Interview with Jason Buchanan – MD Asia Pacific, Survey Sampling International

jason buchananBrief Background of Jason Buchanan:

“I have been exceptionally fortunate with my career so far, and on reflection I have loved every minute of it.

After completing my Business Degree at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, I have managed to squeeze in several mini-careers that have in some way contributed to the position I currently have today. I worked as a Research Assistant for an Advertising Agency, spent 4 years working in the area of talent management and recruitment, 4 years working for a software/IT company in both Australia and then the UK, and managed to even squeeze in time to travel the world for 18 months.

However it was in 2004 that things really started getting interesting. I had just left the Software company I was working for in London, took a month to travel in Europe, and on returning to London found an advertisement for a role with Research Now. Back then they were a small but aggressively growing company with lots of ambition.

After a year or so, a close family member became ill back in Australia, and so rather than simply leaving, Andrew (Cooper) and Chris (Havemann) were courageous enough to let me start their business in Australia, and over the next 4 years I was responsible for the expansion in APAC, from one person to many. Looking back, it was the role that allowed me to discover where my strengths truly lie.

I left Research Now to start my own GPS-based technology business at the end of 2009, and wasn’t really looking to get back into this industry until I met up with Kees de Jong (CEO, SSI). After several beers, I was convinced that this was a new type of challenge for me, to come into an existing business and shape the future growth. I couldn’t be happier with how this is going”.

Online MR: How have your educational and work experiences prepared you for this position?

Jason Buchanan:

Although my education has been very relevant (B.Business with a Marketing major), and I am about to embark on further post-graduate education shortly, it is the experiences gathered from throwing myself into every role I have had so far that have provided the most preparation for my current role. I am not afraid to make mistakes, and believe me I have made many, but the learning opportunities that come with this have made me a much better leader.

Leading people is a privilege, and it is something that I take seriously without losing the sense of fun and happiness that is essential for a positive working environment. One of the most important parts of my job is to attract and retain the best people, and create a work environment that encourages peak performance and success. In many ways, all of my roles to date have prepared me for this, although I am still very much on a journey of discovery and learn something new every day.

Online MR: What new milestones you have set for your current role?

Jason Buchanan:

If you spoke with those in my team, I think they would say that we have a very clear milestone – to be the number one sampling and data collection partner in the markets we serve. We want to continue to raise the bar with every aspect of our business, and whilst it is an ambitious goal, it is well within the reach of the talented individuals who currently make up our team.

However there are two sides to ever coin, and what I mean by this is that there is another very individual goal of mine, which is to ensure that each of us as individuals continue to grow as people, and achieve their own career and personal goals at the same time as we achieve our company goals.

Online MR: SSI being one of the market leaders in online panel industry – How are you trying to maintain this competitive edge?

Jason Buchanan:

The sampling and data collection industry is one full of challenges and requires a company to be constantly evolving. Our clients are telling us that they want a one-stop shop that can provide access to the right people at the right time, every single time.

SSI is a company with a rich and impressive history in this industry. It effectively invented phone sampling in the US many years ago, and was a pioneer in online in Europe (SSI acquired Bloomerce, at the time one of Europe’s leading online players). We also now have some very good momentum in APAC which gives us the competitive edge.

One of the main reasons I joined SSI (and there are many) was because of the fact that SSI is now reinventing the way data collection is done. We are constantly improving our online access to the best respondents right around the globe, and with the recent merger between SSI and Opinionology, the new SSI can now provide unparalleled access to respondents through CATI, providing what I believe will be a very exciting opportunity in developing countries in the Asia Pacific region.

Of course, as a partner to the market research industry, it is highly important to us to understand every implication of every decision we make about our methodological choices. After all, introducing unknown biases to any data set is the holy grail of fundamental errors in this industry.

At SSI, we are continuously investing in research on research (we have an internal ‘Knowledge Team’) to ensure we constantly advance sampling science and data collection. Our commitment to strict methodological standards is one of our key differentiation.

Add to this our ability to provide quality survey programming and data processing services, supported by a knowledgeable and committed team, and I feel our competitive offering is very strong.

Online MR: In next few years what are some areas which you want to really concentrate on for SSI?

Jason Buchanan:

The next few years are about continuing the momentum we have and staying true to our goals – to become the first-choice partner for sampling and data collection in each market we service. The only way we will achieve this is to do all the little things right, and there are many. We will continue to broaden our reach in key geographies. We will continue to invest in our survey programming capabilities. We will continue to venture into the B2B space. And we will continue to work on ‘mixed access’.

If in a few years we can review our business and find that we are adding value to our clients by helping them be more successful, and have a team rich in knowledge and enthusiasm who are achieving their own goals, I dare say we will have also hit our company goals as well.

Online MR: What new opportunities or threats you see for the online panel business in APAC market?

Jason Buchanan:

We have an effective senior leadership team which has developed a rigorous business plan – and hopefully this means we have anticipated and planned for most of the threats that could affect all of us, including the economy and pressure on pricing. From my perspective, I am excited about the opportunities for our business. Our recent track record is one of growth and improvement in many aspects of the business, and there are a number of very exciting opportunities to pursue.

One that we are working on is the unique concept of ‘mixed access’ (utilizing online, CATI, mobile), as well as a number of initiatives that will provide significant benefits to those that deal with us. Another big opportunity is B2B, and we believe we are very well placed to service these needs in the future.

Online MR: What would you say to online fieldwork detractors who frequently question this methodology?

Jason Buchanan:

Having worked in this industry for some time, I think I have heard most of the pros and cons about online as a methodology. For me, it is just one of the options available to collect opinions, and as long as our clients are exercising their judgment and choose the appropriate methodology for their project (timings and budget will always be key factors), there is a lot that can be said about the benefits.

The reality is that getting access to the right people is becoming more and more difficult. Even the staunchest critic couldn’t deny that online has a place; however at SSI we have acknowledged that it is not necessarily the only option for quantitative research, which is why we will continue to expand our CATI/mobile capabilities, particularly in the developing South East Asia region.

Online MR: Is panel aggregation dead? What are your views on having a proprietary panel v/s aggregation?

Jason Buchanan:

Is that a leading question Akshay? :) Before I get into the answer, I think it is appropriate to share my views on where I sit in the great debate that is circling this industry – are panels dead?

I mentioned earlier that SSI conducts a great deal of research about the research industry itself. Let’s take one particular study that I still find fascinating. We discovered that a large percentage of the online population have never in fact been exposed to any type of panel recruitment activity, let alone actually joining a panel.

What this told us is that the traditional recruitment practices for online panels aren’t getting to a large part of the population.

Also, we have discovered that there are a growing number of people who are choosing not to participate with online panels, mainly because of the growing problem of low-incidence and quota-full. How many people will put up with only qualifying for one in five surveys on average?

Our research does tell us however that generally speaking, people will choose to take a survey every now and then, and our business model is one which includes all the benefits of our online panels, with the important addition of additional online sources to provide added variety.

So to answer your original question, if you asked me a few years ago, I would have supported the notion that proprietary panels are the best solution. However, based on the data that I have seen, I now no longer have that view. I believe that panels are still very relevant, but must be complimented with sourcing respondents from non-panel sources, in order to get the best possible result. One thing I should add here is that it takes a great deal of intellectual properly to get this multi-sourcing approach right – it certainly enables a a more diverse, representative sample, but the key is ensuring the right blend of people.

SSI’s approach is to blend on people rather than sources. By keeping the balance of people taking our surveys constant, our research shows we can flatten out the variances in how people answer questions. Therefore, when we see changes in data over time we will know it is because real life behaviours are change, not our sourcing practices.

Online MR: In the past decade what changes have you seen in the online panel business?

Jason Buchanan:

The last decade has seen an incredible shift in quantitative data collection, and online has been a very big part of that. Many of the major players in this industry today weren’t even around in 2002, and anyone who is similar to what they were back then probably isn’t around anymore!

The first major change is that it is continually becoming more difficult to recruit and retain panel members who are from a broad enough background to provide quality data. When I first started in the industry, panel recruitment was easier than it is now, and to be honest, although most clients were asking for ‘quality’, no-one really knew what it meant and it was easy to mask over a flaw in a business model or a panel. There is now no-where to hide, and I think this is a very positive thing. A company needs to have a strategy to bring people from all walks of life into the survey-taking mix – and a panel-only model runs the risk of only bringing in people who want to be part of an online panel.

The second thing is the sheer state-of-the-art technology that is required to run a business such as this. The technology that SSI has developed and now has at its disposal is mind-blowing – particularly when it comes to overcoming fraud. Having worked in the IT industry for some time, it is truly impressive.

The last one I would like to mention is the changes in social trends – i.e., the , the rise of social media, the explosion in the requirement for people to multi-task, – this makes it harder to get people’s time and attention, so they need for shorter, more engaging surveys. There is also a trend for people to be ‘on the go’ so we need to be conscious of where people are and what they are doing when they are taking surveys.

A growing number of people are taking surveys on their mobile device, and there is a requirement to render surveys for a variety of devices to ensure a decent survey taking experience. There is so much happening, and it takes a lot of investment to get it right, and therefore I think the next year or two will certainly see the good quality suppliers stand out even more.

Online MR: What is the area in online panel business that needs to be improved ASAP?

Jason Buchanan:

Without a doubt, it is the crazy pricing in our industry that needs to be looked at closely. Let me explain. I have been lucky to be in a senior role within this industry for a number of years, and that has provided me with an intimate understanding of how much it costs to run a high quality data collection business. We need to recruit quality staff, have access to the best technology, and ensure we look after respondents properly, have enough resources to deliver work within the required timeframes – I can tell you that this does not come cheap.

So, when I see some of the pricing that is being offered in this market, I have grave concerns about which corners are being cut. Cutting back costs on any aspect of our business will affect quality, no doubt about it. Data collection is not a commodity, and there are all sorts of negative consequences for getting it wrong. If you are a buyer, make sure you are choosing the right partner, as choosing on the basis of price will likely come and hurt you one day.

Online MR: What success mantra would you give to online panel companies in APAC region?

Jason Buchanan:

If I was sitting at a table with some of my competitors, I would say that we need to ‘Be true to the industry we are profiting from’. A company which provides services to the market research industry should be doing everything in its power to ensure that their business is conducted in a methodologically sound manner, and should not be cutting corners on costs simply to sell at the best price. Invest in understanding, and be a true supplier to an industry which is just as much about science as it is about doing it right.

Online MR: Tell us about your most difficult decision and how did you go about making it?

Jason Buchanan:

I really struggle with my choice of red wine – there are so many good ones! However, if you are talking career decisions, the decision to accept the SSI role was one which I deliberated over for a long time, but only because I was in the startup phase of another business which was outside of the MR Industry. Looking back it was a great decision.

Whilst I can make decisions quickly, I don’t move forward until I have made up my mind after gathering what facts I can. I always follow my gut instinct, and once I make a decision, I take everything else off the table – there is nothing worse than thoughts of ‘what if…’. Make the decision, live and breathe it 100%, and make it work.

Online MR: If we asked the people who know you well to describe you, what three words would they use?

Jason Buchanan:

Only 3? Let’s see, I would like to think that you would hear words like Motivated, Determined, and Positive. Let me know if you do actually ask anyone.

Editor’s Note: We really appreciate Jason taking out time from his hectic schedule to share his detailed views with us.

Jason Buchanan

MD, Asia Pacific,

Survey Sampling International

Online Panels