Utah-based Qualtrics made $1 billion last year selling personal data in a unique way

Qualtrics has a mission to collect personal data to improve your work and customer experiences — but what does that mean?

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) Zig Serafin, Chief Executive Officer of Qualtrics, shows off a timeline wall at company headquarters on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022. The company recently celebrated 1 year of going public.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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Provo • The first thing you see upon entering the Qualtrics’ foyer, which doubles as a basketball court, is TACOS written in giant font.

“We live by them,” said Zig Serafin, the company’s CEO, “and sometimes we eat them, too.”

TACOS is an acronym for the company’s core values: Transparent, All-in, Customer-obsessed, One team and Scrappy. Scrappy may seem odd for a company that raked in a billion dollars in revenue in 2021, but it’s transparent that doesn’t fit with the collection of corporate buzzwords. So why is it included?

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) Qualtrics Chief Executive Officer, Zig Serafin (left), at company headquarters in Provo on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022.

If you’re acquainted with Qualtrics at all, it’s probably because you’ve taken a survey built on the company’s platform. Qualtrics has become a multinational corporation with 26 offices across the globe and over 5,000 employees (1,200 in Utah) valued at around $18 billion by offering “experience management” to some of the world’s biggest corporate brands.

“Experience management provides insights that help companies shape better experiences for employees and customers,” Serafin said. The engine that drives it is personal data drawn from millions of employees, customers, and citizens.

The new oil

Qualtrics is hardly alone in turning personal data into profit.

“Personal data is the new oil,” University of Utah law professor Randy Dryer said. “It’s very valuable for businesses, and there are lots of reasons for them to go after it. But a lot comes down to how they mine it.”

Dryer points out that your data is collected all over the internet.

“Any place that provides you a service for free online, anything in social media,” Dryer said, “is really collecting data to sell. Usually to advertisers.”

Serafin sees this as the difference between Qualtrics and others who trade in personal data, adding, “It’s why we anchored our company values in transparency.”

“It’s about building more authentic relationships between people,” Serafin said.

Authentic, for Qualtrics, means collecting voluntary feedback from customers or employees who want to see a product or experience improve. Serafin contrasts this with other means that are used to shape your experience such as cookies that quietly track and analyze your online behavior.

Qualtrics, instead, will work with a company like Spirit Airlines to collect data about each step of your experience — a survey about buying your ticket, a kiosk to collect your reactions to the check-in process, and so forth.

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) Qualtrics Chief Executive Officer, Zig Serafin, in an interview on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022. The company recently celebrated 1 year of going public.

Even with cookies that track your internet activity, consent is required, but that consent is usually in the form of a checkbox, “connected to a long disclosure that you didn’t read,” said María Angel, a research assistant with the Tech Policy Lab at the University of Washington School of Law.

Angel sees many risks from less transparent descriptive data collection, like that drawn from cookies — from simple failure to gain consent to dangerous inferences designed to manipulate your emotional and cognitive vulnerabilities.

Qualtrics, on the other hand, falls into what Angel calls “prescriptive data.”

“Prescriptive data just collecting feedback doesn’t share these same vulnerabilities,” Angel said.

“That for us is authenticity,” Serafin said, “better understanding people in a direct way and tuning in to what they want you to know.”

The Qualtrics experience

This focus on improving experiences through feedback also shapes Qualtrics internally.

“As a working mom, I see experience management in action here,” Lori Morency Kun, head of social impact for Qualtrics said. That action can be seen in the long row of “Expectant Mother” only parking spaces directly in front of the entrance to Qualtrics’ offices and in the full-service, flexible-hours day care provided to employees.

Alexis Lopez, who manages people, data and analytics for Qualtrics, grew up in Utah and returned to the state seven years ago to work for the company. “Honestly, I never thought I’d return to Utah in a million years.”

Lopez did not feel at home growing up in the state. “I was not a member of the dominant faith. I’m queer and Latinx.”

Yet she found the company’s focus on employee experience made her feel included and comfortable enough to move to Provo.

Improving human experience also shapes how Qualtrics interacts with the communities it serves throughout the world and in Utah.

Qualtrics celebrated the recent one-year anniversary of its Nasdaq listing with a day of service called “XM Day” when employees were encouraged to improve the experience of those around them — from assembling comfort kits for cancer patients to helping refugees in Salt Lake City move into their homes.

“We start with the question: How can you take some small actions in your community to improve the lived experiences of others in a few hours?” Morency Kun said.

This principle also underpins the 5 for the Fight Foundation Qualtrics created to encourage small donations for cancer research. The initiative is closely associated with the Utah Jazz, which Qualtrics founder Ryan Smith bought in 2020.

“Those donations have totaled to $28 million so far,” Morency Kun said. Much of that has gone to the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

“If we can do our little part,” Serafin said, “to build technology for better experiences and in doing so strengthen and improve the community around us here in beautiful Utah, that’s a win for us.”

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) Qualtrics headquarters and location in Provo on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022.

Editor’s note • Randy Dryer is a member of the nonprofit Salt Lake Tribune’s board of directors.