At the third annual Corporate Researchers Conference of the Marketing Research Association, Reed Cundiff, the general manager of the Microsoft insights team, discussed the challenges his organization has been addressing. Reed leads a team of 90 researchers, which is perhaps the biggest in the technology industry.

Reed compared research to soccer, in an analogy eerily similar to Joel Rubinson’s last week. “Soccer has two different types of play. There is the natural flow of the game, which can be confusing, with constant movement, not always efficient. Then there are the set pieces: the corner kicks, the throw-ins, the penalty kicks, where you put people where you want them to be, then execute. The vast majority of our work has focused on those set pieces, and I don’t know that that gives us the opportunity to really look at what happens in the natural process of a customer journey: from evaluation and trial to purchase and repurchase.”

With this in mind, the insights team has been focusing on eight “big bets”:

  1. Services transition – Microsoft is making the major shift of moving from software to services, as exemplified by the shift from selling packaged Microsoft Office to the Office 365 service and from selling standalone server software to hybrid solutions that place server-side computing in cloud-based environments. The insights team needs to measure satisfaction and repurchase through this shift.
  2. Landing the major launches – The insight team had to provide a rapid-response system so that Microsoft could understand day by day how launches were being received. They created an ongoing war room to track research, marketing and PR through socially engaged channels within hours of each launch. “This was absolutely necessary for us to deliver value.” The issues were acute with Windows 8: “We knew we were breaking familiarity, which then creates a lot of different choices for customers to make.”
  3. Customer journey – With the proliferation of different types of computing devices, how consumers purchase has many commonalities across the devices, and a broken device in one category might lead to a purchase from a different category. All in a retail environment where “people are making the decision in the last three feet.” As a result, “we knew that if we just focused on silos then we wouldn’t be delivering the insights we need to deliver.” The team convened employees from different divisions, from all different categories, to analyze retail engagement, for instance, across the categories. They are mapping what the typical purchase model looks like and how it is changing.
  4. Social intelligence – Disappointed with the quality of social intelligence tools available on the market three years ago, Microsoft decided to build its own system. The company licensed a data pipe, pushed it through a text analytic platform (they evaluated 60 platforms before selecting one), then built a custom user interface on top. “Everyone across our team has the ability to leverage this: to find out what developers are saying about our Windows Phone platform, or what consumers are saying about Surface.” Even Bing data on search term frequency is integrated, at the DMA level, providing measurable results on ad campaigns, for instance.
  5. Forecasting – “We spend tens of millions of dollars looking in the rear view mirror and did not spend the time and energy to draw that dotted line out into the future, even journalistically, let alone using any analytical technique to say ‘here is what we think is going to happen’.” The organization wants to spend less time telling internal clients what had happened and more time “talking about what is going to happen and what we need to do about it.” Such conversations “yield a lot more value.”
  6. BI + perception – “We needed to changing the mindset from making a false choice between either behavioral data or perception data. To understand and solve a business problem, in my mind, in every circumstance, a combination gives a much more well-rounded view of any marketplace. Combining the two is not simple.” Sometimes you can collect respondent level data for both, but “sometimes you have two very different data sets pulled together journalistically.” Since Microsoft products and services are technology based, the firm can capture product usage, error logs, telemetry data, clicks, and behavior from users who have opted-in to such collection. The firm can look at how this data relates to satisfaction and intent to repurchase. The insights team has deeply aligned with data analytics teams: “it is really critical for us as the insights function not to push that aside or wish it away but to evolve and engage more deeply with those data analytics.”
  7. Research consultancy – Initially the team consisted of research experts and project managers: “that is fine and necessary but insufficient,” Reed said. “How do you move to be effective internal research consultants? We changed how we scope people’s commitment: we lay out what we expect, we provide a framework, we focus on business impact.” The initial support for the shift to consultancy wasn’t tactical enough, and the team now has a template describing what being a research consultant is all about. For instance, team members are expected to document planning assumptions and to describe scenarios in “a probabilistic manner.”
  8. Recruiting, hiring and on-boarding – A big shift is away from hiring for an open req to hiring team members. “The worst thing we can do is hire for a specific role. We are making team hires. We are looking for people to have long-term careers with us.” To assess potential hires, the company uses behavioral event interviews, asking potential recruits to describe how they reacted to past work experiences. A sink-or-swim attitude to new hires has been replaced with a formal onboarding process, now in its second year and already paying dividends.


“In summary, this has been amazing journey. Five years in this role, there have been some crappy days, but when we get pushed we’ve seen our team do amazing things that we never would have taken on had we not been both pushed–by our competitors and by you all in the industry.”

Author Notes:

Jeffrey Henning

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Jeffrey Henning, IPC is a professionally certified researcher and has personally conducted over 1,400 survey research projects. Jeffrey is a member of the Insights Association and the American Association of Public Opinion Researchers. In 2012, he was the inaugural winner of the MRA’s Impact award, which “recognizes an industry professional, team or organization that has demonstrated tremendous vision, leadership, and innovation, within the past year, that has led to advances in the marketing research profession.” In 2022, the Insights Association named him an IPC Laureate. Before founding Researchscape in 2012, Jeffrey co-founded Perseus Development Corporation in 1993, which introduced the first web-survey software, and Vovici in 2006, which pioneered the enterprise-feedback management category. A 35-year veteran of the research industry, he began his career as an industry analyst for an Inc. 500 research firm.