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July 6 2021

From our special issue published this week, KL Communications founder Kevin Lonnie talks about what's changed and what hasn't in twenty years running a communities business; about getting customers to solve clients' business problems; and getting space men to talk to each other.

Kevin Lonnie
[Interview by Nick Thomas; watch the full video here www.mrweb.com/drno/kevinlonnie.htm ]

Getting Bored Easily

NT: Tell us about your parents & their influence on you...

KL: They both had a big influence, my dad was an electrical engineer who spent his career working for the government, often doing interesting things in faraway places, installing radar, and we'd never quite know where he was. I actually followed in his footsteps and went into college to do engineering, since I had no idea what I wanted to do. After one semester I realised I'd made an egregious error and got out, ended up just taking random business courses as well as psychology courses, so I ended up with a double major in Business Admin and Psychology at the end of my undergrad years, and in my final semester senior year I took a course in marketing research which I felt put everything together - it had elements of psychology, elements of business and even some of the disciplines of engineering.

NT: What about your mother?

KL: My mother was always a stabilising influence. Soft spoken... but outspoken. Like if I ever brought a girl to the house, at some point my mother would just say 'You know Kevin gets bored easily' - and I was like 'Mum what are you doing??' and she would say 'You do... and they should know that soon, and they can react accordingly' - which was typically to head for the hills. But also I took that on board: a minimum of words, with great authenticity.

They were flexible about what I did - just get your degree, and then get a job! First job in the industry I was a mall interviewer for a company called Market Facts, and I was pretty terrible at it... but fortunately my boss liked me and brought me inside - since I had failed miserably as an interviewer. I lived in a New Jersey suburb, and I worked in New York City for about ten years, got the lay of the land there.

Finding a Niche

NT: tell us about the decision to form your own company.

KL: I had an epiphany, basically. In NYC I was working for a large research company and I got to be the Director of Quant Research, and we were producing results for an ad agency. These creatives gathered, and we bludgeoned these poor guys with chart after chart and more and more data to the point where I was actually very uncomfortable. One guy was literally falling asleep at the table. Afterwards I talked to my boss about it and I said 'That was horrible', and she said 'What do you mean, it was fine', I said 'How do you consider that fine?' and she said 'Everything we said was right!' And I was like 'Well yeah but we bored the cr*p out of them! They didn't listen to a word we said.' So that was my epiphany - to start my own business, 25 years ago, and that's why I called it KL Communications instead of KL Research - I was still traumatised by the fact that if the insight doesn't actually resonate it was all wasted time... I've been working for myself ever since. No-one will hire me...

NT: Yes that sounds familiar - and also the longer you've been working for yourself the more difficult it becomes to even contemplate doing what someone else tells you again. You know how horrible bosses are because you are one, so yeah...

KL: I wouldn't wish me on anyone.

NT: If you look at the KL web site nowadays it's pretty much pure insight communities, but presumably that wasn't the case 25 years ago?

KL: Right - that predates communities - but we got into them pretty much from the off, 20 years ago, and we were an online research firm from the beginning - in the days of AOL and You've Got Mail, we were early on in that area. I was never a big fan of phone surveys, you didn't get people at the best time, people weren't being honest about how long it was going to take, and so on.

NT: Would you agree that communities have been a slow-burner compared to some techs that have had lots of hype?

KL: I would agree with that. The GRIT report has said it's a new and innovative tech for ten years, but I think they've come to realise that it's almost ubiquitous. When I first got into it I think there were maybe 6 providers in the US, and there's well over 100 now, and also the business model has changed, most providers are more tech-oriented, more SaaS-oriented, which makes sense because that makes them much more scalable. And it used to be 'Why would a corporation have a community?', and now with cost efficiencies etc... 'Why wouldn't you?', so I think it's probably the exception rather than the rule to find a corporation that doesn't have an insight community now.

In terms of the niche that we tried to pursue: we weren't coming out from SaaS, we're actually a bunch of researchers, hiring a bunch of platform developers (...and we hope at some point we understand what each other is talking about). We decided to differentiate on more active forms of engagement with customers - we know the buzzword is empathy, being customer-centric and customer-caring, and we created our co-creation module about 6 years ago. That's called CrowdWeaving, and it's offering clients something that they can't get elsewhere.


KL: It came from this idea of playing up to the audience. There was a famous US comedian a long time ago whose name was Jack Benny, and they asked him how he'd managed a 50-year career, and he said 'When I came up, everybody talked about playing down to your audience, so I figured I'd play up to mine'. Spinning that forward, it's a bit like most traditional MR plays down to the audience - we send surveys, essentially the ideation takes place elsewhere, all we want to know is whether they like [an idea], and we're not asking them for a lot of involvement, so what CrowdWeaving attempts to do is to say to clients, 'OK what's the bus challenge you have, to which you need answers?' - and we're going to put it out to customers and explain it a lot more than you'd think they'd be willing to take the time to understand. Then we'll ask them to try to solve it independently. I'm not a big fan of brainstorming sessions because I think the group immediately tends to move towards synthesis and accept an idea, so I like the idea of independent ideation, but then we move towards a collaborative approach too - using the social reciprocity that people are used to engaging with, like in social media - so people start to develop original ideas, it becomes gamification, and we're sharing all this with the client at the beginning because one of the first times we did this we went through the whole process before we talked to the client, and the internal creative team was very much put off, they were being usurped by the customers - what do customers know anyway? - so we thought OK we've got to talk to them immediately and position it, and say Think of the customer as a muse that is acting to help your creative thinking, and then you hear what they're doing trying to solve things, and use that as inspiration to try and solve the problem. There's also CrowdSourcing which means you ask your customers to actually come up with something and then go to market with it, and we're not asking them to do that, but we are asking them to identify ways to either market a product, or maybe products that don't exist, and then get our clients to a better starting point, so it's a tool to help the ideation and creative process, and you know hopefully more products will succeed with this method than with the traditional, more reactive insights.

NT: You mentioned gamification - are there a lot of proprietary methods that you use within CrowdWeaving?

KL: Yes, well part of it is that you have an idea, see how it's ranking, defend your idea, you can see comments people are making - often they can be brutally honest criticism, the kind my mother used to provide - so you can say 'I've made this change, I'll put it back out there and see if it can rise up again in the ranks', so there is fun from the participant point of view to try and win the challenge, and they'll win some money for that too. There might be like 100 ideas, for the second phase we'll try to get down to about 10, occasionally the client will seed some of their own ideas into this, because they have some normative data. But the main point is not necessarily the final idea but the things that the process exposes - what are the pain points that exist, what are the ways that they could approach this that they hadn't considered. I'll give you an example of one early on - a community of frequent flyers for Delta Airlines. These people have a love hate relationship (with the airline) because you know that's the hub they have for the city they're in and they have no choice, and one fellow on the community was very unremarkable, was barely staying in and we were ready to kick him out a couple of times, but he responded to this, I think he might have been delayed at an airport at the time, but he spent quite a bit of time and submitted schematics... The challenge was, if you're booking multiple flights like a bus traveller, what should the web site look like, the navigation path, how intuitive should it be to make it easier to book these, as opposed to the current site which they knew was lacking. Essentially what this one guy came up with was the direction that Delta ran with, and it was completely different than the direction they were going to go. Who's better to know this than someone who's in the middle of it all now? There are times when the crowd is actually quite smart, because they feel the pain more than the person in the ivory tower.

NT: Do they work best with a certain number of people?

KL: yes typically about 100, so obviously that's the advantage of online, being able to accommodate that kind of number of people, it's asynchronous - you know, you would never attempt that with anything live, so it's a win-win because 100 folks allows for a lot of diversity of thinking. Everybody knows a great idea when they see it, but you would never beforehand pick out who was going to come up with that idea. I'm not a big believer in screening for creativity - you know sometimes folks do that, but there's a lot of research sociologists that contradicts that, saying No you want to be able to not define the universe going in.

NT: Very topical - you might argue that if you're the one screening for creativity, you might get some unconscious bias coming into it.

Branding the Hell

NT: What were the trends in the communities space happening two years ago, and then how many of them have been completely blown away by [Covid]... can you address both parts of that?

KL: I'll give it a try! I think the trend 2 years ago was in everything going SaaS, automation, using AI and pretty much standalone type use of the technology, which makes perfect sense from the perspective of our bus model. There is the tendency for clients [to think]... the full service suppliers are way too expensive, I don't want them any more - so it comes down to value, and I think the DIY model is difficult... the words I'm hearing a lot more now is demand for 'Flexsupport' with DIY - we will step in and offer as much support as you need rather than just leave you hanging [out]. That I think offers a sweet spot for all parties concerned... [Also] You have to have a full repository of traditional and non-traditional tools that someone can use, and at the end of the day you have to offer the best value. We're starting to see more and more firms using the agile design methodology, bringing it to communities as a way to differentiate them.

One other thing I would say is that we really try to brand the hell out of these communities now, make sure internal stakeholders are aware of it - how far is it reaching, is it making a difference, is it the go-to thing. From a business perspective that helps because it means we're really sticky and the odds are they're going to keep renewing. This means having a fun name for it, and hopefully it becomes synonymous, like a Kleenex, 'let's have this go through Fun or Map or whatever', I want us to be thought of as like the Rome of insights you know - everything goes through the community. That's another thing I think has changed to the benefit of communities. They used to be for a quick hit read, but all the main stuff has to go through heavy duty, tactical, strategic, well-rigoured approaches, so communities were almost fluff, they weren't considered an accurate enough barometer of success; and more and more I see we do the work in the community and there is no other research being done, and the decisions are based on that. I think in the last year that has accelerated.

NT: I've heard people say in this supplement that we have a bit more clout in the boardroom since the onset of Covid. Have you noticed that?

KL: I have, I have. It's a question of separating the wheat from the chaff. How certain insight depts. Have always been regarded, the ones who are well-regarded have only moved up in importance, and why, because they're the conduit to the customer, and in the pandemic world customer needs are changing and they need to know about that. I also see this convergence of insights and innovation, more in some companies than others, and I think the insights teams that play in that space are more highly regarded and more likely to have access to the C-Suite, because they're impacting the bottom line.

Space and Siloes

NT: pick a recent project...

KL: We were working for a space/aeronautics agency. We had done a white paper in collaboration with Columbia University here in NYC, and I guess they came upon us from that. The challenge this particular division had was that they were very siloed. Apparently the way of doing things in this organisation from its creation was that there would be some sort of champion who had a great idea, and they would bring together as many people as necessary to solve the problem (ie work on the idea) - Land on the Moon! - or whatever the case may be. In this particular case they were looking for something different, looking at the world's aquifers which are drying up, and seeing if they'd be better able to identify these using all the new satellites that are monitoring up there, as there are terrestrial signs that these things can pick up - literally if the water is being sucked out of the earth. Now we're in a situation where we don't really have a team leader... we have engineers, we have scientists and technologists, and I don't know if you ever saw the Big Bang Theory but these guys have a pecking order between themselves and they like the other group but they don't particularly speak the same language, so how do we get these three disparate group to all be part of the same ideation process.

...and also, we don't really know what the hell they're talking about 98% of the time because everything's over our head.

NT: Who's 'We' here, the people from the space / aeronautics agency who are calling you in??

KL: Yes, the people who have asked us to help with the customer co-creation challenge - even they didn't understand. But the client was ready to stand by the process: let's ask the scientists to solve it individually, the engineers to solve it, the technologists to solve it, and then look at the way they did it and see what each can bring to it. Except that they couldn't - obviously the engineers are very practical, their thing of course included just one spreadsheet after another, schematics; the scientists were all very theoretical, there was like one chart, of a tree or something... So it was a fascinating project to work on, but amazingly enough we did get the groups to coalesce on a shared way of solving the problem - that was one we worked on last year, still in progress and we hope there might be some more work from that one. Obviously that's different from customer research, that's in a b2b situation, but the idea of breaking down siloes, getting people to talk and collectively come up with something that individually they couldn't do, was a lot of fun.

NT: Do you have a motto?

KL: There are times when we are trying to get to the next level and I sum up by saying 'remains a work in progress' - and I try to put myself in the same boat, we are in this overarching agile iterative development, that doesn't end, and wouldn't it be boring if there was a finish line, so it's always a matter of just getting a little bit better at the game, not getting too frustrated, understanding that progress is being made and we're going to surprise ourselves with some of the things that we're able to do. So yeah 'Work in Progress', that describes me, that describes KLC, it's changed a lot in 25 years, and I try to do it more from a 'poll persona', what my clients are looking for, what my employees are jazzed by. You know I've long abandoned any great vision for the skills that I have, a lot of the ideas I get are actually generated from client needs, so they are my inspiration.

NT: Is any idea really new, after all...?

KL: Yeah, the idea of someone working in isolation and coming up with this epiphany moment, that doesn't really exist, so all I can do is put people together so that we do get that collaboration and make good decisions.

Kevin founded KLC in 1996 after working on both the client and supplier side. He has earned a reputation as being at the forefront of using the principles of design thinking and customer co-creation, and has presented at numerous insights events over the past three years, focusing on the impact of disruptive tools and their implications for product innovation. Kevin is past Treasurer and Executive Board member of the Insights Association, and past President of the Interactive Marketing Research Organization (IMRO).

All articles 2006-23 written and edited by Mel Crowther and/or Nick Thomas, 2024- by Nick Thomas, unless otherwise stated.

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