Episode #3: David M. Schneer with Ritu Srivastava (Heureka: The Insights Podcast by Thelightbulb)
Episode #3: David M. Schneer with Ritu Srivastava (Heureka: The Insights Podcast by Thelightbulb)
Welcome to the third episode of ‘Heureka – The Insights podcast’ by Thelightbulb.
Guest: David M. Schneer
In this episode, we host David M. Schneer, the co-founder and CEO of Merrill Research. He is one of the Top Consumer Insights Influencers (2023) and renowned for helping companies bring new ideas and products to the market. Through a creative blend of multi-methodological research approaches, he is enabling brands to hone their strategic communications (e.g., advertising, branding, logos, etc.) so they can understand and reach their target audiences.
David has industry experience of over 50 years, of which more than three decades have been with Merrill Research. Along with that, he is also a body language expert.
To follow David on LinkedIn, click here.
Read David’s blog on AI-Based Fault Tolerant Qualitative Research: bit.ly/45zPUMt
To know more about Merrill Research, visit merrillresearch.com
Host: Ritu Srivastava
Heureka – The Insights Podcast is a series of podcast episodes hosted by Ritu Srivastava, who is a seasoned entrepreneur, focused on her current startup TheLightbulb.Ai, a full-stack Emotion Ai platform for digital interactions that has scanned more than 8 million faces for emotion analysis. She has held pivotal profiles across deep-tech, health-tech, telecom and media companies over the last 20 years. Her cross-industries experience gives her a unique edge in understanding consumer trends and insights across verticals.
In the podcast, Rajesh shares some interesting tips, her thoughts and experiences on consumer insights with Ritu Srivastava (Co-founder, Thelightbulb).
Listen to the complete podcast and share it with your network now.
Voice Transcripts of Podcast
Note: Transcription of the podcast is generated using Thelightbulb’s Insights Pro
Ritu: Hi everybody, and welcome to our third episode of Heureka, the Insights podcast. I’m very, very excited about our guest today. We have David M. Schneer with us. He’s the CEO and founder of Merrill Research. They’re one of our partners in the US and he has recently featured on Thelightbulb’s top consumer insight influencers list to watch out for in 2023. He’s also recently written a very interesting blog about how he marries his nonverbal intelligence and learnings with AI backed communication, and it makes for a very exciting read. So you should absolutely head to his LinkedIn post, which is tagged in this podcast, and check him out if you haven’t already. So let’s quickly start off with the one thing that I’m very, very excited to talk about. David, you have over 45 years in research that’s longer than a lot of people listening to this podcast have been alive. How did you get into research? Tell us a little bit about it and about how you found Merrill research.
David M. Schneer: Hi, Ritu. First of all, thank you for having me. And now that you’ve absolutely, uh, dated me, uh, I started at a very young age. I really did. I was 19, 20 years old when I had my first job in research. And then, uh, in 1978, I joined a company called Regis McKenna. And back in the day, Regis was a very renowned public relations and marketing firm that helped start companies like Apple and Intel, Genentech, etc. I started his first research company there, uh, his first research department there rather. And then in 1986, uh, I joined with my founding partner, uh, Pat Merrill. We formed Merrill Research ’cause it just sounds better than Schneer research. Uh, and Merrill Research was, uh, at its inception, a multi-methodological research company. And I know you know what that means, but for some of our viewers who may not, what that means is we do both qualitative research and quantitative research.
And over the years, uh, we focused on areas like technology and communications and the medical industry, a whole host of, uh, companies that we, that we work with. Uh, in terms of my day-to-day, uh, activities, it’s very different from the day-to-day activities of, uh, my colleagues and analysts who help me with the research that we do. They’re down analyzing the data, making sense of it, um, processing it, synthesizing it. I see my job as to steer Merrill Research, uh, into new directions and try and disrupt, uh, the technology and the research industry as much as we can. One thing you may not know about Merrill Research is we had a, um, a big hand in a pioneering role in online research. Uh, we with a, uh, team of investors from General Mills, Proctor and Gamble, and WPP raised $60 million to form a company called Market Tools, which later created Zoomerang, which was later purchased by SurveyMonkey.
So that was disruptive. Uh, you know, heretofore research had been done over the telephone. Right. And now it’s being done over the interview, over the internet. So, uh, and, and now in, in 2016, uh, after training and, and studying for, for years, uh, I started the Maryland Institute for Nonverbal Intelligence. And the reason I did that is because, uh, I wanted to teach people the same techniques that I use in my practice so that they could carry on constructive and fruitful conversations, uh, by observing not what people say, but what they do. Okay. And we listened with our eyes here, uh, and I began to realize at a very young age that oftentimes when I was talking to people, what they were telling me just wasn’t matching what their bodies were saying. And so I became a student of nonverbal intelligence. Uh, I use that now in my practice.
And, uh, to come full circle in terms of an absolute disruptor. Not only are we using nonverbal intelligence in qualitative research, nobody’s really doing that, but now we’re using your product, Thelightbulb AI’s qualitative research platform to back me up. And the title of our log was Fault Tolerant Qualitative Research, meaning we wear a belt and suspenders, uh, to keep our pants up because we’re ultra careful about what people are telling us. Uh, and it, it really worked out, frankly, better than I thought it would. It was, uh, astounding, really. Uh, and now we have an opportunity to do it again. We’re warming up, uh, with another client to, to do this on an international basis.
Ritu: Absolutely. And I think what what really resonated for us when we first connected with you, David, is that out of a lot of the researchers that we’ve spoken to, uh, especially traditional qualitative researchers who’ve been around for the longest time, um, you were extremely open to the idea of trying out new technologies and techniques and pushing the boundaries of what was traditionally acceptable. And that was such a refreshing change to see from a leader in the industry, because a lot of people I know look to you for guidance on the techniques to adopt and, you know, what strategies to adopt, to take research further. So it was, it was such a pleasant delight. I think you’ve already covered what I was pretty much going to ask, but I’ll ask it anyway. Uh, of all the work that you do on a day-to-day basis, and it’s based on contradictions and nonverbal communication, what’s the most exciting part of your work that absolutely rivets you?
David M. Schneer: It’s that really, it’s, it’s the marriage of qualitative research and nonverbal intelligence. Uh, we, uh, are the only company, I’m the only moderator that I know of. If there is another moderator, I’d love to talk to them. Um, please call me now. Uh, ’cause we’re pretty busy. But, uh, yeah, this is really exciting Ritu. Uh, and, uh, if you don’t look at new technologies and you don’t grow, other people will. Okay. And so we’ve always been the kind of research company that kind of pushes back. We push back on our clients, uh, and we lead them in terms of what we think is appropriate. And these studies that involve deep emotions are ideal for my skills and your technology.
Ritu: Absolutely. But tell me something David Research is, is a career that’s a bit off the beaten track. Did you always want to be in research? Did something specific lead you to it? Serendipity?
David M. Schneer: I never thought I would start a company. I never dreamed of being an entrepreneur. I fell into this, uh, I came out of school, uh, hell bent on being a journalist, uh, and then a writer, uh, and then got a doctorate in theology. Uh, but no, I, I just fell into this through secondary research before there was the internet, Ritu, there were companies, they still exist, like Nexus Lexus dialogue, information retrieval systems. And so I became highly trained on that, and I would find information for other people. And then in journalism, you’re constantly interviewing people, right? And so I just fell into it, uh, and I loved it. And it’s, and I’m really fortunate that I love what I do.
Ritu: No, it, yeah. And I, I think I see a lot of resonance in your initial career goals and what you’re into, because ultimately it’s all about us scraping away the surface layer to get there with the truth, whether as a journalist or a researcher, that’s what you’re doing every day with every single conversation you have.
What I’d love to kind of now understand is leverage these 45 years of experience. Tell us what do people really not get about the consumer insights on industry? What, what do they not understand? What are the misconceptions?
David M. Schneer: Wow, that’s easy. Um, and amazingly and sadly, uh, it is this, I think people really do not understand samples. They don’t understand where it comes from. They don’t understand how important it is in any research study. It always boils back down to the sample. And we’re real sticklers on that. Uh, we understand the sample business. Uh, we understand we’ve been burned by bad sample. Uh, and, and that problem is rampant in the industry now. And guess what? AI is gonna play a dual role in this. There’s gonna be AI bad actors in sample. We’re already seeing that. Okay. But AI can be used to defend as well. So it’s gonna be interesting in several years. But I know that my friends in the sample business are nervous.
Ritu: Yes. I I actually do understand where you’re coming from. I think, uh, you’ve touched upon a topic that’s very rarely discussed in research. Even when we speak to a lot of market research agencies, everybody wants to look at the technology and the design, but nobody is really thinking about the sourcing and where the sample is going to come from, and the veracity of the sample itself. And as you said, fake samples or trained respondents. And now deep fake AI-based sampling is something nobody’s really looking at. So I think that’s, that’s very, very forward. Looking over the years, uh, David, have you seen industry norms kind of evolve? Uh, have you seen a change in the industry that has surprised you or caught your eye?
David M. Schneer: Well, uh, I can tell you this, that all the industry norms that have been collected for years have now been shattered by Covid. So kind of doesn’t really matter. Uh, of course, I’m, I’m being a little flippant here, but the reality is, is things are different. People think differently now. People act differently now. People relate differently to one another. Now. Uh, people buy differently now. And the, you know, we, we were in the midst of a lot of tracking studies prior to the pandemic, and then that all shut down because nobody really understood what condition their condition was in. And so during the pandemic, we were doing a lot of research, amazingly enough, on the pandemic and the pandemic’s effect on retail. The pandemic’s effect on education was astounding. Astounding. You know, parents in America will tell you how their kids suffered as a result of the pandemic. So, um, yeah, it was, uh, exciting and the norms, everything’s different now.
Ritu: It, it really.
David M. Schneer: The way we work. Absolutely this conversation is, is, is the essence of what Covid has brought us to.
Ritu: And I think I so resonate with what you’re saying, because Thelightbulb was a Covid baby. Um, I don’t know whether you know this, but the original avatar of Light bulb was an EdTech platform where we started measuring learner engagement. And it came from the insight that, like you very rightly said, all the founding team were parents, and we were watching our kids study online, and we were convinced they were all going to fail because there was no learning going on at all. And that’s why we said, you know, is there a way to measure learner engagement? And we built this live monitoring system, and then as the world kind of drifted outta Covid, we realized that perhaps this is not the best use of this technology currently. And then we pivoted to consumer insights. So I, I totally get where you’re coming from. I think what Covid also did was it unleashed this wave of technology that was meant to enable the remote era. So have you seen any other impacts of technology on, on the world of market research, something that you didn’t expect would happen, but has now happened because of Covid?
David M. Schneer: Well, The interviewing platform that we’re using now, the advent of the internet, uh, before Al Gore invented it, um, uh, and video that, you know, melding of technologies allowed us to do a lot of things like ethnography.
Well, for your viewers who aren’t familiar with ethnography, that’s a form of research where you go into somebody’s environment and you observe, right? Could be their home, could be their office, uh, for anthropologists, could be the jungle, right? So we now can do that without going anywhere, because people have cell phones and ethnographic research apps. It can capture everything in their home with video. They can walk around like I would and do that for us. So that’s, that’s pretty amazing. Okay. Uh, and the advent of, uh, zoom and being able to collect interviews like this, a lot of people would say, wow, what, what can you learn on a video that you, you can’t learn in person?
Well, of course, in person is always better, okay? But these days it’s not always possible, right? But there’s still a lot that you can learn by talking to somebody from Zoom. Let me give you some examples. If you, we have the time. So if you’re talking and all of a sudden, uh, Rita, you ask me a question and I say, you know, Rita, I just don’t know. And you see my shoulders come up symmetrically, all right? If I were to say, Rita, I don’t know, but only one shoulder comes up, that’s an indication that there is some disagreement between what just came outta your mouth and your body. Am I leaning in? Am I leaning out? Am I looking ’em away? Am I smiling? Am I showing content or anger? All that can be seen on Zoom, which you can’t see on. Zoom is the most honest part of the body, which are the feet. Oh, feet are, feet are always pointed in the direction that the body wants to go, always. So, uh, there’s a lot that we can gain from Zoom. You know, in Zoom, we wrote a blog about this. We saw things in Zoom that we would never see in a focus group facility, like people’s political posters or their artwork or their animals sauntering across the keyboard during an interview. You, you wouldn’t see that in a focus group. So it was enlightening in a lot of ways, and surprising, and I think it’s here to stay.
Ritu: I think that’s such a fabulous insight, because when somebody’s at a facility, there’s a certain facade, uh, that they’re, you know, putting up to be a good respondent and to comply with social etiquette. But when you are getting a peak of them in their homes, it, it’s unguarded. They vulnerable, all the defenses are down. And that can only be a good thing in research.
David M. Schneer: Yeah. It tells you a lot.
Ritu: On, on that. I would know any of your, or any of your recent projects, of course, without, you know, disturbing any customer confidentiality. Were there any very interesting, uh, findings or results that kind of blew you away? Something that surprised you? I guess nothing probably would surprise you after 45 years of research, but just something that stuck out in your mind. <laugh>.
David M. Schneer: I have seen a lot, um, including, uh, physical altercations in, in, in a focus group, um, <laugh>. But, uh, this is gonna sound super self-serving. ’cause you know, you’re interviewing me about a lot of good topics. But the last study we did that involved AI was one of the more astounding things I’ve seen. And let me tell you why. You know, we had a client that was very interested in understanding the technical professionals that comprised their constituents. And these professionals were oftentimes considered rational and linear in their thinking. They don’t emote. It’s just speeds and feeds, and that’s it. And we, we busted that myth, uh, you know, very clearly, very demonstrably. When we interviewed, you know, a series of these folks in a facility, and I was interviewing them face to face, I had a full view of their entire body, but in the observation room was a highly trained videographer shooting high res camera right on the face of the individual.
So now we’re, I’m tracking the full body, and we have the face okay, being shot. And we’re asking these respondents fairly provocative questions. And we saw a lot of emotions that were consistent with what their body was saying. So we felt, wow, these guys are leveling with us. We saw a lot of really high engagement measured by interest and, uh, attention. Okay, well, that told us that our questions were engaging, but we, we did see major contradictions. We were able to capture them on video, like moments of contempt, which is an asymmetrical smile, or moments of pressed lips, which is a highly reliable indicator of a, of stress. And we were able to track that emotion longitudinally with verbatim transcripts so that we could pinpoint what it was that was causing that emotion. And I don’t know, redo that. That’s pretty powerful. Uh, what I learned from that was that your tool is far better than me.
Uh, and it, it caught things that I missed. Now why is that? Well, I’m asking the questions, right? I’m formulating probes and I’m better than the average bearer doing all this at once. But AI was super accurate. Uh, there were instances where we noticed aberrations in the data. You gotta talk about that. We didn’t see any of these so-called hallucinations, but we did see instances of disengagement. But that had to do more with the interview set up, really. And on vi we did this in person and on video, and some people on video had two cameras. So they looked away, and of course, your machine is not gonna register anything when they look away, right? So we, we planned it carefully. You guys send us more information than we could ever possibly use. Uh, but the information at the top of the iceberg was phenomenal. And it, it’s the, it’s the future of qualitative research. I think it has to be, it’s so powerful.
Ritu: I can’t tell you how much it delights me to have, uh, dawn of the industry like yourself with so much extensive experience across so many different methods of research saying that, because I think at Thelightbulb, what we just genuinely want to do is add value to the process. And it, it heartens us so much that in some way we are able to assist a researcher. Because our intention, and as has always been an never to replace the researcher, because you can never replace the human touch, the insight that comes from a human being who understands motivations. What you can do is take away the tedious data crunching that sucks their time and energy, and just provide them with a lot of data, maybe point to where they should look in the data and just help them reach the fun part of the journey, which is the inciting. So, um, I can’t tell you how delighted I am to hear you say that, but with all of these technologies coming in the market evolving, there must be some still large problems that you see in the industry that you really want to solve. What would those be? What would, what’s the biggest problem you see in the industry that you really wanna attack?
David M. Schneer: Well, it goes back to, to sample. Uh, but in terms of what I want to do in terms of pushing the envelope and qualitative research, I would like to see a new generation of moderators be highly trained in body language so that they too can become more effective at really determining what is the truth here? What, what is, what is this respondent trying to tell me or not trying to tell me? And how do I pivot to get at that? Okay. I sense that a lot of younger moderators, and I observe some of them, tend to believe more what they hear than what they see. ’cause they, they haven’t got the training to observe the, you know, the synchronicity of the body or lack thereof. So that’s really where I’m headed with this. Uh, your tool is kind of above and beyond what I thought we would be able to do. Uh, but now I just, you know, my post reto, it had mentioned this. I already got one response, the guy asking me, Hey, do you think that the AI would be able to communicate with you during an interview in real time? I said, yes, but I wouldn’t want it, uh, for the same reason I don’t allow clients to text me in the middle of an interview. Yeah, they can do that, but then you wonder who’s conducting, you know, who’s conducting the interview, right? So those two things I think are gotta be fixed.
Ritu: No, absolutely. I think I really resonated with what you just said about how important training of the moderators is. In fact, uh, one of the people who was on our first podcast, Ms. Priya Lobo, who’s the CEO of Ormax Compass, uh, she’s been in the industry for about 30, 35 years, leads an organization, which is a leading entertainment market research company here. She had precisely the same point to make that she feels that a lot of the younger researchers today, um, the emphasis really isn’t so much on training their skills, uh, in how to read the room, how to guide the discussions, how to respond to what the respondent is telling them, and probe further by just observing the way the respondent is behaving. So she had something very, very similar to say, and it’s, it’s very interesting how two people from different ends of the world, literally, uh, you know, with so much experience in the industry, are feeling the same thing.
David M. Schneer: The younger generation, you know, they’re born with cell phones and tablets in their hands and, and then the, then it’s stuck in their face forever and they lose, uh, I hear horror stories from hr, uh, folks who are hiring people and they can’t get people to look them in the eyes, or people seem completely disengaged in the interview process.
And it’s sad. ’cause these kids are smart, you know, they’re really smart. Uh, and you’d never know it <laugh>, <laugh>, they don’t look up long enough for you to get that.
Ritu: They, They, they need help.
David M. Schneer: They really do. Uh, including my kids.
Ritu: Same boat. Yeah, same boat.
David M. Schneer: Same boat. Yeah.
Ritu: So, coming back, um, we’ve been talking about technology. We’ve talked about how the industry has changed over the years. What is, given your experience and the trends that you’ve been watching, what’s the next big tech innovation that you feel is going to sweep over the consumer insights industry and the research industry? Are you seeing any trends in the making that you can highlight for our listeners?
David M. Schneer: It just has to be AI. I mean, the data doesn’t go without AI, Ritu. That somebody doesn’t hit my LinkedIn account saying, Hey, we have an AI based data processing program. Hey, we have an AI based platform, research platform. Hey, you know, we have AI based protected sample. It, it, it is already hitting the sample vendors. Some of them have no idea what’s hit them. Some of them are on top of it. Uh, but the second blog that we wrote recently was on red herrings and traps that you can put in surveys to catch these folks. So AI is gonna revolutionize the quantitative side of it and the qualitative side of it. Now, on the quantitative side of it, when you think about the term big data, that, that’s kind of dated now, but the reality is, is the world is not suffering from a lack of data.
The world is suffering from a lack of people who know how to analyze it. And AI is going to help in that. It’s going to help in medical, uh, diagnosis, especially in oncology where unstructured data in the medical industry is now going to be as easy to pull up as structured data. And the same in, in research ritu, uh, you spend millions of dollars on a campaign, millions of dollars on a new product introduction. Wouldn’t you like to know that the people in your study are leveling with and with either giving you information that you can ignore or information that you can’t ignore? It’s, it’s super powerful.
Ritu: Uh, no, I I totally get you.
David M. Schneer: Yeah. And my goal with the Maryland Institute is to train as many moderators or anybody really, uh, as we can. Uh, it, it’s, I I just think this is, uh, really going to be disruptive.
Ritu: I, I believe you, I really do believe you.
David M. Schneer: Super excited about it It, it really permeates, uh, every fiber of my body.
Ritu: So That’s amazing. That’s absolutely amazing. On that note, I would, I would, I think you’ve already answered a couple of questions I had in mind. So I’m going to go to the one thing that I know everybody wants to leverage, which is your experience, uh, with all your years of experience and having, I, I looked at the number of brands on your website. I, I, I stopped counting after a while. The number of organizations, uh, world-class leading organizations that you’ve worked with, the amount of research experience that you’ve amassed, what are the three tips that you would really like to perhaps give to people in the consumer insights industry who may be listening on how to, you know, improve their work, improve their research? How would you like to guide people in the consumer research industry?
David M. Schneer: Well, if they are going to do qualitative research, okay, I’ll give you two answers. If they’re gonna do qualitative research, then they, they need, first thing they need to do is go be certified by somebody like Burke or Riva, or I think ESOMAR or some of those, those are very, you know, I was trained by Burke. They’re really excellent. Um, qualitative training modules, uh, again, this will sound self-serving, but when you’re talking to people, uh, you know, most communication is nonverbal. So from my perspective, body language training is imperative. There’s lots of places you can get it. And then third is you just can’t stop learning and growing. You just can’t. You, you, if you do that, you’re gonna get stuck. You’re gonna get cobwebs and you’re gonna have cold product. So you, you have to punch forward and look at things.
Uh, you know, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. No, AI is here. There’s a lot of concern around it. I think there’s some good that can be done, but I’m well aware of the evil abstract, you know, evil that can be used on this. And we’re, we’re gonna be seeing it. Uh, you bet. So on the quantitative side, I’d say, uh, build your quantitative skills to the point where you can run up and down the analytical ladder by doing things as role as by variate synthesis, all the way up to multivariate analytical synthesis, like segmentation or her for max there, for all these fancy things that, um, you know, people are increasingly asking for because they have the data for it. So you, you just, you, you just gotta be curious. If you’re a researcher and you’re not curious, you, you should be in another industry.
Ritu: <laugh> And that’s a beautiful, beautiful line with which to absolutely wrap this up. Uh, before we go, David, how can listeners find you online? How can they connect with you, learn from you, perhaps even join your institute? What’s the best places to find you online?
David M. Schneer: So, uh, we have two websites which are gonna merge. Uh, eventually. Um, when we launched the Merrill Institute, we decidedly kept it separate just to see how it would do, but we realized, oh wow, there’s such a synergy here. So now we’re bringing it back in, but it, it, I’m on LinkedIn, uh, www.merrillresearch.com or www.themerrillinstitute.com. If you can’t find me, I don’t want to be found. I’m generally pretty accessible. I travel a lot as moderators do.
Ritu: No, but I can tell, I can tell our listeners from personal experience that David is extremely responsive, uh, very, very kind and very straightforward and a lovely person to deal with. We’ve been extremely lucky to have the opportunity to kick off our US sojourn with Merrill, and we are deeply excited to continue the journey with him. We feel we have so much to learn and back, back into the product. And we are hoping that Mell will lead the way in telling us what to build next so that we can help the researcher reign supreme and, you know, cut down on data. Thank you so much, David. It has been such a lovely experience working with you. I hope to do that in the future and just chatting with you. You’re a delightful person to talk with. As always. Thank you so much for spending time with us today.
David M. Schneer: Very sweet of you. Thank you so much, Ritu. Let me know, let’s do this again. We’ll, we’ll, we’ll find out some, uh, new things to conquer and we’ll tell people about it. But thank you very much. This has been a lot of fun and I appreciate it.
Ritu: Thank you so much, David. For everybody who’s listening, all of David’s websites and linked, uh, LinkedIn are going to be linked in both the podcast and the YouTube version. You can find him on our LinkedIn as well. So again, like he said, if you can’t find him, the problem decidedly lies with you. Thank you again for tuning into Heureka. It’s been an absolute pleasure and we’ll continue to bring you chat, uh, conversations and chatter with some of the best and most advanced consumer insights professionals globally. We have somebody very, very interesting from the entertainment industry coming up in our next episode. So do stay tuned for that. Thank you again, David. Have a wonderful day ahead.