Research Gets Easier, But Harder – J. LaRosa, Marketdata

Research Gets Easier, But Harder – J. LaRosa, Marketdata

Dec. 2, 2018

When you’ve been in a field for 40 years, things change, a lot. The market research field has changed drastically since I began in 1977. Back then, I worked for a small privately owned market research publisher on Long Island, NY. I started as an analyst, working my way up to Division Manager after a few years. I loved it.

Now this was an era before personal computers, before Microsoft Word and Office, before email and before the Internet, which didn’t really start to be used by businesses until 1995 or so. Back then, here’s what I had to do to create an industry study.

  1. Go to a local college’s government documents department and collect statistics about an industry, using SIC codes by the Census Bureau. While there, I also checked a few annual reports for the industry’s leading companies, as well as trade journals for any relevant articles. I created statistical tables by hand (no Excel yet).  Made photocopies of articles. Took that valuable info. back to the office. Read it. Analyzed it.
  2. I made phone calls to the industry’s trade association(s) and key competitors, interviewing management about the industry’s trends, key issues and outlook for the future.
  3. Next, I analyzed the data, identified the trends, historical revenue growth, and operating ratios–writing out by hand my analysis.
  4. Then I submitted my draft of the report, including forecasts, to the Research Director, and then the CEO/company owner, for discussion and edits and spell checking/grammar.
  5. When OK’d, the draft was submitted to the 4 middle-aged ladies in our typing pool, who would type up the report, text and statistical tables (no spell checking programs yet).
  6. Final draft reviewed, report made ready for sale. This whole process probably took about 6-8 weeks from beginning to end.
  7. A brochure was created to sell the report, and this was direct mailed to a list of leads (companies in that industry), by regular mail (no company websites yet). The brochure contained an order form, which would be sent back with a check when someone ordered it.  (no email)  Sometimes they’d pay by wire payment to the company’s checking account. Credit cards were sometimes used, but not much.
  8. We waited for the orders to roll in, and they did. Back then, the average price of a 150-200-page industry study was about $500-$1,000.

This was truly the age of hand-crafted research. Each analyst, if productive, could do 6-7 industry studies per year. We had four divisions, with a division manager and an analyst in each. The Research Director ( a person with an MBA in Economics) did maybe 4-5 studies himself. So, we produced about 50-60 studies per year.

This sounds like an ancient production process, but let me tell you…the owner of that company did VERY well for himself and his family. He had a nice house on the waterfront, a boat, a few Cadillacs, sent his son and daughter to college, took nice vacations, and lived very well. I didn’t know the company revenues, but it had to be several million per year.

At that time, there weren’t many market research “resellers” (distributors) to compete with, and they were domestic companies. If you specialized in a niche (i.e. healthcare reports, electronics industry studies, the auto industry, etc.) you pretty much had the market to yourself. Our firm did studies in a variety of sectors, including consumer products, manufactured goods, industrial, etc. Looking back, this diversification was a wise strategy.

You may say that the process was incredibly hard and inefficient, since there were no computers and no Internet. Technology had not yet reached market research.

Fast forward to 2018… Instead of trudging to the business library, writing out a report by hand, and then typing it up on IBM Selectric typewriters (cutting edge at the time), now you sit at your office desk, use the Internet, and find virtually ALL this relevant information with a Google search, articles, reports, surveys and statistics delivered to your PC in minutes.

You then store, massage and boil down the information, write it up on MS Word and Excel, and still have to identify the industry’s key issues and forecast future growth. You still do some phone interviews. That hasn’t changed. Except now, you do interviews also online (Survey Monkey). The analysis is pretty much the same, and you have to know WHERE to look to find the relevant industry data.

However, today there is a lot MORE information to be analyzed and boiled down. It’s harder to distinguish between good quality, trusted and reliable data and fake news and junk created by the millions of new content creators and research “wannabees” out there. That takes time and skill.

In addition, 40 years ago, people and companies actually responded to your survey requests. They found some time to talk to you about their industry or market.  They enjoyed being contacted as an expert. They filled out mail surveys. A good response rate back then may have been as high as 25%. Today, companies are flooded with requests for time and surveys (by the greater number of research publishers and analysts), so they don’t respond to any of them. You may get a 5% response rate today. People just don’t want to be bothered. Leave a voicemail or email message? Expect 95% of them to not be returned. Many company websites today don’t even include a phone number where you can contact their headquarters, or they purposely bury it so deep it’s a hassle to find it. Very frustrating for the industry analyst.

Today, you can create a written report, spell check it automatically in minutes, and put it into Pdf format or a Word document ready for printing if needed. Much more efficient. (P.S. hardly anyone wants a printed report today, it’s usually a Pdf that’s emailed, a digital file).

But now, the hard part. Marketing and selling. Now, instead of sending out a direct mail brochure, via snail mail, to get an order and make a sale, you promote it via your website, via Press Releases online, via email campaigns, via blog posts and your company’s Facebook and LinkedIn pages, maybe a You Tube video or PowerPoint, and possibly via a distributor or two or three (who you now have to give a 50% cut of the sale price). Selling online is a lot easier and the sales cycle is much shorter, you say. Should be a breeze. Not so fast.

The number of report distributors and competitors has ballooned into the thousands since 1977, both domestically and lately from hundreds of new resellers and report creators based in India and China. Anyone with a PC and some research and writing skills can put up a new website and advertise and sell their reports online. And they do.

So, even if you still produce quality reports, you are lost in a huge flood of titles covering the same industry — much harder to get noticed and to make a sale. Much tougher to cut through the clutter. Instead of the Marketing Rule of 7, now it’s the rule of 21.

Yes, the PRODUCTION side of the market research process is easier, quicker, less costly and more convenient, but the MARKETING & SALES side is a lot tougher. It’s a lot more difficult for the research buyer to figure out if a publisher’s report is good quality or junk. And, there’s a LOT of junk out there today.

So, as a publisher, market research is easier, but harder, than it was way back in 1977.