Diane Hessan, the chief executive of Communispace, a Boston market research firm with more than 500 employees and offices around the globe, sat down recently with Globe reporter Deirdre Fernandes to talk about her company.
The days of “Mad Men”-type marketing focus groups — when executives watched customers react to their products or an advertising campaign from behind one-way mirrors — are long gone. Since 2000, Communispace has built and managed 700 online focus groups for 200 brands as diverse as Best Buy, Hallmark, Kraft Foods, and Novartis.
“[Companies are] operating literally with the voice of the customers at the decision-making table.”
Communispace has dedicated 60 employees to finding participants for what it calls online “community groups,” managing their needs, and sending them a $10 gift card for their help once a month. To find participants, company employees scroll through websites and Facebook groups, place banner ads on news sites, and visit shopping malls.
“We’ve got a bartender community for a client, we’ve got a hairdresser community for a client. We recruited a community for a client recently [that featured] 400 young ethnic males who waxed their car by hand at least six times a year.”
Most companies crave insights into millennials. They want to know how twentysomethings shop, what music they listen to, and how they think about their finances, friends, and jobs.
“Their buying power is pretty good, and growing. The main reason people are interested in millennials is that there is a sense if you understand millennials, you understand the future and you know where your investment is going.”
Godiva, the luxury chocolate brand, has asked its private online community how to appeal to more mass-market consumers. Hasbro has pumped its group for names for new toys, and an airline company has fielded ideas from its frequent flier group on how to redesign business-class travel. But one of the most memorable questions Communispace has posed to a group came from a major poultry company a few years ago.
“The CEO wanted to know what our community thought of putting a little prayer book inside the chicken. When we showed them the idea, they all loved the idea. . . . I have spent almost 40 years helping companies and helping executives listen to engage with their consumers and I am still constantly surprised.”
[The company ultimately offered a prayer book on its website.]
Hessan is a booster of Boston’s Innovation District and encourages young entrepreneurs to stay in the city instead of fleeing to the West Coast and Silicon Valley. But that doesn’t mean she think it’s perfect here — the city’s transportation and education systems need improvement, Hessan said.
“You’ve got everybody who is trying to outcool each other [in Silicon Valley]. Here in Boston, being an entrepreneur is not about being the coolest. It’s about reaching out and networking and all the serendipity of running into investors who can help you, mentors who want to see you do well, and other entrepreneurs who want to talk to you.”
Communispace, which started out in Watertown, was bought in 2011 by global ad firm Omnicom Group, reportedly for more than $100 million. But Hessan bristles at complaints that Boston is losing its stature in the advertising world because so few agencies have their headquarters in the city now. Since selling to Omnicom, Communispace has added 100 employees in Boston, increasing its total local staff to more than 300 people, she said. The company has also opened offices in Shanghai and will soon be in Paris.
“[It] doesn’t mean we lost our company, lost our culture, lost our local presence. We sold to Omnicom in 2011 for one reason: Our clients were telling us we needed to be more global, and it was really, really hard to figure out how to do it on our own.”
Hessan is a huge Red Sox fan. The cafeteria at Communispace’s offices on Congress Street is called Fenway and painted in the stadium’s colors. She has an extensive collection of baseball cards and signed baseballs. When her children were younger, they would wow friends with the baseball memorabilia.
Their friends would say, “That’s great that your dad is so into it. They would say, ‘It’s not Dad, it’s our mom.’ ”Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.