that on behaviour helps us substantially increase (+32%) our accuracy in predicting what they will really do when looking at the product on a store shelf.

Advertising is another area where the wrong questions are asked. Many times a winning ad that will significantly build brand equity and drive sales will fail a traditional/rational advertising test.

6) As an entrepreneur, how would you describe your leadership style?
True to my research background, I typically ask my staff “How can I help you?” five or more times a day. I also like to surround myself with great people who love what they do and have fun while doing it. Sometimes we even have streaking contests.

7) Do you still get your hands dirty, or is it all long lunches and cigars now that the company is growing?
We’re about 80 people now and I have an excellent leadership team who manages the day-to-day. I find most of my time is spent networking, selling, exploring new ideas and recruiting new senior people to our team. I will admit that in the summer I like to get out with clients golfing once a week.

8) What was a lesson about consumer insights you’ve learned the hard way?
I learned that consumer insight collection and interpretation is an advanced science. Once upon a time, in the basement of my parent’s house, I thought that we could simply collect 1,000 responses with basic questions about how people used home hair colouring and that would tell the whole story. The Director of Market Research of a global cosmetics company quickly educated me and declared that no part of our presentation was to ever be distributed to the organization. It was an embarrassing and important lesson.

There are specific ways to ask questions, design the sample of respondents, clean data sets for bad data, weight the data to accurately reflect the population and then statistically test and analyze results. I consider it a miracle that seven years later, and now thankfully with some of the best researchers in the world on my team, we managed to re-engage that client and account.

9) Tell me a little bit about “Take A Survery. Plant A Tree.
One of the most important aspects of our business is that people actually take surveys, and since we’re working digitally, we’re pretty green versus traditionally survey methods. To highlight that, we reward online survey respondents with points that they can spend on chances to win prizes or convert into charitable donations, such as feeding kids in third world countries or planting trees in the rainforest. With our “Take A Survey. Plant a Tree.” campaign, we plant a tree in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest for each survey completed on Hotspex.

We recently passed the 1,000,000 trees mark. That’s pretty much a new forest.

10) After rounding out a decade in market research, are you any closer to understanding why humans do the things they do?
Absolutely. But as with many things, the more you learn the more you realize you don’t know. I find myself studying neurochemistry, molecular biology, advanced psychology and other topics related. I am, however, very lucky to be working in a career that helps in many aspects of my life outside work: I understand why my two-year-old son behaves the way he does as his brain and personality are developing; I can even help my buddies effectively “meet” new “friends” at the bar.

1 Comment on "Grip interviews: Shane Skillen"

  • foibles
    December 4, 2009 @ 7:11 pm

    I really like the ‘lessons learned’ in #8. check these findings in a Zoomerang research article analyzing so-called ‘bad respondents’ in online surveys and how they impact business decisions

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