Want to Know What Consumers Think? Check Their Gut.

Published on March 29, 2012
by Arik Hesseldahl

I don’t watch it, but perhaps it’s suitable that the TV series “Mad Men” is back on the air, because it allows me to reintroduce you to Matt Warta, the CEO of GutCheck, a Denver-based start-up. Warta bears a passing resemblance to a character on the show, Roger Sterling.

GutCheck, you may remember, is set on upending the decades-old institutions of consumer research. Ad agencies and research companies spend $7 billion a year rounding up focus groups and asking roomfuls of consumers a bunch of questions and paying them for their time. Basically, it leverages the power of the Internet to reach out to consumers directly and ask them the questions that advertisers need to ask as they build out their campaigns. No need to gather them all in a meeting room and pay someone thousands of dollars to survey them in person, then gather up the results weeks later.

It’s a small shop that has some pretty big customers: Intel, General Mills and Hallmark are among its corporate clients. And some big ad agencies use it, too, including Kaplan Thaler and GSD&M.

Today, Gutcheck is launching a new service called Instant Research Communities. In a world where people are often willing to become fans of a product or a brand, or “Like” it on Facebook and Twitter, or express public opinions about a brand in dozens of ways, the one-on-one opinions of those people are often valuable. GutCheck can quickly gather a bunch of qualified respondents from this pool of “brand advocates,” as they are often called in the ad business.

For what? Testing out early versions of an ad campaign that’s in development, or asking them what they think about a new product or a potential business move. The same recruitment engine the company developed for its virtual focus group service works here, too. You get you group together in a matter of hours, and have your research ready in days instead of weeks. The company is unveiling the service at the Advertising Research Foundation’s Re:think conference in New York.

Warta, a former venture capitalist, raised $2 million in funding from Highway 12 Ventures, a Boise, Idaho-based venture capital fund. Given the clients the outfit has landed in the last year, it has been running fine on that funding since then. Warta told me, however, that he’ll probably be looking to raise another round before 2012 is over.

I asked Warta yesterday whose business GutCheck aims to disrupt, expecting it to be some network of big agencies that specialize in wrangling and convening consumers into groups where they can be probed for opinions and attitudes. He told me it’s really a much more informal network of small local and regional companies that do the wrangling and the polling, under contract to the large ad agencies and consumer goods companies. “It’s really just a bunch of small mom-and-pop shops,” he said.

I’m no expert on the advertising business, but it sounds a little messy and ad hoc. Certainly, Roger Sterling would have something snappy and incisive to say about that. But I don’t watch the show, so you’ll have to just imagine it.

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