CivicScience turns to Web as new gauge of public opinion
By Alex Nixon
Published: Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
If John Dick had known what he was in for by starting an online polling company just before the financial crisis hit in 2008, he might have dropped the idea.
Raising money in the early years was next to impossible, Dick said last week in the spartan Strip District offices of his company, CivicScience Inc. Few investors were interested in an Internet company that wasn't doing social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
“I didn't pay myself for two years,” he said. “And I barely paid myself for a year and a half after that. ... Had we known what the economy was going to do, I'm not sure we would have done it.”
Five years later, sitting at a beat-up table in a drab conference room, Dick, 37, is dressed in blue jeans, tennis shoes and a black V-neck sweater.
“I'm glad we did,” he adds, looking perfectly at ease.
The uncertain years appear to be over for his 14-employee company. Investors have pumped $6 million into CivicScience, including a $2.9 million fundraising round that ended in July, led by Cox Enterprises, an Atlanta-based media company, and New Atlantic Ventures, a Boston venture capital firm.
CivicScience this year “really turned on the money machine,” said Dick, declining to discuss sales figures. “We have more sales booked already for 2013 than we did for all of 2012 and expect our total sales to increase 500 percent.”
Early next month, the company will move into the Liberty Bank Building in East Liberty, a space selected and designed by his software engineers, he said.
While the early years may have been rough, Dick knew CivicScience was a good idea. It may have helped that it wasn't his first startup.
Dick got the idea while running his first company, GSP Consulting, a government relations firm he founded with a partner in 2001. He sold his share of GSP in 2007, and the South Side-based company was acquired last year by Duane Morris LLP, a Philadelphia law firm.
At GSP, and in previous work for former Sen. Rick Santorum, Dick saw that it was becoming increasingly difficult for pollsters and survey research firms to collect reliable data on political opinions and consumer trends.
Americans are abandoning landline telephones for cell phones in droves, making it harder to reach a representative sample of citizens.
“I saw a need for a company to revolutionize the way opinions are gathered,” said Dick, who grew up in North Huntingdon and graduated in 1998 from Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla.
The way he decided on is through the Internet and the millions of little polls that many websites use to increase reader engagement.
CivicScience contracts with 550 websites to provide three-question polls. About two-thirds of those sites are run by news media companies, including Trib Total Media Inc., the parent of the Tribune-Review, and many of the nation's largest newspaper publishers. The companies get free polls and access to information about their audiences, and CivicScience gets a huge amount of data on consumer preferences that it can sell to consumer-product and financial companies, who are looking to predict market trends, and to political campaigns.
“They've been successful in getting those widgets on a huge number of websites,” said Desmond O'Connor, executive in residence at Innovation Works, a South Side incubator for startup companies that invested in CivicScience in 2009.
Online readers generally become more engaged when there are poll questions to answer, said Nick Ker, owner of Ker Communications, a South Park company that helps businesses manage their websites.
“For most people who are running a website, there's never enough content to go around,” Ker said.
Plus, polls provide web publishers with information about their audience that can be used to better tailor content.
“It works out for both the user and the business,” Ker said.
While Dick's background is in politics, he quickly realized the business would be built on collecting data on consumers.
Companies spend $20 billion a year on consumer research, he said. “That's a way bigger market” than what political campaigns spend on polling.
CivicScience will gather answers from more than 200 million online polls next year, which quickly and efficiently can provide companies with data on which new products consumers may buy, which movies they plan to see, or how they feel about a brand.
For example, in a September post on CivicScience's blog, the company describes the differences between 16,000 people who said they “love” Starbucks coffee and 10,000 people who said they “love” Dunkin Donuts brew.
“You don't need a PhD in machine learning to know that one fancies itself the hip and trendy spot for java, while the other is the every-man (and every-woman) place to get a cup of Joe,” CivicScience said. “But, when you dig deeper, you find a few less-intuitive predictors, some that could even prove to be marketing gold for both brands.”
Of the 105 consumer traits that were most different between the two groups, CivicScience's analysis found: 80 percent of Starbucks lovers say they are a member of a social networking site versus 56 percent of Dunkin lovers; 47 percent of Starbucks drinkers say they watch full TV programs online versus 21 percent of Dunkin drinkers; 50 percent of Starbucks drinkers have a retirement fund versus 73 percent of Dunkin drinkers; Dunkin drinkers are more likely to have professional/managerial, computer/technical/medical jobs, or be retired, versus Starbucks drinkers who are more likely to be homemakers, working in a service field, or unemployed.
The NPD Group, a market research firm based in Port Washington, N.Y., invested in CivicScience in 2010. Tod Johnson, NPD's CEO and a Carnegie Mellon University trustee and alumnus, said the company has the potential to change how consumer research is collected.
“What really got us interested is that we think that CivicScience has a game-changing approach to collecting information, which will be very disruptive to current consumer survey research,” he said.
Alex Nixon is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7928 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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