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A CMO's guide to picking the right market research

A CMO's guide to picking the right market research Michael Estrin

Have you seen the latest study on how Twitter can influence purchase intent? What about the report that predicts that every American will have at least seven branded apps on their mobile device by 2010? Or the one that says email is all but forgotten by today's internet users, and all marketers who use that channel are officially beating a dead horse?

OK, these aren't real studies (not to my knowledge). But if they feel real, it's because you likely receive as many "ground-breaking" studies as I do. If one of those studies piques my interest -- and very few actually do -- I can spend hours picking it apart and even more time quizzing the author.

But if the marketing buck -- and budget -- stops at your desk, there's a good chance you don't have the same kind of time to read every study out there and drill deep on the ones you think have merit.

So how do you sort through the jungle of information? We asked some of the leading producers of those studies, as well as some top consumers of those reports, what they do to separate the wheat from the chaff, and -- just as importantly -- how they put those insights into action.

Integrate market intelligence with customer intelligence
Market intelligence doesn't happen in a vacuum. According to Carl Doty, VP and research director at Forrester Research, marketers who focus only on the latest study or findings -- and therefore disregard what they already know about their existing customers -- do so at their peril.

For Doty, the solution begins by clarifying some definitions, and then building in-house teams to digest the information and apply it to the brand's specific needs.

"There's 'market intelligence' (e.g., primary and secondary research findings), and then there's 'customer intelligence,' which by definition must include a deep analysis of a firm's existing customer data from all available sources," Doty explains. "I've found that the most mature firms maintain a dedicated team that is focused on the market intelligence piece, while also building core competencies in a separate customer intelligence team. This team uses technology to aggregate customer data and insight from all sources -- regardless of origin -- to drive customer-centric business decisions."

According to Doty, the distinction between market intelligence and customer intelligence can help keep a brand from getting bogged down in hypothetical theories and turn streams of information and insights into useful, actionable facts.

"Many of my clients call this 'fact-based marketing' or 'precision marketing,'" Doty says. "Market intelligence alone will get you insight and help develop hypotheses about what potential customers may or may not do or believe. Combining those valuable insights with real intelligence about existing customers helps to separate fact from theory and enable marketers to predict what customers will do based on facts about their past experiences with the firm."

Find out who you're talking about
Data aren't hard to come by in digital. But not all data are relevant to your brand, and according to Reineke Reitsma, VP and research director at Forrester Research, many CMOs make a big mistake by failing to appreciate what the data truly represent.

"If the data or information isn't representative for the audience the decision is relevant for, the information can be very misleading," says Reitsma, who adds that the problem is most pronounced when assessing social networks and online communities, where marketers frequently fail to appreciate the meaning of the data presented.

"If you don't know who [the data] represents, and if you don't know the size of your client base that's commenting on these platforms, the data should be used as directional only," Reitsma says.

Be open with your inquiry
While it's critical to zero in on the specifics goals for your brand, it's also important to be open to new possibilities when reading a research report.

According to Bill Patterson, a senior analyst at Mintel, marketers who can strike a balance between their specific goals and still keep an open mind stand to make the most out of their research reports.

"Be sure you know the question that you are trying to answer when going into the market for market intelligence. However, be open to exploring new avenues of inquiry as they open up," Patterson explains.

Filter, filter, filter
These days, what you read is just as important as who you read, especially when it comes to finding insights for your brand. According to Mark Silva, principal and managing director of Real Branding, the key is to use a vetted network of industry pros to filter in trusted, high-caliber information.

Building and maintaining a network of "trusted sources" is a good way to stay on the cutting edge, according to Silva, who argues in favor of crowd-sourcing the initial question -- is it worth my time to read this? -- as well as the secondary question presented by any new information -- what does it mean?

"We've found several events and our own custom network of Silicon Valley individuals -- some from the trusted research companies... many from the venture capital [space], start-up and tech crowds, along with a few of our contemporaries in the agency business -- are the best sources," says Silva, adding that the crowd-source approach can be broken down into beats for larger companies, putting one or two team members in charge of gathering insights for a particular subject area.

However, the use of social networking tools like Digg, Delicious, and Twitter (to name a few) allows any entity to share that information across the entire team.

But crowd-sourcing your filtering process may not be as useful as dedicating an employee, or even an outside vendor, to filtering and distributing critical information gleaned from research reports, says Evelyn Majewski, senior researcher at eMarketer.

"I understand that some companies might not have the resources to hire researchers, but I think it's important to have someone dedicated to this function," Majewski explains. "Whether it's a full-time hire or it's outsourced to other professionals, researchers can add a lot of value. Researchers know which sources specialize in which topics and how to efficiently find the data marketing teams need. While some resources cover the same topics, one may outshine another. Researchers and aggregators help you figure out which set of data is best for your needs."

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Are free reports worthless?
There's an old saying that you get what you pay for. If that bit of folksy wisdom is to be applied to market intelligence, it would seem to suggest that there's little marketers can hope to gain from the array of free reports out there. But as it turns out, there's no real consensus on free reports.

"I have found that some of our more costly subscriptions are ones we can live without," says Kim Kline, VP of account management and planning at Evolution Bureau. "What marketers used to pay for was the analysis of consumer behavior. What's interesting about the last five years is that analysis comes from so many places, including consumers themselves. It's available 24/7 online, and it's free."

But JP Clement, co-founder and EVP of Karma Media Labs, says he always worries about free information because it usually comes with an unhealthy bias.

"We are very wary of research papers by organizations and companies that have a vested interest (usually for sales purposes) in the data they are reporting," Clement says. "We are more cautious about using these papers' data and always look for biases, incorrect or dubious research methodologies, and we are overall more critical of their findings."

And then there are the instances where free might actually outperform paid research, or cover areas outside the realm of subscription reports.

"There is a vast quantity of very useful, freely available research available on the internet," says Will Akerlof of Liquid Advertising. "One small example is that while we pay a lot of money for third-party website audience data, free sites like Quantcast and Alexa provide very useful data, especially on smaller sites not covered by paid research. Conversely, often we find that reports costing thousands of dollars reveal little in terms of actual knowledge not previously disseminated for free."

But if there's disagreement on the value of free reports, it's not just among information consumers. Even Forrester, which charges for its highly respected reports, offers a divergence of opinion here.

"It's not by definition that something that is free is useless, and especially in the current social era there are lots of information sources that can be very helpful in understanding the trends in the market," says Forrester's Reitsma.

But while Reitsma advises that free reports be used cautiously, her colleague at Forrester, Carl Doty, isn't so keen to use anything that's free.

"Most free market intelligence reports that I see don't go deep enough to be truly valuable," he says.

And then there's Majewski at eMarketer. While eMarketer also charges for its highly prized reports, Majewski says there's a wealth of good data out there that marketers can get their hands on for free. But, she points out, there's a key advantage to paying for expertise because, "culling through all of the data out there can be labor intensive and confusing."
Methodology matters
Believe it or not, it's not hard to spot a bad market research report, and you can actually do it rather quickly, says Glenn Lalich, VP of research and analytics for PM Digital.

"Make a beeline for the methodology," Lalich says. "It should be provided, and it should be clear. The fuzzier the details, the less likely we are to use it. If the methodology is relatively clear, then make sure you're reasonably satisfied with date range, data source, panel size -- whatever would significantly impact the findings."

Are your reports old?
Whatever the shelf life was of market intelligence reports before digital, it's fair to say that today things move a lot faster. But that doesn't always mean that an old report is useless. In fact, says Guy Schueller, group director of media at Organic, reports can remain sound for several years.

"As long as what is being measured is consistent across time, data from the last three to four years is still very relevant," Schueller says.

But Kline at Evolution Bureau isn't so sure older reports are reliable given the accelerated pace with which technology and consumers move these days.

"I don't think marketers should hold on to anything for too long," Kline says. "Much like the consumers we serve, we should be 'snacking' on small bites of market data on a daily basis."

But according to Majewski at eMarketer, there's no hard-and-fast rule for declaring a report stale, and having a long-term view is often critical.

"Newer data on the internet can be forward-looking," Majewski says. "In order to fully comprehend trends, you need a host of years. Historical data can often give a marketer a solid base to figure out trends. You always want the most recent data to make solid decisions in the present, but shedding light on where we've been can often help us figure out where we're going."

Use your gut and your head
If you're a decision-maker for a brand -- whether you're the CMO or a brand manager -- there's a reason why you've got the job, and chances are it isn't because you always know which reports to read, trust, and execute on.

According to Melinda Partin, CEO of Worktank, good marketers always know when to say when. That is, for all the insights that can be gleaned from market intelligence, there's also a real value placed on old-fashioned intuition.

"Market intelligence is a tool for gaining insights, but don't become paralyzed by the amount of data to the point that the campaign becomes watered down and ineffective," Partin explains. "Look at the data, but also pay attention to what is going on in the physical world. Good marketers can intuit what the customer wants. Combining logic and data with intuition, strategy, and perception will drive powerful, effective campaigns."

For Majewski at eMarketer, it really all boils down to common sense.

"Don't ignore common sense," Majewski says. "Data can be overwhelming, and people can get lost while trying to make sense of it all. Marketers should remain cognizant of their strategy and use data that fits."

Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.

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Michael Estrin is freelance writer. He contributes regularly to iMedia, Bankrate.com, and California Lawyer Magazine. But you can also find his byline across the Web (and sometimes in print) at Digiday, Fast...

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