Vision Critical using its success in recent U.K. election as springboard into Europe

Every week Techvibes republishes an article (or two) from Business in Vancouver. This article was originally published in issue #1072 – May 11 – 17, 2010.

Creating an election poll that visually mimics actual election ballots seems like a simple innovation, but even the subtlest changes to the look or syntax of a poll can dramatically change respondents’ results.

In the case of Vancouver-based online market researcher Vision Critical, mirroring what the voter sees in the voting booth with an online election poll produced polling results in B.C. that were two percentage points or less within the results of the last provincial election.

After using B.C. as a testing ground, Vision has branded its new election poll, known as Real Ballot, and used it widely in the days before the United Kingdom election on May 6 for clients like The Economist magazine and Politicalbetting.com, a popular blog in the U.K.

Andrew Reid, Vision’s president, is surprised that no other polling firms have tried something as simple as mimic king the looks of a ballot for a poll.

He attributed that fact to the challenge of customizing each Real Ballot poll.

The company must account for such things as different candidates within different ridings and visual differences between a ballot in, say, the U.K. and one in B.C.

The company has invested more than $30 million in a technology platform that makes such customization relatively simple and inexpensive.

That platform supports Vision’s most important assets – more than 400 online community panels that range from 500 to 250,000 people.

Many of the panels are built around and owned by brands such as NASCAR Racing and the NHL, which can access their communities instantly to get answers to questions about a new product or to distribute larger surveys about broader public opinion.

“We’re trying to bring the world of market research up to speed with all the different tools and technological approaches that are available to other industries,” said Reid.

Vision is launching five other new online polling and market research products this year as it looks to maintain momentum that saw it achieve record profits and 50% revenue growth in 2009.

It hired 109 employees last year and has already hired 90 this year.

It’s spending $9 million this year on research and development and expanding its European footprint.

Of course Reid, who founded Vision in 2000, provides little insight about rumours on Bay Street that Vision will be among the next Canadian companies to announce an initial public offering (IPO).

“An IPO is always under consideration, but first and foremost we’re concerned about developing a strong company that has a strong culture and that can achieve some sustainable profit and sustainable growth,” said Reid.

For mass merchandisers and grocers, the company is launching a new, more automated version of a market research product that sees respondents navigate virtual store aisles as they examine packaging and product positioning.

It’s also launching a new dial-testing tool that has multiple emotional measures compared to traditional dial-testing tools that see respondents selecting between two opposing emotions.

Toronto-based Wellington Financial LP, which is a privately held bridge financing and venture debt fund, invested in Vision Critical in October 2006.

Mark McQueen, Wellington’s president and CEO, told BIV that the company has high confidence in Vision’s software platform and in the entrepreneurial abilities of Reid’s father, Angus, who is Vision’s CEO and founder of the Angus Reid Group, which was acquired by Ipsos S.A. for $100 million in 2000.

“Vision Critical’s platform works in so many different market research applications,” said McQueen in an e-mail.

That makes the business incredibly scalable, said McQueen, and potentially able to generate several hundred million in revenue in the next few years.

“That’s why Bay Street is chasing them to go public,” said McQueen.

With its foot firmly planted in the U.K. in the months leading up to last week’s election, Vision is now targeting all of Europe and, if it can continue on its current trajectory, eventually Asia.

“We would really like to be the default platform for conducting market research globally,” said Reid.

The company has 30 staff in Europe now after opening offices in Amsterdam and Barcelona and tripling staff in Paris and London.

When asked what the next big innovation in market research will be, Reid said it’s to clean up the industry.

“We are very concerned about some of the tactics taken by our colleagues in the industry,” he said.

“There’s a real worry about data quality and professional survey takers – we’re doing everything we can to change that space and we spend a lot of time worrying about the impact that the rest of the industry is having on how we collect data.”