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ONLINE SEARCHER: Information Discovery, Technology, Strategies

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Primary Research Tips and Techniques: Going Beyond Online Searching
Volume 41, Number 1 - January/February 2017

It’s All About Preparation

I conduct online research to better understand an industry. The more I know, the greater my comfort level in placing the calls. And the more interviews I conduct, the better I become at holding an engaging conversation that, most importantly, delivers a good outcome—providing the answers that address the key intelligence topics—each and every time.

You’ve got to know the industry jargon if you’re to ask intelligent questions and understand the answers. Here is just one example: What is a “typical package” in the plumbing industry? Does it include shower heads and tubs? What about water fountains? When I say it, am I referring to one restroom on one floor of a stadium or the entire project? Who specifies the accessories, such as grab bars and faucets? What about pipes and fittings behind the wall?

You also need to be cognizant of the roles of individual players in the industry. What products do the architects specify? What about the plumbing specialist? Who makes the purchase decision and who influences the decision—the general contractor, architect, specifier, the facilities management department? How is a university setting different from a chain restaurant?

Recognize that preparation is a key to success. But where do you start? Consider the following questions when beginning to think about conducting primary research:

  • What do I want to discover?
  • How do I plan on discovering it?
  • Who am I going to talk to?
  • How am I going to be able gain access to these individuals?
  • What are my biases about this topic?
  • How can I make sure my biases are not reflected in my research methods?
  • What do I expect to learn?

Phone Research Tips and Techniques

  • Determine your client’s requirements for data collection and analysis. Agree on the best sources to interview.
  • Use online searching to learn the client’s industry and jargon. Generate primary sources from secondary sources.
  • Prepare interview guide. Reorder questions to encourage sharing.
  • Establish the outcome you hope to achieve.
  • Make note of conversational techniques you’ve used successfully in the past.
  • Create a summary of what you know about the subject you will be speaking with.
  • Start with less-important interviews and make your mistakes with them.
  • Introduce yourself professionally and ethically.
  • Understand the importance of listening, memory, and flexibility.
  • Stay organized.
  • Start the conversation with open-ended, nonthreatening questions.
  • Work toward the most important questions next.
  • Conclude with preselected questions about other general topics.
  • Thank them. If appropriate, ask if you can follow up with them and ask for a referral.
  • Use the referral for your next call.

Sourcing the Subjects

Online searching can identify subjects you can reach by phone for primary research. I call corporate headquarters for company employees, newspapers for editors and authors, and trade associations for officers and local chapters. University websites provide faculty directories; municipal, state and federal government agency websites list employee contact information; and company websites list contact information for investment analysts. Online national phonebook directories are helpful. Use a search engine to combine a name with an area code.

To continue with the plumbing industry (but feel free to extrapolate to whatever industry you’re called upon to study), you can use online research to identify plumbing associations and organizations (; editors of trade publications (Retrofit Magazine, Building Design + Construction); authors and cited individuals in their articles; attendees and vendors at trade shows (Kitchen & Bath Show); competitor websites; architectural prize winners; construction consultants; construction industry economists; and competitors’ case studies that cite buyers’ comments about their products.

I often look to earnings conference call transcripts for lists of Wall Street analysts with expertise in an industry. Those analysts working at research firms can be especially helpful.

I use Excel to keep track of websites, subjects and context of discovery, and contact information. I’ll also take notes on when and how I contacted the subject.

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Judith Binder is a primary researcher who owns RBSC Corp.


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