Technology Changes Research Markedly

tcrmRichard Hare’s new briefcase epitomizes changes hitting the average business research company.

The senior VP-general manager-North East of Elrick & Lavidge, Paramus, N.J., used to carry his cellular phone, laptop and other modern business accoutrements with him, but as work began infringing more into his personal life, he soon found his conservative leather briefcase impractical.

“We are all stuck in business 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Mr. Hare says. “I got so tired of transferring all of my electronics from a briefcase to a ditty bag, I decided that if I’m going to live my life as much as my job, I’m going to get one bag that will be good for everything.”

Thanks to the ongoing communications revolution, many in business research, like Mr. Hare, are finding that technological advances have replaced overtime with a new work/life paradigm called all-the-time.

The “stuff” that’s altering the business research landscape – wireless phones, laptop computers, voicemail, faxes, the Internet – is forging a communications revolution that is changing the size, location and structure of businesses.

These technological advances, in turn, are altering the collection and analysis of business research data.

“The communications revolution is hitting business research from several dimensions at once,” says Mr. Hare.

Sample size

Because executives no longer are tied to central locations, it is increasingly difficult to reach them by phone and mail.

At the same time, corporate downsizing, in many ways a byproduct of the communications revolution, has eliminated many layers of management. That’s had a drastic effect on business research sampling.

Simply put: There aren’t as many business executives with decisionmaking responsibility with whom to talk; it’s hard to figure out who they are; and when researchers do, it’s hard to reach them.

One way to find the right person is to rely on a method that Sol Dutka, CEO of Audits & Survey Worldwide, New York, calls “the snowball approach.”

“You need to get to somebody who is likely to be involved and find out who else is involved in the decisionmaking,” he says. “Just putting together the list is significant in terms of cost.”

That’s a problem clients often are not prepared to face. Many of the business researchers interviewed for this story – all of them hail from researchers with average revenue as ranked by Advertising Age – agreed it’s becoming more important to reach a larger sample.

“It used to be 10% of your customers bought 90% of your product, so it was most important to talk to that 10%,” says Mr. Hare. “Now, it’s more like 30/70 – 30% of your customers are buying 90% of your product, because customers are smaller. Those 30% are the ones you need to reach now.”

Response rate

Another problem is calling the same people repeatedly.

Bob Relihan, senior VP at Creative & Response Research, Chicago, said: “We’re going to the well an awful lot. Unlike the consumer population, the population of business professionals is limited.”

One solution is offering incentives in exchange for respondent participation. “To gain respondent cooperation, it becomes incumbent on the research company to differentiate itself from the clutter,” says Greg Ellis, CEO-Princeton Group at Opinion Research Corp., Princeton, N.J.

The Internet

The Internet has the potential to drastically change b-to-b research.

“The Internet in our business is revolutionizing everything from the way we communicate with clients to the kind of information and intelligence we can gather,” says Andrew Garvin, president of FIND/SVP, New York.

The Internet has multiplied the sources of information available to business researchers and widened the scope of their work.

Executives who are difficult to reach by phone or so-called snail-mail can instead be contacted by e-mail and asked to reply at their leisure. Or visitors to a Web site can be corralled into completing a survey. Data collection over the Internet eliminates the need for researchers to make expensive follow-up calls.

When to evaluate a Web site

The simplest answer to ‘How often should you evaluate [Web site] measures?’ is ‘As often as necessary to understand the success, operation and audience acceptance of your site.’ But how do you decide what is necessary? . . .

It is clear that there are two basic triggers that cause an evaluation of one or more site measures: Events and calendars. The most common trigger by far is events. Events that make a Web site manager pay attention to the numbers may include:

* Business events (acquisition, sale, budget cycle, quarterly earnings, annual report, downsizing).

* Sales or promotional events (major new business, new hires, product announcement, award).

* Site events (launch, new feature, new ad campaign, personality, visit to chat room, award). . . .

Most people seem to lack either the time or the discipline to use a calendar-triggered approach.

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