The Center for Strategy Research, Inc. Vol 5 Issue 1   February 2009


You’ve no doubt seen, heard about and maybe even tried some of the newest “community-oriented” tools on the web. In this month’s Research with a Twist, we explain why these matter and even more importantly, why you should be factoring them into your market research efforts.

As always, please click here to send us your thoughts and comments.

Julie Brown

Mark Palmerino
Executive Vice President

21st Century Howard Johnson

Long before I embraced market research as a profession, I dabbled in it as a sideline. Well, sort of…

Working my way through college as a waitress at the Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Newton, Massachusetts, I had instant access to the views and opinions of my guests regarding our fine establishment. Whether they were commenting on the food, the décor or, God forbid, my hideous orange uniform, it was all within earshot and there for the taking.

Even back then I knew that the comments overheard were random — an unobjective slice of the aggregate point of view of our customers. Statistically significant or not, however, these random snippets were by no means irrelevant. It was quite common, in fact, for management to make adjustments throughout the day — turn up the heat, shovel the sidewalk, make a fresh pot of coffee — based on the biased, random and not necessarily representative suggestions of a few. (Unfortunately, the hideous shade of orange didn’t change throughout my soda jerk career.)

Today, thanks to the Internet, this same type of “background restaurant chatter” is once again available to all of us. Indeed, blogs, Twitter and other community-oriented web applications offer companies the opportunity to listen in (and even participate) in conversations regarding their brands, their customers and their most pressing issues.

It’s still random and it’s still biased… but it still has value. Provided, that is, that you keep in mind what it represents and take deliberate steps to incorporate it along with your other research efforts

Here then are a few suggestions for making the most of web chatter:

  1. Know an anecdote when you hear one. Anyone who’s sat in on a focus group or conducted an in-depth, one-on-one interview knows how compelling a well-phrased comment or juicy customer story can be. Still warm from the customer’s mouth, they carry with them an air of authenticity and truth that numbers in a spreadsheet can never match.

    But we also know that one comment is just that, and not something from which statistically valid conclusions can be drawn. Web comments are no different. It may be well written and compelling (or loud and obnoxious), but it’s still just one comment. Take it as the data point that it is, but don’t change course on the basis of one or two rants.
  3. Be systematic in gathering information. You can do a Google search on any topic at any time, but it’s hard to do manually every day. Instead, set up “standing searches” on free services such as Google Alerts, Tweetlater (for Twitter comments) and others. You can opt to receive a daily notification (via e-mail) with a compilation of when your search terms are mentioned.

    Bear in mind, by the way, that a search is only as good as the terms entered. Your company name and the names of your senior management team are obvious things to keep an eye on, but that simply tracks the specific mentions of your brand. Broadening the scope of your searches to include your industry [e.g. “life insurance”] or more general topics [e.g. “European vacations”] will yield more results, but you’ll also get a lot more noise.
  5. Be systematic in analyzing information. As with any open-ended research, the volume of data gathered can quickly become overwhelming. You’ll need some way to codify the information so that you can use it intelligently. For example, just as we might take the text of an interview transcript and count the frequencies of key ideas through coding, you’ll need to think about doing the same with the web-based data you gather.

    Although this data is not projectable back to the broader universe of your customers and prospects, if you codify the information, you can use it to highlight areas that may be prioritized for more in-depth, systematic research.
  7. Be careful in how you join the conversation. As you monitor the conversation regarding your brand, it’s tempting to jump in and correct, defend or explain. Tread lightly. It can feel a bit Big Brother-ish to others if you swoop in every time someone types your name in vain. There’s a blurry line here between market research and customer care, and many companies seem to have a hard time being helpful or asking for clarification without also being argumentative.
Here’s the Twist: The conversations on the web regarding your brand are just that: conversations. They’re not better or worse than the systematic market research you’re already conducting, but they are different.

For the first time in the history of business you now have a means for listening in on what’s being said about you, around the world, every day. And while this by no means replaces your structured, in-depth research efforts, it’s in your best interest to keep an eye on what’s being said “in the restaurant.”

— Julie

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Maybe you find all this too random, or too complicated, or too Gen X. Whatever the reason, avoiding the web conversation regarding your brand isn’t a wise approach: Ignore the chatter at your own risk.

Unlike the comments that are made more or less privately within the walls and telephone lines of your own research efforts, this chatter goes out to the world at large (and stays public forever). Good or bad, true or false, electronic rumors spread quickly. It behooves you therefore, to know what’s being said about your company.

A very good example of the damage that such electronic rumors can do is in Talbots‘ experience of this past holiday season. After rumors that Talbots intended to close stores landed in a Snopes discussion about retailers to avoid due to their financial trouble (characterizing Talbots in the same way as Circuit City, whose financial woes were already well-documented), President Trudy Sullivan was “forced to address [the rumors] by posting a letter on the company’s website, and by giving scripts to store employees for how to respond to consumers.”

Although Sullivan took immediate action, many believe that these rumors cost the company millions in lost gift certificate business, and more, over the holiday period. Ouch.


21st Century Howard Johnson

Mixology (Putting research into practice)

Twist and Shout

About Us

During the last two years, we have announced in this space that Prudential Financial retained CSR to conduct its annual Thought Leadership study: Benefits and Beyond: Insight into the Next Generation of Employee Benefits: A Prudential Financial National Research Study.

This is an annual study involving online surveys and telephone interviews of benefits plan sponsors and participants, exploring current and future employee needs and how employers plan to respond to those needs. The study is being expanded in 2009, and CSR has been retained to conduct this year’s research.

“If you ever start to feel too good about yourself, they have this thing called the Internet. You can find a lot of people who don’t like you.”

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The Center for Strategy Research, Inc. (CSR) is a research firm. The “Twist” to what we offer is this: We combine open-ended questioning with our proprietary technology to create quantifiable data. As a result, our clients gain more actionable and valuable insights from their research efforts.

Understanding What People Really Think

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