July 21

Utilizing Mobile: A Conversation with Chris St. Hilaire, Founder & CEO of MFour

I’ve followed MFour for several years with great interest; their focus on reinventing the definition of what a mobile-first integrated panel and data collection platform is has been fascinating. Not only have they charted their own course on the business model, but they have also built some innovative products that have delivered solutions on a variety of challenging business issues that their approach has been uniquely well suited to address.

An example of where this divergent path has taken them is evident in a recent press release regarding their feat of becoming the first market research app approved after Apple’s new privacy policy:

Today, MFour announces that iOS app + web data is being offered for surveys and analysis.  

In April, Apple’s iOS 14.5 release led to 98% of iPhone owners turning off digital tracking. The release was quite painful to consumer brands, as mobile retail revenue surged 29% in 2021. Without this data, clients can’t reach iOS consumers — the fastest-growing segment.

“Consumers own their shopping and search data, and want to control who gets it,” says MFour CEO’s Chris St. Hilaire. “We believe in Fair Trade Data — compensating people fairly to share their app + web behaviors — which helps our clients to survey specific behaviors.”

MFour pays its consumer panel through Surveys On The Go®, the nation’s largest and highest-rated survey app; currently tracking 10 million daily journeys.

The United States has 113 million iPhone users. Brands can now reach a representative segment of iOS users for market research in product and advertising decisions. This includes the use of Atlas Views, MFour’s trended view of in-store + online behaviors and insights. 

Says St. Hilaire, “47% of all smartphones owners have iPhones. Without this iOS data, you will miss out on half the customer experience. Businesses with multi-million-dollar budgets can’t afford to have a blind-spot. Our privacy-protected iOS app + web data eliminates it.”

I had the opportunity to sit down with MFour CEO Chris St. Hilare around the time of their announcement of the Apple deal to get more nuance on how they pulled off their “Cupertino Coup”, what inspired the business, his journey as an entrepreneur, and where he sees the industry heading in the future. It was a great conversation and I think you’ll enjoy it just as much as I did.

 

 

This interview has been edited for clarity

LENNY MURPHY: Hello, everybody. It’s Lenny Murphy here with the latest and greatest in our CEO series of interviews. And today I talked to a man that I have wanted to talk to for a long time, but never had the opportunity because he ignored all my emails. But then finally, finally I got his attention. So talking to Chris St. Hilaire, the CEO of MFour. Welcome, Chris.

 

CHRIS ST. HILAIRE: Thanks for having me.

 

LENNY MURPHY: Yeah, so I’m not going to beat you up anymore but ignoring my emails all those years because now I got you, so–

 

CHRIS ST. HILAIRE: Wait, are you sure you had the right email address? Because you’re not an email– I don’t ignore many emails. And I know you’re one, for sure, I would not ignore.

 

LENNY MURPHY: Oh, OK. All is forgiven. Maybe I didn’t, but I certainly do now so–

 

CHRIS ST. HILAIRE: Yeah.

 

LENNY MURPHY: Now we did have a chance to chat a little bit before this. And you’ve got an unorthodox origin story in how you got into this crazy industry. So won’t you tell us a little bit about that?

 

CHRIS ST. HILAIRE: Yeah, thanks. The Buddhists say, when you look forward, the path never seems clear. But then when you look backward at your life, everything feels more like a straight line. It makes perfect sense.

So to me, my background makes perfect sense. I went to work in politics right out of college. There are two types of politics. There’s policy and then the campaign. And I was much more interested, much better at the campaign side.

So I quickly went out, ran campaigns. And found, among campaigning, I liked the political consulting which led to messaging and focus groups and political polling, which I thought, hey, we can do better at.

So we formed a political consulting messaging firm and started looking at phone sample for political races. And I said, wow, this is dated because people aren’t answering their home phones anymore.

And so quickly said we should try email. Or we should try internet panels. And when we started looking at internet panels, thought, wow, we sense some issues here and thought this should all be on an app.

And so in 2011 when there were just a few thousand apps in the App Store, we said, all market research, not just political polling, should be on an app. And fast forward to today, and here we are with MFour and Surveys On The Go.

 

LENNY MURPHY: Now that’s– so I knew I liked you for a reason. My path into research started with CX and then did a stint in polling for a couple of years as well in the early 2000s. So I know exactly that world that you’re describing, at least from the polling standpoint.

 

CHRIS ST. HILAIRE: Right.

 

LENNY MURPHY: Not the campaign piece. Although I keep threatening my wife that one day I’m going to run for office. And she says the day I do that is the day she is no longer my wife. So I guess I’ll keep not doing that anymore. Anyway–

 

CHRIS ST. HILAIRE: It sounds– well, it sounds like you married a smart woman. It’s a terrible way to make a living. And you work the long hours without– and make half the room mad at you, always.

So it’s just– I wanted to be a father more than I wanted to be in politics. And so I found something that was only 70 hours a week and not a hundred.

 

LENNY MURPHY: I know exactly what you mean. And I’m pretty good at pissing off half the room anyway even on my best day. That would be a detriment. [LAUGHS]

So the cool thing is when you think about that story of the– so entered into the mobile first, mobile-centered client in 2011– yeah, I’ve been a big fan of mobile all that time as well.

But there are not many left standing that entered that early and had the perseverance to wait for the rest of the world to catch up. So what kept you going?

Let me actually step back. We know that the industry has been slow to adopt the form factor of mobile to ensure questions. And there was a lot of talk about utilizing mobile for new things. But they really did not want to migrate the existing survey mentality into a mobile platform.

So what’s kept you going through that? We’re going to keep on banging against this wall until we finally make a dent in it, which you’ve done.

 

CHRIS ST. HILAIRE: What kept me going was that we mortgaged our house and ran a line of credit against the idea of the app. Necessity is the mother of invention. And there’s a lot of things I’m not good at and quitting is one of them. So we just kept pushing.

And what became clear to me early on– and I think it’s really hurt market research in the long run, just candidly– is that they like doing things– they’re more invested in studying things than they are taking action.

And so when we started introducing the app, research firms all over the U.S. Could talk with us for hours. And we’d do these demos and we’d say, we are absolutely on to something. This is going to take off very quickly.

And what we found was the researchers would talk to us for hours and never conduct a project. And more often than not, the only reason why they were talking to us for hours is so they could say they’re aware of mobile and that it wouldn’t work.

And so we made a call early on to start going to end clients because we figured they were more invested in what the data said than they were getting the data, any data, and getting cheap data.

And so one of our first clients was Pepsi. We found– there was a woman over there who was just brilliant. She’s moved on, but she’s like, I agree with you. I don’t like the direction market research is going.

And then we found someone at ABC Television who said, let’s give them a shot. And they liked what they saw. They thought the numbers were crisp. They liked the experience on mobile and how we solve some of the screen sizes and challenges.

And so we started focusing on end clients. And that’s really the only reason why we stayed in business when I could name 5, 6, 7 other companies that pushed hard and just ended up not succeeding. And I think it’s because they focused mainly on market research.

 

LENNY MURPHY: Yeah, agree. And now, audience, you know why we don’t have Chris’s image up. So– no, joking. We had camera problems. But that is–

 

CHRIS ST. HILAIRE: Well, then we don’t want you throwing darts at it, so I get it. I get it. But there’s never any malicious intent or any–

 

LENNY MURPHY: Sure

 

CHRIS ST. HILAIRE: We’re not– it was just– it was sheer need to stay in business and not lose your house. And so we pushed as hard as we could for as long as we could. And now finally, our market research is actually a majority of our clients.

 

LENNY MURPHY: OK, so let’s talk about that. Step back and think about what I’ve known about them over the years, at least my perception, and then recently, the opportunity to get to know you a little bit better.

I see it as a story of– most innovation is the story of finding fit for purpose, right? And kind of pivoting to meet the real opportunity versus the opportunity that you think should be there. At least that’s kind of my perspective and my experience as well.

And mobile is a great example of that. Does it make perfect sense to collect data from respondents utilizing the devices that they utilize most frequently? Yes. Should we adapt to that? Yes. But when you have a legacy of 30 years of 20-minute-long questionnaires, that’s a challenge.

But I think it looks where you guys have thrived is really looking at leveraging one, some of the passive data that you’re able to get from the app. And we’ll get to that in a second when we talk about your latest news.

 

Related

How AI and Machine Learning is Transforming Mobile Technology

But also a lot of shopper journey, a lot of shopper insights, a lot of path to purchase, and that integration, and what that looks like when it is digital and real-world, which is the unique thing that mobile can offer in the moment is that that absolute merger between those two experiences.

Is that an accurate assessment, where something, like that’s where you’ve really gotten strong, is serving those clients who want to leverage that versus traditional surveys? I know you do a lot of traditional surveys, but does that–

 

CHRIS ST. HILAIRE: Yeah. I mean, every traditional survey we do starts with a hey, you need behavior in your survey. And if they don’t want it, then we don’t give it to them. But that won’t stop us from asking the next time.

And it’s interesting to me when– and I’ll remember this always– I ordered the iPhone, so it was the day it was released actually. I’d ordered it early enough that it showed up at my doorstep via mail or postal or something.

And I opened it and my eight-year-old son at the time– he’s now 21– says to me, what is that dad? And I said, this is going to change everything.

And you just looked at it, and you saw the power within it because it’s the most complex device presented in the most simple format. And when you really know something, it should get more simple, not more complicated.

And the iPhone has a very easy– or the iPhone at the time, now smartphones– have a very simple user interface that anybody– that a five-year-old– can learn in five minutes. But you can go so deep.

And now those smartphones know more about you than you do. They know what sports you like, and what hobbies you have, and what your banking and medical information are right on down the line.

And so there’s no better device for understanding a shopper than the device most familiar with that shopper or that consumer. And that’s your smartphone.

And what’s always surprised me is that the industry is more interested in being consistent than being correct. And so the more data from these online panels gets skewed, the harder it is to go to a better way of collecting it because it’s not consistent with last month.

But I think that’s to the detriment of the industry because– and I was sitting at one of the largest firms, gosh, seven years ago. And their head of research says to me, we know that every day our tracker gets more wrong. But we can’t tell the clients that.

And I think that that’s just such a bad way to look at it. And it’s contributed to this collapse of the panel world. It’s contributed to this technology play that’s coming into market research. And I think it’s been to the detriment of the overall industry.

And I keep hoping will change. And we’re finally starting to see that. But I think there’s going to be a lot of– there’s going to be a lot of casualties along the way.

 

LENNY MURPHY: Right, I think we are starting to change. There is– so I agree with everything you said. I see it as well. But I do see signs of hope, absolutely.

I mean, I think the industry has come to where we are. A part of it is driven by that need simply for more efficiency, for speed, and a great time to insights, and greater impact.

I think that 2020 was a force accelerator across the board. I don’t think it was totally disrupting. Some things it did, absolutely.

I think most things, particularly in our industry, just accelerated stuff that was already there and said, OK, thank god these tools were here. Now we’re just going to adapt to them.

And I suspect that was a big chunk of your story over the past year as well, right? I think you grew pretty explosively.

 

CHRIS ST. HILAIRE: One of the most difficult days of my professional career was when we showed the numbers and the client loss and the deceleration of momentum in March or April of last year.

I actually got on a GoToMeeting or a Zoom with the entire staff. And I said, here’s what we’ve cut. And it was all the way down to peanuts and water and sodas, and we’ll still be broke in two months if we don’t lay off a bunch of people.

And so we laid off more than a third of our staff. And these are people that I really admire and like. And I’m like, I will do everything I can to get you back including not taking a salary. And fortunately, everyone came back and we’ve adapted.

But necessity is the mother of invention. And it presented an opportunity for research and especially understanding this new digital landscape we– B.C. used to mean Before Christ. And now it means Before COVID.

And the entire landscape has shifted. And there’s a massive need for digital visibility and understanding that. And market research will play a key role in that journey.

 

LENNY MURPHY: Yeah. Well, in that– and I’ve said that digital path to purchase right is everything shifted. I suspect that we all had that moment in March.

 

CHRIS ST. HILAIRE: Exactly.

 

LENNY MURPHY: The oh sh*t, right? On every level whether it was business, personal, the whole shebang. And thank god we’ve turned that corner.

So I do want to talk about that– we haven’t really mentioned it, we kind of hinted at it– that one of the cool things that happened with mobile, in general, and with you, specifically, is when you have an app, well you’re building a panel automatically. And you’re building a unique data relationship and asset.

I know you’ve got some pretty strong opinions about data privacy and all of those things. So let’s talk about that piece of the business– of how you grew this asset. This isn’t just a data collection, but the people. And how that’s brought us to some of your latest news.

 

CHRIS ST. HILAIRE: Yeah, of course. Our premise for a very long time was that insights should be more democratic, more easily accessible. They shouldn’t take so long. And that you should mix data sets to form a more holistic, more balanced opinion of the consumer. Because consumer journeys are dynamic. They’re not just location-based. They’re not just in the internet web. They’re not just app. They’re a combination of all those things.

And so your ability to understand the consumer is best through the smartphone. And the smartphone can give you app and web behavior as well as location behavior. And then when you witness behaviors, you should put context with surveys behind that behavior. And that’s what we’ve really been focused on.

And we do it through a concept called fair trade data. You’ve got fair trade diamonds, fair trade coffee, fair trade chocolate. You should have fair trade data, meaning consumers own it, and they want to be paid for it.

So we started paying our consumers simply for their data. And then we pay them on top of that for surveys on top of the data that they’re providing us. And so we give clients the option of buying just location or app or web-behavior. Or looking at it in combination with a survey to understand buyer journeys.

And so for us, that move has been much easier than that original push to mobile because the market was really ready to start inserting behaviors into decks for richer data points and richer context. And so you’re seeing a morphing of data and pure survey market research.

And I think it’s a really good thing. I think it’s the biggest hope for the industry. And really that’s what we’re focused on. And that’s where our revenue growth really lies.

 

LENNY MURPHY: That’s very cool. Now so there is the– all of that, see, particularly from this data privacy angle as we– I’ve been watching this– those who know me know I’ve been paying attention to privacy for quite some time in a variety of ways.

So I thought as we saw the big shift in– the seismic shift– in social media platforms in January, lots of new platforms emerging et cetera, et cetera, that we were rapidly heading towards a very walled garden model where the platforms and the operating systems and the publishers, whatever the case may be, everybody was going to be focused on building the first-party data relationship that they would own and monetize internally in a variety of ways.

And the most obvious candidate to do that– and I’m sure like you probably knew this was coming before I did, but Apple is going to shut down. Apple is going to lock everybody. And they’re going to launch their own ad network within their own platform and stop sharing data with anybody else. And lo and behold, that’s exactly what they did.

And I think Google is about to do the same thing. So when that happened, I know a lot of folks went, oh, holy crap. We don’t get this data from the apps anymore.

But you, my friend, you pulled off a coup. So talk about that because that is pretty amazing that a research app now has exclusivity, to a great extent, of a certain data type within the Apple ecosystem when everybody else is left hanging dry.

 

CHRIS ST. HILAIRE: Yeah. I mean, we’ve seen the sort of privacy zeitgeist appearing in the marketplace or among consumers for a while. I was around when the internet was being launched.

And so, Google, I’m like, you’re giving me free data and I should give you some data back. And that– now data feels like a right if you’re searching Google. And you don’t want it in your data feels like you should own. And that’s just what people believe.

And Apple got out ahead of it. But governments were getting out ahead of it or were responding to this zeitgeist before. And so like with California Privacy. And now the platform changes, especially the latest iOS update and app transparency.

You’ve seen less than 2%, fewer than 2%, or less than 2% actually allowing apps to track them across all of their Appian website behavior. And that’s decimated some of the bigger companies that were monetizing by providing researchers or end clients visibility but without full disclosure to the consumers.

And so consumers have a right to be aware, in plain language, that they’re being tracked and it’s their data. And so we said it should be a fair trade data relationship. Any relationship should be fair, right? And you should know what you’re getting into. And so we tell all of our consumers that we’re going to track them and why.

And we get very high opt-in rates because we’ve created a relationship. We’ve got 200,000 reviews on the platforms and 4.7 or 8 stars with the only complaint being, I want to make more money. So we feel very good.

I should say, though, that this is– I wouldn’t call this a coup only because there are ways to do it with Apple. And Apple’s not going to grant one company sole permission. We’ve just been working for two years to get it just right, and privacy protected, full disclosure, randomized– we make sure our consumers are fully protected and fully aware of what they’re getting into.

And Apple, to their credit, bought the argument– believes the argument– that there’s a difference between marketing, which they don’t want, and market research, which has legitimate use cases that employ millions of people around the world.

And so we got it right. Others will eventually get it right. But yeah, I’m proud of that head start we have.

 

LENNY MURPHY: Yeah. And thank you for being– I was probably a little bit hyperbolic– so for putting that in more realistic terms. But it’s still pretty cool.

It’s pretty cool that they smacked this down. And because you had the foresight and the opportunity to be able to make that argument on behalf of all researchers. So hats off to you. I think we all owe you a debt of gratitude, long term, for creating that exclusion and pioneering how that would work. So the– sorry– anyway–

 

CHRIS ST. HILAIRE: Yeah– no, thank you. I mean, thank you. It’s not really, I think, deserved. There’s obviously self-interest there. But we want a successful company. I do think, however, we will always choose the right path.

I say all the time, everything I learned– it’s a book I learned in kindergarten, and that’s treat people fairly is towards the front of that book. And so we try to be honest. We try to be fair.

And fortunately, the market’s saying, yes, that’s what the public wants. And so others will get it. There are others coming. There are some very good companies out there. And we’ve always got our– we’ve got our head swiveled to see who’s coming. But fortunately, I think we’re in the lead right now.

 

LENNY MURPHY: Yeah. It’s very cool. So why don’t we couch the time? It is early for you, getting later to me– and it is Friday afternoon– even though those who are watching may not be experiencing that.

So I’d like to wind down. I bet that you want to get done what you need to get done. So you can wind down too to head into the weekend.

So anything else about MFour or your view on where the industry is today, where you’re going, anything else that you want to talk about that we haven’t touched on.

 

CHRIS ST. HILAIRE: Yeah. I think the preservation of the industry should be fundamental. And if we get comfortable with staying with online surveys, meaning just stated behavior, the rest of the world is going to pass us by.

And there are huge opportunities to not completely disrupt everything you’re doing and add location data or app data or web data to what you’re doing. And do your client service by providing them additional context and data points that make your opinion surveys that much more valid and believable.

So I really think this industry, if I could say anything, should start looking at this balance of surveys and data behavior with balanced demographics and sentiment and bespoke surveys. All of this is available through smartphones. And no matter who you use, I think it’s in the industry’s best interest to begin adopting that approach.

 

LENNY MURPHY: Yup, agree wholeheartedly. Preaching to the choir. Chris, this has been fantastic. And congratulations on the perseverance. Congratulations on the success through that perseverance and for being a visionary and keeping to it.

I think that, as you said, you’re plotting the course a lot of folks should have been following already. And I’m pretty sure they will be following much more closely as we move forward.

 

CHRIS ST. HILAIRE: I appreciate the credit. Not sure I deserve it. But keep doing your work too. I think just facilitating these conversations is huge for the industry, so thank you.

 

LENNY MURPHY: Well, I wish I could do this all day long. If this was all I did, that’d be great. I mean, talking’s easy. But anyway, I appreciate it.

Chris, thanks so much. To our listeners, thanks for listening to this. Check out MFour. They are doing some amazing work. And I think you’ll be pretty impressed. And we will talk again soon.

 

CHRIS ST. HILAIRE: Yeah, sorry about the camera mishap, Lenny. Hopefully, I get to see you in person soon.

 

LENNY MURPHY: I hope so. I hope so, Chris, so no worries. All right, take care.

 

CHRIS ST. HILAIRE: Take care. Bye.

The post Utilizing Mobile: A Conversation with Chris St. Hilaire, Founder & CEO of MFour first appeared on GreenBook.



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