Cate Riegner - Co-Founder, Vice-President, Research & Brand Insights.

the human side of data | interview with Cate Riegner

Co-Founder/Vice-President, Research & Brand Insights

Cate Riegner is the co-founder and Vice President of Research and Brand Insights at Netpop, and she has over 20 years of experience in market research, branding, and strategic planning.


Q: Tell us about Netpop and the interesting work that you do?

Netpop is a full-service market research firm. We are based in San Francisco and we focus primarily on technology companies –the internet and technology sector–, to help guide their product and marketing strategies.


Q: What are the challenges you help these companies tackle?

It’s common in any company, in any industry, that the larger you get, the more “inside the bubble” you are as an employee, and that can become challenging if you are tasked with coming out with a compelling marketing campaign; refining your feature set for a product, or understanding what the brand represents in the market, especially after a period of time where perceptions change, and the competitive landscape changes. A lot of the challenges that we support companies through are about connecting them more closely to their target audience or audiences, so they can make smarter strategic decisions on a product, a brand or marketing.

It’s mostly about connecting companies more closely to their target audiences, so that they can make smarter strategic decisions on a product, brand or marketing.

It’s mostly about connecting companies more closely to their target audiences, so that they can make smarter strategic decisions on a product, brand or marketing.


Q: What are the types of research, and what do they accomplish?

A lot of different objectives can be met with market research. A very standard one that a lot of people will understand is customer satisfaction –understanding who your customer base is, how are you serving them and if you’re doing a good job. Customer satisfaction studies can be done all the time, you probably take them a lot on your phone these days. It can be very quick and simple, companies get a quick read on how good an experience someone had with a recent purchase. Another classic study that Netpop will do is a brand-tracking study – we evaluate the perceptions on a brand or a brand sentiment in the market; we compare that with competitive products and brands, and we can track that over time to see, based on market forces, media events or new product launches, if the brand has increased or decreased in their brand equity, as we call it.

One more example would be a persona study. Often companies recognize that their product has reached different targets, so they have to message to them differently. In that case, we work around segmentation and understanding how to message actively to different sections of the market.


Q: Does it ever happen that a company thinks they only have one target and then they have to adjust?

Research only begs more research. Of course, a company will always have a sense of who their audience is. They’ve been in the space for a while, so they have a feel for that. Our research looks at their hypothesis and goes out to see if it’s correct. Often we discover that, though they had defined their target properly, they missed a piece of it. Or the segment they thought looked a certain way, turns out can be split into two parts. The understanding gets a little more granular and refined, and they can improve how they talk to their audience.

Research only begs more research

There are companies in different verticals, industry verticals –healthcare, manufacturing, technology, entertainment—which have to be talked to differently. Or different terms of company size –a small business is quite different from an enterprise; a company with 10,000 or more employees is going to want and need different things. Research can help clients see these differences so they can communicate better, or make changes in their product or price.


Q: Is data enough to know what’s happening in people’s minds and behaviors, or do we need something else?

Data is a big word, an important word. It’s a driver; they even say data is the new oil, and companies need to be more data-driven. There’s a firehose of data now, and it’s transactional thanks to the Internet and everything being logged. Analytics is a whole new field that has grown in the last 15 years. Because so much data exists now, professions like data scientists are emerging, coming into the floor.

Data is a big word, an important word. It's a driver; they even say data is the new oil, and companies need to be more data-driven.

What Netpop focuses on is the human side of data; market research that comes from real experiences.

Data is very valuable, absolutely, but there are different kinds of data –Transactional, AI and machine learning, which is being developed now. What Netpop focuses on is the human side of this; we have been collecting self-reporting data for many years and that’s traditionally where market research comes from –from real experiences. So rather than what you click on, or where you go, or what you buy, it’s understanding the emotions, perceptions, and psychology behind the decisions that we make.

What Netpop focuses on is the human side of data; market research that comes from real experiences.

What I would do is rephrase your question a little bit: all data are important, they all complement each other, but some companies think that one specific data set will answer all their questions. They think going very deep with their analytics will give them all the answers, for example. The reality is that if you do that you lose sight of the human side, of the “why” –it’s important to understand the “why” behind the data; ask questions, be ready for answers and voices, and listen to the market. Listen to people talk about themselves and what they do, what they don’t, and why.


Q: Let’s talk about the connection between research and inclusion. When designing an inclusive experience or brand, it’s important to know your audience well, the bulk as well as the edges. Because the better you create that brand or experience for them, the better it will be for everyone. What’s the right mix of research necessary to get that “juicy” information?

For a brand to be as inclusive as possible, you want to bring as many people “into the fold” –as we say—as you can; into that vessel that you created. Research does help companies talk to audiences they may not have as firm a grasp of, in terms of cognitive understanding of what that audience is and why they’re drawn to the product in the first place. What can that product do for them?

For a brand to be as inclusive as possible, you want to bring as many people "into the fold" –as we say—as you can; into that vessel that you created

We often think in market research about the core audience, the base. Startups, for example, know their base because they are it –usually they create a product because they needed it, so of course, they understand their audience very well. It’s a certain profile. But when businesses grow, they need to bring more people into the fold, which means including other potential groups and understanding those groups. Whether you do focus groups, interviews or ethnography studies –some of the qualitative methods of research— you can tap into the potential of success of that product beyond the core audience.

There could be a competitor out there that’s thinking the same thing, and the sooner you incorporate that message and reach out to that audience in an effective way, it is more likely to bring them into the fold and grow.


Q: When you’re trying to get to the why and the emotion behind someone buying into a brand or not, is it better to do it in person or online? Individually or in a group? What are the pros and cons of all those approaches?

Doing any kind of research online has benefits from a geographical standpoint. You can reach more markets and areas in the country or the world without having to travel there, without the respondents having to come to you. This facilitates research and it can lower budgets as well. Or you could pull a focus group together with respondents from all over the country: there’s a scale there, there are some efficiencies there for sure.

“Nothing beats being in a room with somebody. Reading their body language, queues like eye contact, the pauses-- makes it much more natural”

However, nothing beats being in a room with somebody. Reading their body language, queues like eye contact, the pauses– makes it much more natural. The one-on-one interviews we’re doing are really easy in this format. If I were interviewing you and asking you about whatever product category we were talking about, and I’m testing messages, I could probably, as a moderator, do a decent job at understanding without being in the same room with you.

Even so, there’s still so much more value in an in-person group setting. You get people who are strangers around a table for two hours, and you can really establish some amazing rapport more quickly, go deep and get better insights because they’re interacting with each other. And a group dynamic comes into play.

There’s room for both online and offline qualitative research. We do both, we appreciate the pros and cons that they bring to each challenge.


Q: With this interview series, I’ve noticed some people are very comfortable with the camera and the computer, and some people feel very comfortable with video. How does that affect —are people more self-aware when they can see themselves? Is it easier to get an honest answer when it’s a one on one than in a survey? Can people in group dynamics get influenced by somebody’s negativity or excitement?

In a group setting, a good moderator has to make sure they hear from everyone in the group, and they will pick up very quickly if there’s someone who’s dominating the group. That’s just standard human behavior, there’s someone who’s going to be the alpha male or female in the group and you have to factor that in. Surveys are valuable because it’s a quantitative approach, and by default, you will get a larger sample size of quantitative, statistically reliable findings. They’re in a different realm, but I’ve always believed that quantitative and qualitative research complement each other.

”In a group setting, a good moderator has to make sure they hear from everyone in the group”

It’s important to be conscious of any kind of bias on both levels, whether you’re doing a focus group or a survey, so it can be avoided. In a survey, for example, if you’re asking a question about what brand of soda or computer brand you prefer, you have to make sure you’re randomizing the choices so that top choice doesn’t come up first all the time.

To answer your question, in any type of research you have to control for all kinds of bias. You have to be careful about making sure your sample of people has the minimum possible bias.

Is it always necessary to combine different kinds of research, to compare and contrast, or is just one type enough sometimes?
Many types of research complement each other, but there are time and budget constraints. Usually, we recommend both qualitative and quantitative, but most companies only have the budget or bandwidth for one. Therefore, we end up defaulting to one or the other depending on where we are in understanding that market, or what the core objectives of the study are. We decide based on which one makes more sense at that point in time, and then they can always come back and ask for the other type later. You have to take it in steps sometimes and do it incrementally.


Q: Is there an ideal periodicity? When is it good to touch base again after you’ve researched to see if it’s having results if your strategies have affected?

I can give you a couple of examples. First, the brand tracker –measuring the brand in the market. How often do we have to do that? How often should we be doing that? Is that monthly or quarterly? Twice a year, once a year, etc. The answer depends on the market. Very dynamic markets move and change very quickly. In that case, you might want to do a quarterly. If you have a market like enterprise technology, which doesn’t move that quickly, twice a year can be enough.

“You don't need too much data; you need good data at the right time.”

However, anytime there’s a major event in the market –a competitor comes out with a new product, or there’s a media event and there’s damage control going on for you or your competitor—is a good time to do a study. In the latter example, the response could be to talk to the customers, see how the event has impacted them. It could be an opportunity to grow, or to fill the void your competitors don´t.

It’s not necessary to get overwhelmed with data. You don’t need too much data; you need good data at the right time.


Q: This series is about inclusion coming in many shapes and forms. Do you see any trends in the research that’s getting out there or that clients ask for, that they are more focused on the human aspect than just on the plain data? The “whys”, the emotions behind the customers. Is there anything hopeful, exciting, innovative out there?

From our advantage point in technology, many new developments are going on. Robotics, of course, respond for example to a need to help the growing aging population –it’s going to increase quite significantly in the next 10 to 15 years–, and companies recognize that there’s a lot a robot can do in the household to keep the elderly more mobile or productive as individuals. That’s an area we’ve done some work in, and it’s very exciting because it can have a real impact on people’s lives.

There’s another trend that has to do with integrative medicine and changes in the health industry –merging western and eastern medicine, for example. There’s so much happening now in different interdisciplinary approaches, in a lot of industries that have been very traditionally-based, that research can help companies understand how to tap into a consumer demand, which is looking for new approaches and brands that are more inclusive.

We try to do that in a way that’s authentic and genuine and also build products that can be more open and accessible.

about cate

Cate has over 20 years of experience in market research, branding, and strategic planning. She co-founded NetPop in order to apply her experience in research and planning to online products and services. Since 1996, Riegner has worked with numerous internet and technology companies, including: Google, eBay, Creative Commons, Facebook, McAfee, and Netflix. From 1997 to 2000, Riegner served as Director of Market Research for ThirdAge Media where she designed strategic market research programs to guide online marketing programs among corporate partners such as, CBS Networks, eTrade, Procter & Gamble, and Merrill Lynch. Earlier in her career, Riegner worked as a research analyst for Foote, Cone & Belding, as well as Lai Venuti & Lai Advertising, and Booz Allen & Hamilton. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in History from Smith College and a Masters in Communication from the University of Pennsylvania.

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