Sunday, September 18, 2005

SRI iVALS Program

In 1994 and 1995, I led a research program at SRI International called iVALS (Internet Values and Lifestyles). It was the dawn of the commercial Internet, and we were among the first to measure, analyze, and segment the Internet audience.

I had been at SRI since 1990, mostly in another research program, the Media Futures Program, which was about the commercialization of digital-media technologies. A regular theme of the Media Futures Program was that when a networked, interactive form of digital media arrived, the game would change. Not only could the consumer actively control what he or she saw, but an electronic newspaper or catalog could adapt itself to the consumer’s interests by learning from the consumer’s behavior. Compared to broadcast media or print, it would be more like a two-way conversation.

In the early 1990s, interactive television (ITV) was supposedly going to be the medium that made all this real. We studied ITV in enough depth to realize that the technologies of the day were too costly to use at large scale, no matter what the visionary CEOs proclaimed.

But something else was happening that most people didn’t notice, whereas we had a front-row seat: the dawn of the commercial Internet. SRI had been on the receiving end of the first Internet packets in 1969 and since then had a deep Internet culture. Thus, we were among the first to see and use new Internet technologies of the early 1990s, such as Gopher, WAIS, and this thing called the World Wide Web.

When the Web appeared, we realized that it could economically scale to reach millions of people in the near term. People already had computers, and it required far less network bandwidth or server technology than ITV. The Web could be the networked, interactive medium to change the game.

At the time, the only other contenders were commercial online services like AOL, CompuServe, and Prodigy. However, they were more about email and message boards than enabling anything like Web sites. In addition, they were closed, fee-based networks that were not compatible with each other. In contrast, the Web was free and open, the two key ingredients for its hypergrowth.

I and two colleagues at SRI, Adam Gross and Bruce MacEvoy, bet that the Web would matter. We created iVALS to explore what it meant to measure and analyze the most data-rich medium ever. I led the program but special credit goes to Adam for being the earliest evangelist of the Internet’s importance.

By a coincidence of history, SRI was the birthplace of VALS (Values and Lifestyles), the best-known system for analyzing the U.S. population psychographically—that is, by people’s beliefs and values. Bruce was a consumer psychologist and statistician who worked on VALS2, a revamped system designed to analyze and predict consumer behavior. His consumer-research angle plus Adam’s and my digital-media angle equaled iVALS.

Our first project, in 1994, was the creation of a Web site where people could take a short questionnaire and receive their VALS2 type, including a dynamically generated description. It was one of the earliest database-driven Web applications with adaptive content. More than a decade later, a descendent of the site still exists, although I see they’ve changed the names of some of the types and removed the dynamically generated descriptions.

With thousands of people taking the questionnaire and getting typed, we had one of the first images of the early Web audience. 50% of the respondents fell into a segment of highly-educated professionals, which comprises only 10% of the U.S. population. It underlined the point that the 1994-1995 Web audience still largely reflected the Internet’s academic and corporate-research heritage.

The specialized nature of that era’s Internet audience called for a specialized psychographic system, which led in 1995 to the iVALS typology, an Internet-specific set of segments. The purpose was to capture factors inherent to the new, technical nature of the medium. For example, to understand online behavior, it didn’t matter if a person was highly sociable if that person didn’t know how to use a chat application (this was before the days of chat being built into Web pages or user-friendly instant-messenger apps).

The point of the exercise was to model why people did, or did not, do things online, using a combination of psychographic and technical-capability factors. Companies were just starting to ask how the new media was different from the old, and we were among the first with answers. Being at the edge of that frontier was a great experience.

As we did our work, we would run into people from the relatively few Web companies of the day, like Yahoo, Excite, and HotWired. Everybody loved what we were doing, but they all said the same thing: “You need to start a company.”

We did, and that company became Personify.

No comments:

Post a Comment