Knowing your target market is valuable for any business and in today’s online world there are more ways than ever before to survey customers and gather feedback and data.  

Ten years ago, FlexMR, based near Milnthorpe, was one of the first companies to get in on the ground floor of the boom in market research technology. 

Today it works with some of the best known names in business all over the world.  

"We were originally a traditional market research consultancy," says chief executive Paul Hudson.  

"We were a small team of 12 or 15 people running focus groups and making surveys and things like that.” 

When Paul and managing director Pam Taylor took over the business in a management buyout in 2007 they began to focus on developing their online market research platform.  

They developed the technology to the point where they could put the platform, named InsightHub, at the forefront of the business.  

FlexMR employed its own team of software developers and a chief technology officer to develop the platform, where previously it had outsourced the work. 

"We completely reinvented our service model to be modular," says Paul.  

"The online platform can do qualitative research, like focus groups and interviews, and it can do surveys as well. So it's completely flexible by methodology.” 

In Cumbria:

FlexMR moved to a software as a service (SaaS) model, selling the licence for the platform to businesses so they could use it to run their own market research. 

Alongside supplying the platform, FlexMR also offers its own services. 

"You can buy it as a piece of technology and use your own skills for it, but then you can upgrade and add on our modules of service if you want,” says Paul.  

“About a third of our clients will add on support services where we help manage their research and run projects for them off the back of the project. We're collaborating to use the platform together.” 

Businesses which use the platform - which include the likes of Specsavers, Legal and General and British Gas - can customise it with their own brand identity.  

There are around 60 customers which are on long-term contracts across the UK, the United States and Europe. 

"Most clients that use the platform run what we call customer panels,” says Paul.  

“They have a CRM database and if you're a customer, they might come to you and offer the opportunity for getting rewards and incentives for helping give feedback on a regular basis.  

“It creates a faster way for companies to do research that is GDPR compliant with all the data privacy secured.” 

The platform runs as both an online desktop tool and phone and tablet app, allowing businesses to interact with customers via a range of methods from surveys to video chat. 

During the pandemic FlexMR upgraded the system so that focus groups could take place via video calls rather than text chat.  

"We're at the forefront of beginning to understand where AI might fit into it and later this year we'll be adding text analysis and video analysis that is AI enabled,” says Paul. 

This could include features such as automated production of written transcripts of videos and summaries of their content.  

"What you've got in our platform is a workflow from finding customers, asking them to do something, getting the data out and doing something with it, and then sharing it to your colleagues. What makes the platform special is that the workflow is streamlined in one place and faster.” 

Paul says the move to focus on being a tech platform rather than a market research company has also moved the business away from the “feast and famine” cycle which agencies can experience. 

"The technology and a SaaS business model gives us a lot more stability and it allows us to invest in technology and to invest in people with certainty because the business model is more scalable and sustainable.” 

In Cumbria:

While Paul comes from a management background, the company’s 38 staff - who are based at the Shoreline Business Park - incorporate a range of skills from a sales and marketing team, to client support, product development and the inside projects team, who help customers run research using the platform. 

"We are growing at about 15 per cent a year and have done for the last 10 years," says Paul. 

"Everything we do is about reinvesting in the technology and reinvesting in the people and trying to keep that growth going. We'll continue to explore opportunities in overseas markets and to keep innovating because that is what has kept us where we are.” 

Although the mediums which businesses use to carry out market research may have changed over the years, Paul says the core principles such as knowing the right questions to ask and analysing the data in the most valuable way remain the same.  

"As the tools and the medium change that might make it look slightly easier, but therein lies the risk,” he says. 

"It's very easy to ask questions in the wrong way. It's very easy just to get some data, but very tricky to get it right and make sure it's unbiased. The essential ingredients are still the same.”