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FEATURE30 November 2010

Gleanster founder Jeff Zabin looking forward to life in the trenches

Features People

Earlier this month Jeff Zabin launched a new tech-based research agency, Gleanster. In the latest of our online Spotlight interviews he talks about the trials and tribulations of setting up a new business and what it will be like to go from ‘researcher’ to ‘boss’.

He launched Gleanster this month after leaving Aberdeen Group in 2009. The new firm is concentrating on producing benchmarking covering topics in the technology sector, such as social media marketing, online communities and mobile marketing. Click here for more on the company’s launch.

How did you get into market research?
I didn’t grow up with any deep-seated desire to make a name for myself in the market research industry – cross-tabulating survey response data was never part of the plan. I first started to think about the value of market research in the context of technology-enabled business improvement in 1998, when I worked with several other guys, including Marc Landsberg, now CEO of MRM Worldwide, and Dick Costello, now CEO of Twitter, on a start-up company called Digital Knowledge Assets. My career ever since has largely focused on innovative ways to generate actionable insights into technology-enabled business initiatives.

Why did you make the decision to launch your own company?
It’s hard to shake the entrepreneurial bug. So part of the motivation was simply that – for me, anyway – it’s a lot of fun to try to build your own business and take control of your destiny. The timing was right to launch a next-generation IT market research firm that could tackle what I perceived to be an unmet market need on the part of both industry practitioners and technology solution providers.

Did you ever have any concerns about a starting a new venture in the current economic climate?
I was concerned about securing the financial backing we needed to get started, but I felt confident we’d be successful once we got the business up and running – which, to be honest, took several months longer than anticipated. Anyway, Gleanster has a very specific focus, one that puts us in a good position when it comes to weathering the storm. Regardless of the state of the economy, every industry practitioner is looking for strategic guidance in making smart business decisions and every solution provider is looking for effective ways to raise brand visibility and generate new revenue opportunities.

At Gleanster, will you be in the trenches doing research or will your time be taken up being ‘the boss’?
I’ll definitely be in the trenches. I genuinely enjoy the content development process – conducting the research, analysing the results and interpreting the findings. I’m also a bit of a control freak, and I want to make sure that every report we publish meets the high standards we’ve set, especially during this critical period as we work to establish our brand in the marketplace. I expect to remain involved on the research side for the foreseeable future. At the same time, we’re fortunate to have assembled a world-class team of research analysts with knowledge domain expertise who can do most of the heavy lifting.

Your new company has launched with some benchmark reports on social media – just how big an effect is this having on the research world?
The effect is huge. Personally, I don’t think social media will ever substitute the ethnographic research findings that can be ascertained through traditional focus groups and in-person research panels. That said, online research methodologies are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and, in many cases, can serve as a terrific proxy for traditional research, providing unprecedented benefits in terms of sample size, engagement duration and cost effectiveness.

Is there a danger that social media users will one day say “Enough is enough” and want researchers and marketers to back off?
It largely depends on whether the relationship is consensual. If marketers and researchers can create a reciprocal value exchange – a quid pro quo where some amount of time and personal information is traded for access to content or other exclusive benefits – then people are generally happy to participate. In terms of consumer-generated content, marketers are increasing shifting their focus from “listening to the conversation” to “joining the conversation.” The key is to provide useful information and advance the dialogue in a meaningful way. Danger lurks when marketers try to take advantage, by overtly hawking their own products and services in peer-to-peer networks.

If you had the chance is there anything in your career that you would do differently?
To tell you the truth, some parts of my journey have been quite unpleasant. That said, Gleanster is giving me the opportunity to leverage practically all of the learnings and relationships I’ve acquired over the years to our advantage. So maybe it’s true that pain and suffering is the price you sometimes have to pay to eventually get to do what you want to do. Honestly, I would have liked to have become an A-list Hollywood screenwriter. I’m still pursuing it, and in fact, one of my scripts did well last month at the Austin Film Festival Screenplay Competition, so hope springs eternal.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Geographically, I’d like to be somewhere warmer than Chicago, at least this time of the year. Career-wise, I’ll be happy to have played a role in realising the vision for Gleanster, which is to become the leading provider of research that benchmarks best practices in technology-enabled business initiatives.

What did you last spend too much money on?
It was on a hotel room that we got through Priceline last week. I bid $75 per night for a room in a four-star Disneyworld resort, in Orlando, Florida. However, my wife was convinced we could have gotten the room for $60.