How Sex Launched Online Research

Note: While at the QRCA conference this fall, I picked up a new book Qual-Online the Essential Guide, by Jennifer Dale and Susan Abbott. I finally got around to reading it on a long flight. Fascinating. While in the Detroit airport waiting to change planes, I gave Jen a call to see if she would be willing to write a blog post about the very beginnings of online qual. She readily agreed. The following is the story she has uncovered.

I’ve been fascinated by the backstory of online qual since I first set foot through the door of one its early explorers. In 1997 I interviewed for a job with the President of a small market research firm in Westfield, NJ. Amy Yoffie, who started Research Connections just two years earlier, was armed with a keen sense of the future and extensive experience programming and selling CATI software to telephone survey companies. On that day, Yoffie shared with me her recent success conducting online focus groups, her vision for a proprietary platform, and her infectious enthusiasm. I was smitten. At the time, discussion rooms available on American On-line (AOL) and other popular providers were public and offered the moderator little to no control of the discussion.

The Internet was relatively new, with just 1 in 5 households in the US connected. The Internet was finding its way into businesses, but households were initially slow on the uptake. (85% of US households have Internet today, according to

By 1998 Research Connections had finished development of a custom chat room for conducting online focus groups. At the same time, arguably within months, the folks at Greenfield Online were doing the same thing. The next 10 years proved ripe for several businesses offering qualitative research platforms for this “new” online methodology.

Ironically, what none of those inventors knew in that early Information Age, was that they all were late to the party. Online chats and bulletin board discussions for research were old news to the real pioneers.

More than 20 years before research companies touted bulletin board focus groups, when the Internet as we know it was limited to military use and educational testing in only a few American universities, students were actively interviewing others remotely using the schools’ interconnected bulletin board system (BBS). Real-time chat made its research debut ten years later, more than 5 full years before Research Connections.

It was 1992 and a vibrant young advertising executive named Marian Salzman had just created the first full-featured online chat room with her partners at Chiat-Day and AOL. Seeking a more effective method for obtaining honest feedback to her provocative sex surveys, Salzman discovered the anonymity of online chat afforded her the perfect solution. Long before other researchers even had access to the world wide web, Salzman migrated her existing consumer research panel to AOL and took the advertising industry by storm with her candid and revealing online focus groups. Salzman grew her online research business in the US, and in 1996 transferred to Europe to share her newfound interview technology with the rest of the world.

Oblivious to making history, Salzman returned to the states in 1998 and blissfully moved on to new adventures. All the while dozens of well funded, savvy companies joined the game and positioned themselves for the future of online qual research.

While all the early explorers sensed opportunity, Salzman ultimately sought whatever was next and still does. Today, Salzman is well-known for accurately predicting consumer trends and staying ahead of the rest of us as the VP for Havas Worldwide North America.

Editor’s Note:  You can order Qual-Online The Essential Guide from Paramount Books.  

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